Uncertainty Causes Our Brains to Sound the Alarm

| February 21, 2014 | 1 Comment

The following is a continuation of reviewing David Rock’s SCARF Model on understanding how our brain works. For is[1] (3)information refer to Your Brain at Work by David Rock. Please visit my website at www.leaderscove.com. Under Resources you will find other newsletter that address the fascinating field of neuroscience.

It was one of the toughest calls I ever made in my young career.

A well-planned trip to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. turned into a disaster. One of the programs I was responsible for as a YMCA Program Director was a teen drop-in center. The staff and teens had planned a trip to the Zoo. Trip request forms had been completed, ample adult (college juniors and seniors) supervision was on hand, permission slips were in order, a pre-trip meeting with the teens had been held and the weather was beautiful.

The phone rang at home that afternoon. It seemed that one of our responsible adult supervisors allowed one of our teens to get behind the wheel of the van for a little impromptu driver’s education. Our young teen hit three cars in the federally owned parking lot, one an embassy car. The good news – no one was hurt. The bad news – my uncertainty about my job, the program, my boss’s reaction, my boss’s boss’s reaction and the CFO’s reaction were off the charts. The only thing I was certain about was the fate of the supervisor.

I called the CFO, Mr. Fulcher, that Saturday. I admired him greatly, learned more about finance than I thought possible and treasured his willingness to act as a mentor. With as much clarity as I could muster, I described the situation. Mr. Fulcher was not pleased. There were words I had never heard him speak before. He stated that henceforth no one under the age of 30 would be allowed to drive our vans. This was actually a bit problematic since I was only 25 and most of the staff were the same age or younger. I was ordered to appear before him on Monday morning with all forms completed. The FAX machine had not yet been invented. I had no idea how that meeting would turn out. Uncertainty on many levels.

A primary function of the brain, specifically the neo-cortex, is its ability to predict based on its accumulation of intelligence. This pattern-recognition allows us to move through our days without over-tasking the prefrontal cortex where decisions and problem-solving take place. Uncertainty disrupts our thought processes. We are no longer clear about our direction and our amygdale, a component of our limbic system, kicks into gear resulting in heightened emotions and a sense of threat. Remember, all of this activity happens in seconds and often unconsciously. Our brains crave certainty and when we find ourselves in situations in which we cannot predict outcomes we are unsettled or fearful. Ambiguity is particularly problematic for the brain and increases the level of anxiety people face. In other words, our brains would rather know the bad news than be given fuzzy information that lacks clarity and credibility.

A manager, struggling to communicate to his staff about a change in their office location, wasn’t communicating at all because a decision had not yet been made. This lack of communication increased the level of anxiety for the staff, disrupted work output, and resulted in rampant speculation. Keep in mind, the brain has a need to predict.  Whether it’s an office move, a potential merger or acquisition, change in department structures or a new compensation plan, management needs to provide as much information as possible. For example, let’s take the office move. What can be communicated are the variables that you are using to determine the best location. “We know that we need to move. Our lease is up. We are looking at a variety of sites within an 8 mile radius. We have pulled all of your addresses and have a good understanding of the local bus routes. We will be leasing a larger space to accommodate our growth. We hope to make a final offer by the end of next month. As you can imagine we are in active negotiations, so I’m really not at liberty to discuss specific properties. Once a decision has been made we will have 45 days to move. I will provide you with an update each Thursday.” While this statement does not give exact locations of the potential new office, it does provide information; it does support greater certainty: the radius, size, timeline and updates.

So, let’s go back to that fateful Monday morning. I spent the weekend filling out the forms and writing a report. It took me hours – I struggled to think. The problem was that I was experiencing a threat on two levels. First, was a strong feeling of uncertainty, I had no idea what kind of meeting I was going to walk into, and secondly, there was a threat to my status (refer to David Rock’s Model SCARF) with Mr. Fulcher. These threats led to an unproductive weekend and a general sense of anxiety, spilling over onto a number of other functions that weekend.

I survived the meeting. Mr. Fulcher was stern, but gracious considering the situation. I left the meeting knowing that I still had my job; Mr. Fulcher believed in what we were doing with the teens; and I was still on the plus side of the ledger. The relief was exhilarating. Certainty was regained. Given my own reaction to uncertainty, I became more aware of the need to, as quickly as possible provide information and clarity to minimize the debilitating brain activity of not being able to predict the future. Thank you Mr. Fulcher.

How can you increase the sense of Certainty for your staff and for yourself? Whether it’s coming up with a plan, determining objectives or next steps, setting clear expectations, providing parameters around meetings or expected behavioral values in your company, the key to enhancing Certainty is honest and timely communication.

Take care, Julia


Category: Neuroscience for Management, Newsletters


About the Author ()

Julia Hill-Nichols, SPHR, is the founder of LeadersCove, LLC. With over 30 years experience in operations and human capital management, Julia is gifted in the art and science of bridging strategic imperatives and a company’s human capabilities—executing for success, meeting bottom-line objectives and enlivening the people who are the organization’s lifeblood.

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  1. Mark Geene says:

    Great post Julia! Very applicable to some things I’m facing this week! Thanks

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