Leading Through Change Part 1: The only certainty is uncertainty

Leader describing a change

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.

How can business leaders create an environment where people can thrive in the face of uncertainty?

Since the environment we live and work in seems unlikely to be anything other than ‘VUCA’, surely it’s time we learned to deal with it? The good news from recent neuroscience research is that the brain responds more positively to expected uncertainty4.There are two things that seem inevitable in this context, one driven by the context itself and one by the nature of the human condition.

The inevitability of failure

In rapidly changing, uncertain times we need to ensure people aren’t paralysed by fear of failure. Chances are, doing nothing will ultimately lead to failure – the classic ‘strategic drift’5; a growing mismatch emerging between the external and internal rates of change. To empower people to act during uncertain times, we need to accept that mistakes may happen.

Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School outlines a spectrum of reasons for failure6, from deviance, to inattention, to lack of ability, to process complexity and uncertainty. Leaders need to spot the difference, and treat failures caused by complexity and uncertainty differently. In her words:

“When I ask executives to consider this spectrum and then to estimate how many of the failures in their organizations are truly blameworthy, their answers are usually in single digits—perhaps 2% to 5%. But when I ask how many are treated as blameworthy, they say (after a pause or a laugh) 70% to 90%.” 

How failures are treated determines how people will operate under uncertainty, both directly and indirectly, through the type of culture this creates.

The drive to connect

Humans are social animals; being socially connected has the evolutionary benefit of increasing your chances of survival (and in the modern day, success at work). So strong is this drive, that the brain responds to social separation in the same way it does to physical pain7,8.

Not only are we are wired to be social, but just as the brain interprets uncertainty as a threat, it interprets social connectedness as a sign of safety9. So, despite the difficulty of providing employees with certainty in a ‘VUCA’ context, what leaders can do is encourage and enable employees to connect. We also have a basic drive to make sense of the world around us10. Arguably, it’s what sets humans apart from other mammals: Throw a ball for a dog and it will run after it, throw a ball for a human and they’ll ask why you threw the ball! In many ways, Chris Rodgers’ work on informal coalitions11 captures both the drive to connect and to understand, also emphasising that this often happens informally:

“…people get together and ‘make things up’ – making sense of what is going on and, through this relational process, decide what things mean and how they will act… Most…take place informally… water-cooler gossip; corridor conversations; private discussions; social exchanges; and so on.”12

As Chris argued:

“…it is important for managers to recognise that they are both in control and not in control at the same time. The challenge then becomes one of embracing this paradox; understanding and actively engaging with the ‘real-world’ messiness of everyday organisational life, not seeking to deny or somehow eliminate it”.9



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

4Yu & Dayan (2005). Uncertainty, Neuromodulation, and Attention, Neuron, 46, 681–692.

5Johnson. (1988). Rethinking Incrementalism, Strategic Management Journal, 9, 75-91.

6Edmondson (2011). Strategies for Learning from Failure, Harvard Business Review, April 2011.

7Eisenberger & Lieberman (2005). Why it hurts to be left out: The neurocognitive overlap between physical and social pain. In Williams, Forgas, & von Hippel (Eds.), The Social Outcast: Ostracism, Social Exclusion, Rejection, and Bullying (pp. 109-127). New York: Cambridge University Press.

8Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams (2003). Science, Oct 10, 302 (5643): 290-2.

9See: Eisenberger (2013). Social ties and health: A social neuroscience perspective, Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 23(3), 407–413.

10Lawrence & Norhira. (2001). Driven: How Human Nature Shapes our Choices. San Fransico, CA: Jossey-Bass.

11Rodgers (2007). Informal coalitions: mastering the hidden dynamics of organizational change. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

12Rodgers (2010). Coalitions, conversations and complexity – the challenge of change in the public sector, The International Journal of Leadership in Public Services, 6(4), 31-37