Overcoming Uncertainty.  How Psychology Can Help.

The only certainty seems to be uncertainty itself.

This website is loaded with freely available materials to help you through times of uncertainty, from mindset to neuroplasticity we’ll be sharing some of the most relevant support via our Thought Leadership updates as the situation unfolds over the next few weeks and months.

As many of our clients are facing difficult conversations with their people we explore these early reactions of uncertainty and unease:

  • How is my company affected by the news?
  • Could budget cuts and fears over economic uncertainty lead to me not having a job?
  • Will the budgets be cut from my key projects leading me back to square one on a lot of hard work?
  • How are things going to change in my job?
  • What does all this really mean for me, my job, my team?

These are just some of the questions swimming around the minds of people and in conversations around the workplace.  Yet as with any time of uncertainty and ambiguity, the fact is that nobody really knows the answers to these questions.  So how do we respond?  How should leaders communicate “I don’t know” or “we’ll have to wait and see”, when that response is unlikely to put people at ease – in fact it might make things worse.

Totem Lollipops

We know from neuroscience research that the brain responds far better to bad news than not knowing.  We would rather know what difficult things lie ahead than be in a time of uncertainty; we simply crave certainty.  This means that messages about seeing how things go, or needing to wait for reports back from certain teams or results, can be really unhelpful.

A better option is to frequently and to the point that it feels like over-communication, clarify what you know, what you don’t know and when you will update people again.  You can reinforce this with reminders on what will stay the same and what will change.  The key reason for this over-communication of simple messages is the threat of an unhelpful series of events, which can build in times of uncertainty:

  • The brain craves certainty and will find it – so if you don’t tell people what is certain, their brains will choose things that seem likely or possibly assume the worst
  • That will start the rumour mill, so if you’re not communicating regularly or clearly enough, the rumours will fill in the gaps for you
  • People assuming the worst and worrying about their job security creates a threat response in the brain, which can lead to a variety of unhelpful behaviours
  • Without clarification on what will stay the same, people may also jump to conclusions about how much will change – possibly creating a further threat response
  • You’re likely to see more defensive behaviour, people wanting to keep their heads down, or worse – people becoming negative and cynical about their work
  • And through all of this, because of the brain’s focus on the threat situation – people will not be doing their best thinking or their best work

Once a week – perhaps as part of the usual company update or results check-in conference calls,  update your people on how things are progressing.  When you think about it, you might notice that we often repeat messages many times, for example clarifying the goals or targets for the month or year.  This is very helpful as the classic saying “what gets measured gets done” also applies to “what gets talked about gets heard.”

Line of isolated jelly bean figures with shadows

When we talk consistently about targets and goals, people have certainty; they know what is expected.  In the same way when we talk about uncertainty or not knowing what will happen in future, the mind is filled with doubt and concern.  You can see it in the media already, where a strong narrative is that nobody really knows what will happen next – causing fear and unrest in our everyday lives and the wider economy.

Here’s a sample communication script from one of our client’s support functions teams, which you could adapt for your specific business, level and situation.

What we know, whilst also emphasising what will stay the same

  • The fast-changing situation with COVID 19 and the government’s response has caused a shock and plenty of concern in the economy. You will have heard in the news that the global economy has taken a big knock, but this is to be expected given the severe circumstances.
  • We know that our partners and suppliers around the globe are facing challenges with their supply chains, so we are working closely with them to plan for alternative approaches to our contracts.
  • As we’ve talked about many times before, our major focus for the next three years is to improve our platforms to enable smoother operations for our customers and our internal reporting, whilst also growing our B2B services. This has not changed, we will continue to invest and grow in these areas.
  • We know that asking more people to work from home is challenging, and that as we head towards the Easter holidays and potential school closures, many of our people will struggle to work from home without disruption and difficulty. We want to support as best we can in this time, so will be running webinars on how to structure the workday in such different circumstances and make the most of time with families. We also have mental health support seminars coming in the next fortnight on coping with the isolation. Whether you are home alone or with family, loneliness can be hard to face, and we want to do everything we can to support our people.

Notice the emphasis is on clarifying what it might be easy to assume is obvious. Saying our results are the same when surely people can see it in the data might seem pointless but we need to keep positive messages front and centre to give our people (and their brains in particular) reassurance and clarity.

For the things we don’t know, we state what we don’t know, clarify what is known within this, what that means to people now, when we might know and when updates will come from the business.

  • We do not know exactly how hard our customer spend will be hit as the lockdown increases, so we will provide daily updates on our trading figures.
  • Because of the uncertainty of how long the lockdown will be in place, we don’t know how many of our Summer and Autumn projects are still relevant, as these may be going live during a time when we have no or very few paying customers. We therefore want to complete our current research phases on all of those projects, then pause until we know more. We will run an update conference call with everyone involved in those projects in early May, by which point we should know more about the medium-term business impacts.
  • Our team’s role on these projects is to support the research and when that is complete, we still have plenty of work to do on the platform improvement projects, so there will be no job role changes or cuts to this team.
  • In the customer-facing teams, we have discussed the option of reducing hours, as it is likely we will see fewer and fewer customers and that we will reduce trading hours. You may have heard about the government’s economic support for businesses, to ease this pressure, so we are speaking with our advisors to find out how we can protect wages and ensure our people are looked after. We will update you on this by the end of the week.
  • We will update you every week on the progress with all of this, clarifying what stays the same and what, if anything, will be changing.

Notice wherever there is a comment about something we don’t know, or something changing, there is a supporting comment on what’s next and dates to clarify things.

The overall message with all of this is to over-communicate.  Clarify what stays the same, talk about what is unknown and how and when you might have answers.

A classic fault with our brains is to assume everyone is thinking in the same way, which causes major issues through times of change and ambiguity.  Business leaders may have had the privilege of new insight, market research or an in-depth study of the political and economic news; whereas the rest of the company may be unsure what’s happening.

By sharing information, the insight used to make decisions and the thinking behind what is going on, business leaders empower their people to think for themselves, engage with the uncertainty and see a way through it.  That’s your people working at their best.