Education & Career Trends: Our brains were not built for this much uncertainty

4 min read

Edition: October 2nd, 2021
Curated by the Knowledge Team of ICS Career GPS

The human brain simply was not built for uncertainty. (Image Credit: Getty)

Prior to the pandemic, the working world was already undergoing rapid and unrelenting change. The pandemic managed to upend the few aspects that felt, relatively, predictable. Today, leaders across industries are feverishly trying to figure out what the “new normal” needs to look like, which seems to be constantly shifting under their feet.

To stay motivated as we encounter unprecedented levels of uncertainty in every aspect of our lives, we should understand that the human brain simply was not built for this.

Knowing what your brain does well and what it does, surprisingly, poorly can give you a much clearer sense of the strategies that you need to thrive.

How uncertainty negatively affects us

The brain evolved to be remarkably good at recognising patterns and building habits, turning very complex set of behaviours into something we can do on autopilot.

But when things become less predictable — and therefore less controllable — we experience a strong state of threat. You may already know that threat leads to “fight, freeze or flight” responses in the brain.

You may not know that uncertainty also leads to decrease in the following:

  1. Motivation
  2. Focus
  3. Agility
  4. Cooperative behaviour
  5. Self-control
  6. Sense of purpose and meaning
  7. Overall well-being

Threat creates significant impairments in your working memory. Threats of uncertainty literally make us less capable.

The good news is that, from decades of studying human brains and behaviours, we know quite a bit about how to take the experience of threat from something overwhelming to something manageable.

Here are 3 science-backed strategies to help keep the brain ‘in a good place:

1. Set expectations with realistic optimism

  • The concept of realistic optimism is a simple but powerful one: Believe that everything is going to work out just fine, while accepting that getting there might not be easy.
  • Research consistently shows that having positive expectations is essential for staying motivated in the face of obstacles and setbacks.
  • When thinking about the changes and uncertainty that the pandemic will surely bring, set realistically optimistic expectations for yourself and for others.
  • Believe you will get there, and acknowledge to yourself and everyone else that uncertainty involves having to experiment to get things right.
  • It means that not everything will work right away. It means if we hang in there, eventually, it will get better.

2. Lift to ‘bigger-picture’ thinking

  • You can think pretty much anything at different levels of abstraction or concreteness. Psychologists call this level of construal.
  • The level of construal we use to think about our actions turns out to have a significant impact on our behaviour.
  • When we think about the larger meaning or purpose that our actions serve we’re more inspired and motivated and feel greater boosts to self-esteem and well-being.
  • When we drop down to the nitty-gritty details of what we’re doing or need to do, we’re better at solving concrete problems and anticipating obstacles.
  • Each level of construal has benefits, which is why it’s best to shift our thinking and lift up and drill down as needed.
  • Unfortunately our brains naturally shift our thinking down to a lower level of construal when we encounter difficulty or uncertainty.
  • However, these are precisely the moments we need to remember why we’re doing what we’re doing in the first place.
  • Connect your personal purpose and vision to the work you do each day, lifting up to the “bigger picture” when you need it most.

3. Embrace honest communication

  • Working through so much change and dealing with unexpected setbacks means we need to be constantly and honestly communicating with one another to co-create the right new norms and habits.
  • We aren’t just talking about giving useful performance feedback — we’re talking about the everyday conversations about what’s working and what isn’t.
  • Of course, this sort of everyday candour is hard.
  • But great damage is done when people operate in an environment that lacks transparency and empathy.
  • People know when you aren’t telling them everything, and the uncertainty threats that can create are off the charts.
  • It is essential to create new norms and provide the necessary support to reinforce one another when discomfort arises.

Thriving through change and uncertainty is not easy. Remember what matters most, keep honest communication flowing, and know that in the end, it will be better.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the article mentioned above are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of ICS Career GPS or its staff.)

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