How to improve your response to uncertainty | Mantle
Mantle Leadership Challenges Sept 22

22 Sep 2021

How to improve your response to uncertainty

The supermarkets might be short on flour and yeast during a lockdown, but one thing we all have is an overabundance of uncertainty. Our leadership experts explain why uncertainty can impair leadership performance – and what to do about it.

Why we dislike uncertainty

As leaders, it’s not only more difficult to manage teams during times of uncertainty – it also can take a toll on our own well-being. We instinctively crave, and value, being in control.

Self-control, or the ability to exert control over a situation, is something that we are predisposed to value in others – and in ourselves.

The need to gain control is therefore our default reaction when we’re faced with uncertainty. In these COVID times, where so much is uncertain, that can create a problem!

Why uncertainty has such an impact

Research has shown that uncertainty causes us greater stress than predictable negative consequences. (This study by Archy de Berger and colleagues makes for a fascinating read.)

Consider this scenario. You’re unable to get to a meeting on time. What do you find more stressful?

  • The uncertainty of wondering whether you’ll make it to your meeting on time?
  • Or, that you are completely certain that you will be late?

The circumstance of being uncertain about your fate is much more likely to get your heart pumping. Chances are that you’ll begin picturing the potential negative consequences well before they occur.

It’s also worth noting that there is a high probability that none of these worst-case scenarios will even eventuate!

Our brains are hard-wired to struggle with uncertainty

Struggling with uncertainty isn’t a personal weakness. Our brains are actually hard-wired that way.

Our internal reward system, the Striatum, directs our behaviour towards the achievement of positive outcomes. It also propels our behaviour away from outcomes that will have an adverse impact on us.

The Striatum is responsible for our ability to predict good and bad consequences. It’s triggered most urgently when we can’t predict a clear outcome because we’re experiencing uncertainty.

When uncertainty occurs, our Striatum is flooded with dopamine and its job description requires it to do something (anything at all!) to improve the odds in our favour. It does so by activating our sympathetic nervous system, shifting us into a state of ‘flight or fight.’

How to control your response to uncertainty

Researchers have found that those who perform best at a task, where they cannot exert control over their situation, have stress responses that reflect the actual (and not imagined) levels of uncertainty. Being sensitive to their level of uncertainty gave them an edge.

The good news is that this is a learned ability. Here are some techniques that you can implement to help improve your response to uncertainty:

  • Recognise and accept when you don’t have control – the situation is simply out of your hands.
  • Challenge that natural tendency to catastrophise – how likely is it that the worse-case scenario you are picturing will eventuate?
  • Manage your energy output – be conscious about the time you are spending mulling over an imaginary consequence, and how often that thought is repeating itself.
  • Focus on the big picture – this gives you a reminder about what you can control.
  • Shift your mindset – consider how you can achieve a degree (no matter how small) of control.

Remember that we always have the option to consider our level of uncertainty and gauge if it’s accurate.

Certainty during these uncertain times

If you’d like some expert support when it comes to leadership in these challenging times, we’re here to help. For some no-obligation suggestions from our leadership experts, just get in touch now.