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How Neuroscience Helps Increase Tolerance for Uncertainty?

When uncertainty hits, very deep emotional response patterns kick into action. What can we do to help those we support as HR leaders, coaches, and consultants to respond more effectively?

Greg Flickinger, one of the most brilliant leaders I know, has been writing weekly insights about different leadership topics for years now. Recently he focused on crisis leadership and the importance of contingency plans.

The thing that struck me most about these recent posts is that all kinds of things go wrong when it comes to responding to a crisis...leaders may:

  • Not recognize there is a crisis.

  • Under-respond, under-react, avoid, or overall deny the existence of a crisis.

  • Be completely unprepared, as if they are only thinking about how to respond for the first time when the crisis is already in full swing.

  • Overreact, panic, and become overwhelmed.

Or, of course, respond from a thought-out, prepared, resilient place. Having high tolerance for uncertainty at times like these means that leaders are not shocked or overwhelmed. They have pre-existing schemas and emotional readiness which allows them to support people and businesses so the speed of recovering from unforeseen events is faster.

Obviously, no one can prepare for every contingency but here are some insights from Neuroscience about what we can do to set up flexible, more effective response patterns that will allow us to increase our tolerance to sudden, threatening changes.

The Top 7 in Terms of Tolerance for Uncertainty

  1. Start with the basics: The brain gets its signals from the body so we need a healthy foundation for the rest of it to work. Exercise, enough sleep, and the right nutrition are essential. When these are ignored, the body experiences stress which not only weakens our immunity system, but also reduces concentration, focus, memory, and other such critical functions.

  2. Anticipate plan A schemas: Because of the way our brain links future danger to pain, most people prefer to avoid planning for when bad things will happen (for example, 60% of Americans don't have a will, although death is not an uncertain outcome). The reason soldiers practice drills and unfortunately, children learn how to act if there is an emergency at school, is so that the brain will already be familiar with the situation and will experience much less shock (or freeze response) if and when such an event occurs. To be a bit less gloomy about it, think about studying an introductory level of chemistry in middle school as a type of "priming" for high school courses. A student that feels familiar with chemistry concepts (even if she remembers nothing of the specifics) will find it easier to access advanced levels of chemistry later on. We can't anticipate everything but every team should spend some time during regular periods to explore plan A schemas for easily predictable events.

  3. Practice plan B schemas: Think about the last time you played a board game and your strategy didn't work out because of the actions of other players, luck, or what have you. Were you prepared for people around you not to respond the way you expected or otherwise for something unexpected to happen? When that happened, were you able to see it quickly or did you notice it only when it was too late? When things didn't go according to your original strategy, did you just give up and concede or did you plan a workaround to try to win by adjusting? This type of thinking leads to flexibility, an ongoing ability to make choices, and growth mindset. These are skills and you may be surprised to learn that many adults need support in developing them. They take time and often guidance to develop, but obviously well worth it. A great team leader I know from the biotech industry used to play boardgames with his team, paying extra attention to the above schema development (although he didn't use this exact term ;)).

  4. Give the right system in the brain a chance: When we meet uncertainty we tend to want to increase control. This often means we put more emphasis on the systems in the brain that collect data, are alert, and increase attention and focus. While it is good to be aware of the details, uncertainty often comes with loss of a great degree of control. Trying to push for more control in these situations only emphasizes the delta so we need to draw on the systems in the brain that can contain and process uncertainty. To tap into the systems that can contain and process uncertainty consider a wide variety of creatively expressive activities like listening to music, dancing, painting, gardening, and enjoying a walk in nature, or presentness practices like meditation, hugging (when appropriate), or spending time with "your" pets.

  5. Develop higher consciousness: Robert Kegan emphasizes our ability to grow from more "protective" levels of consciousness in which people are looking at the world from a self concept that focuses on their needs and interests to "higher" levels of consciousness. As we grow and evolve into higher levels of consciousness we are better at self regulating and independent thinking, among other (very important) things. These are very useful when needing to sustain uncertainty. There are exercises that support growth from one level to the next like: Can you think of 3 ways your beliefs might be wrong? What question would you like me not to ask you? etc.

  6. Acquire effective Change-Readiness Skills: As I shared in a previous post, there are skills we can adopt to respond more effectively to discomfort. These skills not only equip us to deal with uncertainty, they are empowering and teach us to trust ourselves to be able to effectively navigate difficulty and uncertainty.

  7. Practice compassion and empathy: Not only because of the morality of it, but because practicing this type of emotional giving is proven to better prepare you to deal with threat. The systems in the brain associated with empathy allow us to "divert" the response sequence from "reaching" the Amygdala. Regardless of the benefit your compassion has for others, when you practice it, instead of being thrown into a fight-flight-freeze response, your brain focuses on appraisal, interpretation, and inspection. It allows us to understand other people's experiences AND allows us to make better use of our prefrontal cortex to create an action plan.

Starting Early

“The world changed from having the determinism of a clock to having the contingency of a pinball machine.” - Heinz Pagels

As Greg shared this quote, it made me think about the magnitude of the challenge. Some "evolutions" are like living in a two dimensional world and suddenly being introduced to a three dimensional rolling ball. Can we really prepare for something that is designed in ways we can't imagine? Most likely not. We can't have schemas for things we've never run into. But we can build our mind to bounce back quickly, assess, process, contain, and adjust. We can have schemas for taking care of ourselves under pressure, practicing choice, and navigating in unfamiliar circumstances. The specific new circumstances aren't predictable but it is very possible to have brain maps of responding quickly to unfamiliar circumstances. It just means we need to deliberately practice responding quickly to unfamiliar circumstances enough times...

What can you do to support leaders and teams in your organization to increase tolerance for uncertainty?

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