To Counteract Uncertainty: Stabilize

by | Mar 7, 2017

There’s a reason that we experience resistance to change whether it’s us personally or staff. The brain wants the world it experiences today to be as expected based on its past. The brain likes “the way we’ve always done it before.” That’s easy, comfortable and certain.

Your brain constantly scans the environment and compares what it observes to what it expects based on stored experience. If the observations of today are similar enough to expectations, the brain feels certain and comfortable. If there are differences, however, the brain is uncertain and that activates the threat response. Brain alarm bells go off.

Of course, uncertainty and change are everywhere. Situations that create a sense of uncertainty happen frequently, such as lack of transparency from management, no performance feedback, leadership instability, and ad hoc policies and procedures. Sometimes you need to change processes; there will be leadership changes periodically; and new policies are inevitable. How can you as a manager create more certainty during uncertain times? How can you help the brain feel certain during periods of uncertainty? The answer: stabilize everything you can.

Share all that you can. Lack of information breeds uncertainty and that negatively impacts motivation. We naturally make up stories in the absence of information.  For example, for government employees, administration change creates uncertainty. Will the new leadership be easy or tough to work with? Will they be supportive of key projects or not?  When companies merge or are bought by new owners, uncertainty abounds and so do fabricated stories.

Leaders in those situations tell me, “But I don’t know anything else” or “The information is confidential.” Yes…and even in those situations you can say something and stabilize everything that is NOT in flux.

For government leaders, you activate certainty when you say, “We don’t know much about the in-coming administration. But here’s what we do know. We do good work; we have a solid staff; and we will prepare information to clearly and concisely explain our work so we are ready for the new leaders.” (Note: The clear action step activates both certainty and control.)

For leaders in organizations undergoing significant change, you can say, “I know you are concerned about the future of our organization. Admittedly, we may experience some changes and until there is more information about those changes, here are three things we will do now to move forward. We will continue our focus on streamlined production; we will focus on serving our clients; and we will retool our project management process to ensure on-time, high-quality work. This is the core of our work and it continues as always.”

Add boundaries. Another way to create certainty is to establish boundaries. Maybe there’s a new process that you want to implement in the office but you encounter push back: “What’s wrong with our current process?” “We’ll have to train everybody and that will take so much time!” These reactions are the brain’s alarm bells going off due to uncertainty about the change. Counteract the uncertainty by using boundaries.  You could implement just one part of the new process so that there is less change initially.  Or you could do a six-month trial and evaluate the pros and cons with the staff.  Either way, you use boundaries to constrain the change so that it feels less threatening.

The bottom line: stabilize everything you can through your words, reassurances, honesty and incremental change. You will calm the brain, minimize anxiety and increase motivation.

1 Comment

  1. James Welch

    I confess; I am one of those “That’s not the way we always did it” types. I think that is more prevalent in my generation as we have not seen all the changes that have come about since we retired. The way we have always done it is not necessarily bad; just not as popular with the younger generations. Good one Shelley.


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Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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