Leading Through Change Part 1: The only certainty is uncertainty


One of the biggest issues on many of our clients’ minds currently, is “How can we best lead our people through change and uncertainty?” We’ve all read articles or blogs which start with the clichés about change being the ‘new normal’ and ambiguity being universal, so I’m going dive straight in. We know the context. Being a psychologist, what I want to talk about is the brain's response to situations characterised by uncertainty, since (crudely speaking) it’s the brain that drives behaviour and behaviour is what drives companies.

The bad news? Our brain doesn’t like uncertainty.

This makes complete sense when you consider the brain’s main job is to keep us alive, which includes looking out for anything that could threaten our survival. And when I say ‘keep a look out’ I really mean ‘be absolutely and positively paranoid about anything that looks vaguely suspicious!’ Consider the lookout on a ship, whose job is to sit in the crow’s nest and look for danger. Uncertainty acts like a thick fog surrounding the ship; you can’t see where you’re going, so you could be about to sail straight into an iceberg. Uncertainty = a threat. The brain interprets the fog (uncertainty) as if it were a looming iceberg and signals the alarm.

From a neuropsychological perspective, certainty = safety. The brain seeks predictability as part of the survival instinct. You may already be aware that uncertainty can trigger a “threat response” in the brain, which causes a chain of reactions in the brain and body. None of which put us in a good place to think rationally, creatively, or be open-minded, often what’s needed during times of change. To add to the problem, this typically happens at an automatic, subconscious level, so by the time the rational case for change is provided, we’re already in fight or flight mode. We’re not hearing it. The horse has bolted.

To make matters worse, the latest research suggests that “the stress response is the default, it is ‘always there’, on the verge of being activated"1. So what we need to focus on is keeping it repressed by providing certainty aka safety. As long as there is no clear proof of safety/certainty, insecurity remains, and the default response remains ‘on’. We are intolerant of uncertainty by default.

So, what hope do we have in managing change or leading our employees through these uncertain, Brexit & Trump times? What are managers and leaders to do?

Since it’s likely that the future will entail equally high levels of uncertainty, I think it’s time we stopped trying to feign certainty under conditions where the only certainty is uncertainty. We need to resist the temptation to give employees a false sense of security and instead start preparing people for uncertainty.

Continuing the nautical analogy, if there’s a thick fog, chances are everyone else can see it too and the usual tools that guide us (weather forecasts, maps) may become unreliable if the territory changes dramatically and environmental conditions become so turbulent that unpredictable weather events become a regular occurrence.

But here’s the good news: Neuroscience research reveals an important distinction between how people respond to unexpected uncertainty compared to expected uncertainty2; they trigger different physiological reactions. Unexpected uncertainty triggers the sympathetic nervous system and classic fight or flight response. In the short-term this makes it hard to engage rational thought, over the longer-term it can lead to burnout and various health problems3. Expected uncertainty, in contrast, triggers the parasympathetic nervous system; the body's rest and digest function, with release of the neurotransmitter Acetylcholine, which aids verbal and logical reasoning, concentration and learning.

What tactics do we need to adopt to succeed in a context of certain uncertainty? We’ll explore this more in a future blog, but I was inspired by something Liz Campbell, Lane4’s Customer Director, came across in her work with Nationwide, where the new CEO has introduced the concept of “accountable freedom”. In an uncertain context, what more can we do than equip competent people with the valuable skills, such as personal resilience and a learning mindset, then trust and empower them to act with the best intention? We should be willing to accept “mistakes”, (if there can be such a thing when there’s no right answer) as useful learning.


1Brosschot, Verkuil, & Thayer (2016), The default response to uncertainty and the importance of perceived safety in anxiety and stress: An evolution-theoretical perspective, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 41, 22-34.

2Yu & Dayan (2005), Uncertainty, Neuromodulation, and Attention, Neuron, 46, 681–692.

3Schneiderman, Ironson, & Siegel (2005). Stress and Health: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants, Annual Review of Clinincal Psychology, 1, 607–628

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