Our Brains Were Not Built for This Much Uncertainty

Our Brains Were Not Built for This Much Uncertainty

By Matt Dallisson, 11/10/2021

Prior to the pandemic, the working world already felt to most of us like it was undergoing rapid, unrelenting change — changes in customer preferences, client and employee expectations, and competitive advantages. Covid-19 managed to upend the few things that felt relatively predictable, like where we spent our working hours, how we collaborated with colleagues, and whether or not we bothered to put on real pants each day. 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 you need to not just endure, but to thrive.

For most of human history, we have been hunter-gatherers, living in groups where individuals had established roles and lives. While sometimes dangerous, life was largely predictable. The brain evolved to be remarkably good at recognizing patterns and building habits, turning very complex sets of behaviors into something we can do on autopilot. (Ever drive home from work and end up in your driveway, with no memory of actually driving home? That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about.)

Given that habits and recognizable patterns are kind of its “thing,” the brain evolved to be uncertainty-averse. 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 it also leads to decreases in motivation, focus, agility, cooperative behavior, self-control, sense of purpose and meaning, and overall well-being. In addition, threat creates significant impairments in your working memory: You can’t hold as many ideas in your mind to solve problems, nor can you pull as much information from your long-term memory when you need it. Threats of uncertainty literally make us less capable, because dealing with them is just not something our brains evolved to do.

The good news is that, from decades of studying human brains and human behavior, we know quite a bit about how to take the experience of threat from something overwhelming to something manageable. Whether you’re trying to keep yourself motivated and engaged, or you’re a leader trying to help those in your care, here are three strategies based in science that can keep the brain in a good place.

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 — or as pioneering social psychologist Albert Bandura called it, a strong sense of self-efficacy — is essential for staying motivated in the face of obstacles and setbacks. People sometimes mistakenly believe that being “positive” means believing that you’ll succeed easily, or that success will happen to you. Work by NYU professor Gabriele Oettingen has shown that this unrealistic optimism consistently predicts failure — when you think things will come easily, you’re rarely prepared for when they don’t.

So, when thinking about the changes and uncertainty that the pandemic (and working life in general) 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 not everything works right away. It means if we hang in there, eventually it can be better than it is now.

Lift to bigger-picture thinking

You can think pretty much anything at different levels of abstraction or concreteness. Psychologists call this level of construal. For example, the act of voting can be described as “participating in democracy” (high-level construal) or “checking a box on a form” (low-level construal).

The level of construal we use to think about our actions turns out to have a significant impact on our behavior. When we think about the larger meaning or purpose that our actions serve (high-level construal), 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, it can be all too easy to end up “in the weeds” and stay there — our brains naturally shift our thinking down to a lower level of construal when we encounter difficulty or uncertainty. Motivationally, however, these are precisely the moments we need to remember why we’re doing what we’re doing in the first place. At EY, we developed a unique program for our people to help them do exactly that, where EY professionals discover and clearly articulate the words of their personal purpose and vision through storytelling. This enables them to connect their personal purpose and vision to the work they do each day, lifting up to the “bigger picture” when they need it most. Not surprisingly, people who completed the program report that they’re significantly better able to stay focused on what matters most and remain more resilient in the face of challenges.

Embrace candor

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 that are needed as we figure out what a new normal needs to be.

Of course, this sort of everyday candor is hard. People worry about how they come across to others as they share truthful perspectives. They worry that their opinions might not be welcome, or valued. They worry about bruising feelings and damaging relationships. And while these concerns are valid, in practice, the far greater 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.

We created a program at EY called Everyday Candor to enable open and honest communication about uncomfortable topics. Instead of a typical workshop-style experience, Everyday Candor is a team-based toolkit, helping teams surface specific obstacles to candor and decide on a small set of new habits to adopt together. It is, in fact, essential that this work be done at the level of teams, because only there can you create new norms and provide the necessary support to reinforce one another when discomfort arises. Participants in this program now ask each other daily, “Could I be candid with you?” and “May I have your candid perspective?” creating a new common language that better enables us to solve for the new normal together.

Thriving through change and uncertainty is not easy. However, armed with the right strategies to help yourself and others, we’re confident that (realistic) optimism is indeed warranted. Remember what matters most, keep honest communication flowing, and know that in the end, it will be better.

This content was originally published here.