Embracing Uncertainty

Every day we come face to face with situations and events that can elicit responses of fear, anxiety, and worry. For the most part, we’re more than capable of handling those events, especially when they remind us of past circumstances that we’ve encountered and either overcome or learned from our mistakes (I’ve got many of the latter in my personal history!). But what happens when we come face to face with a situation that we’ve never encountered before? How do we handle it? And more importantly, how do we “show up” with our teams in those situations?

I can tell you from personal experience as well as from years of training that one of the most influential factors leading to successful performance (and overall levels of happiness) is the level of uncertainty that we can accept into our lives and daily routines. By its nature uncertainty challenges us – it pushes us from our comfort zone, and invites us to experience something new and unique. It doesn’t sound all that bad. That is, until our brains get involved.

The thing is, as human beings we are wired to seek certainty. Not sure about that? How often do you drive a different route to work? Or how often do you deviate from your morning routine? See what I’m getting at now?

How many times have you rented a movie you’ve already seen? That’s because you’re certain you’ll like it! And, you hope that you’ve forgotten enough about it to get just a little uncertainty and surprise. We’re so predictable and funny, when you get right down to it.

But how often do you fall prey to the uncertainty that comes with leading your project teams? When faced with a situation that you cannot see a solution to, how often do you write the story before it even happens? More importantly, does that story tend to be positive or negative? I’ve seen it (and yes, done it) so many times, and nowadays it just makes me chuckle at our need to control the outcome of events – sometimes as if our lives depended on it. That’s because the brain literally sees uncertainty as a threat to your life.

The thing about our wonderful brains is that they are like prediction machines. The only problem is that the connections they make are not always linear, connected, or relevant to what we’re experiencing. And that doesn’t stop us from doing it!

In “Your Brain at Work,” author David Rock points out our brain’s propensity for making predictions. He notes how the brain literally craves certainty, using its huge data capacity for recognizing patterns in the world in order to predict outcomes. He even goes on to talk about the fact that when the need for certainty is met, there is a sensation of reward. But, the more routine the event, the less noticeable the reward.

Now, apply this to your projects – vast, complex, long-term projects with absolutely uncertain outcomes. How does it make you feel just to think about that? Do you notice any response in your body? That’s the wonderful release of chemicals caused by the brain’s inability to predict what’s going to happen. The problem we face is that once those chemicals are released, it’s difficult if not impossible to regroup and regain our composure and our thought processes.

As Rock puts it, “When you can’t predict the outcome of a situation, an alert goes to the brain to pay more attention. An overall away response occurs. A 2005 study found that just a little ambiguity in its own lights up the amygdale.” The amygdale is part of the limbic system, which controls the release of neurotransmitters that severely inhibit the brain’s ability to think logically – typically leading to mistakes. Isn’t that just great?

So am I saying that any time you experience uncertainty you’re doomed to being reduced to a quivering, emotional mess? Not at all. The trick is to stop the emotional response before it begins. One of the best ways to do that is to simply know that you’re going to encounter uncertainty, and be okay with it. Ask yourself what’s more important, knowing how every little detail is going to turn out, or having the emotional fitness to lead your project team to success?

Practice living with a little uncertainty every day. Drive a different route to work. (Some of you are already shaking!) Eat something different for breakfast. Like anything else, the ability to welcome more uncertainty into your life takes practice. In the end, like so many other things in our lives, it comes down to choice. You can choose to value certainty over uncertainty, fear over calm, mistakes over clear thinking, and ultimately failure over success. I don’t know about you, but to me the choice is very clear. And who knows? You might just be surprised by the outcome!

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