Are you sure? Why we like to be certain

Sitting on the front balcony of a friend’s house at dusk, we saw the plane come in low over the horizon following the coast north. We realised it was heading towards the Pearce Airbase and surmised it had just returned from its sortie over the Indian Ocean looking for the missing Malaysian aeroplane.

The deepening mystery about what happened to the Malay flight 370 remains unanswered. But it is the uncertainty about what may have happened, that causes us the most distress.

Uncertainty is a big threat to our brain, which is why if you are only provided with half a story, your brain’s threat response stirs up powerful emotions that often emanate around fear.

So if your company has a big announcement to make, such as an impending merger with another bigger company, or the latest profit forecast suggests cuts need to be made, it is in receiving partial information that can be worse than receiving no information at all.

Our brain likes things to be certain, because that implies that our environment is safe and that serves the brain’s primary purpose: to keep us out of harm’s way. Uncertainty unsettles that harmony and leads to the initiation of the stress response accompanied by the release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
The greater the emotional response and the greater the secretion of stress hormones the greater the chance of amygdala hijack whereby the limbic part of the brain, the area concerned with fast automatic survival responses overcomes the slower, more ponderous thinking pre-frontal cortex.

Which is why times of uncertainty such as around job security, illness and unsolved tragedies engender such strong and emotional response.

Dealing with uncertainty requires knowing how best to minimise the potential threat. The media naturally are often quite happy to add to circumstantial or untested theories because that gets people to buy the “news”.

In business, leaders and managers can minimise the potential threat by ensuring all communication that is shared

  1. Uses language that is easily understood and unambiguous in its delivery.
  2. Providing as much detail as possible to avoid other “filling in the gaps” with “what ifs” and “catastrophic ideas”
  3. Repeating the message and often, so everyone has a chance to hear it, share it and discuss it.
  4. Invite all stakeholders to join in the conversation. So often disgruntled people who seek legal advise will report later, “if only they had been open and honest with what was true, we might not have had to go down this path.” Allowing naysayers and those who disagree a voice to be heard, can assist in reducing the emotional distress otherwise incurred.

We don’t always have the answers.
In which case, stating that and stating it often is a must, until more accurate information is available.

Transparency, consistency and clarity all contribute to overcoming the dreadful burden that uncertainty can otherwise provide.

How does your workplace deal with uncertainty?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Until next time,

Jenny

 

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