The world is messy.
For many people the workplace is less predictable than a few years ago and personal lives have been upended by the pandemic.
Most of us have spent the last couple of years coping with uncertainty. We’re navigating rapidly changing environments where we don’t have all the answers, yet we still need to make decisions, we still need to engage with other people, and we still need to act on what info we do have.
The human brain hates uncertainty. In the race to get away from uncertainty – and back to some semblance of ‘normal’ or ‘new normal’, trust becomes more important than ever. Trust helps us create the psychological safety we need to continue to operate.
Dealing with uncertainty
Uncertainty is uncomfortable for most people – it’s not the way our brains have evolved to work. Our brains like patterns, repetition and predictability. These enable it to process complex bits of information quickly by creating default responses and behaviors, otherwise known as the habits by which we live.
As a result, many of us drift through large chunks of our lives on autopilot, most of our daily chores – autopilot; that drive home from work – autopilot; the way you react when someone close pushes your buttons – autopilot.
While I’m not advocating we all drift though life on autopilot, there is a balance to be struck between where we put our focus, and what happens behind the scenes.
Most of the time your unconscious does the heavy lifting, it is trusted to process sensory stimuli, recognize the pattern and respond accordingly.
When the information doesn’t fit the pattern – or we are uncertain how to respond, we are more likely to feel consciously threatened. When this happens our neurochemistry changes – increasing the hormones responsible for fight / flight response and decreasing those which keep us connected, collaborative and motivated. Some of your higher cognitive functions, and specifically your working memory, are affected, reducing your ability to draw on stored information, to problem solve and to stay in control of your emotions. This reduces your inclination to trust others and yourself.
Often the default response to uncertainty, or feeling out of control, is to hang on to something familiar, something you know, something you trust, something that makes you feel safe. Which is great if, and only if, you focus or hang on to things that empower you, build your resilience and increase your confidence. More often than not, we prioritize the familiar over the helpful.
Think about workplace culture for a moment. How often have you heard people say ‘this is how we do things here’ when faced with suggestions or ideas? My background is in healthcare, and you’d be surprised at the creative excuses people come up with to keep things the same. Or maybe you wouldn’t – it’s possibly the same where you work.
Of course, change resistance is one cultural behavior. The way we treat each other, the degree of collaboration over individualism, the level of compassion over judgement are all indicators of workplace culture, which in turn influence whether or not we feel safe when things become uncertain. If we don’t feel safe, we are unlikely to trust our colleagues, or even ourselves to do the right thing.
Remember our brains hate uncertainty, so when we don’t have all the answers, we make them up. We use our internal stories, created by our experiences, memories and emotions, to fill in the gaps.
We use the past (as we have experienced it) to predict the future. There is plenty of recent research supporting these prediction frameworks in our brain, including Bayesian Brain models if you want to delve deeper.
Some of the stuff we’ve stored, some of our stories about the world and our place in it, will be empowering, connected and trusting; a lot won’t. The human brain has a negativity bias, as its primary job is to keep you out of harm’s way, hence repetitive patterns that keep you safe.
If you know something bad is going to happen you remove the uncertainty, your brain prepares, and you cope better. When something bad might happen uncertainty prevails, anxiety is higher and your neurochemistry reflects this.
Trust plays a key role in creating the future you want to experience. Which is why you need to be very choosy about which parts of your daily life you are prepared to leave on autopilot. You have more control than you may think over the future you experience.
When you are able to trust yourself and others to make the right choice and to do the right thing, then your brain produces oxytocin, which in turn lowers the short-term impact of stress hormones, restoring a degree of safety.
More importantly, as Paul Zak’s research demonstrates, oxytocin increases your levels of connectedness, empathy and purpose. Restoring your natural optimal human state.
So how do you create workplace cultures that heal and not hurt?
Focus on psychological safety
If you don’t feel safe, you fear repercussion or you don’t trust those around you, it is much more difficult to participate. What do you (and your colleagues) need to feel safe, heard and cared about?
The language and order might vary from workplace to workplace, but here are a few staples that the majority of us need to feel safe:
- Consistency – in attitude, response and expectation – this way we reduce uncertainty, we can decide how, when and with whom to engage
- Respect – our contribution is valued, we are heard, seen and treated fairly
- Purpose – we are working towards something bigger than ourselves, and we are connected to other humans in that mission.
- Hope – realistic optimism enables people to see a better future, believe tough times will end and build resilience
Focus on what you can control
And, resist the temptation to catastrophize about things outside of your immediate influence. Remember the autopilot? Take control of your thoughts, your stories and where you put your effort and energy, it is the fastest way to rebuild confidence and start to trust yourself again.
Think about the impact you want to have and how you want to feel, then draw on memories and experiences that demonstrate these feeling or impact. Don’t be too restrictive here, the context may be very different, the emotion – and your brain’s ability to use the past to predict the future will be the same. This is essentially a bit of reprogramming to get your brain recognizing what you want and creating new patterns or habits that empower you, not hold you back.
As you navigate your way through the messy, sometimes uncertain, world of work remember you have survived 100% of the experiences that got you to here, you are your own powerhouse.
Trust yourself – you’ve got this.
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