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Managing uncertainty. How the brain responds and what to do about it

Leading & managing change 27th April 2020
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Our brains are programmed for survival – constantly scanning the environment for threats and rewards. Even today we still revert to our cave man/woman instincts when our brains detect a threat.

When a threat appears, we experience a surge of adrenalin and quickening of heart rate.  Our brains respond quickly – prioritising blood flow to the functions necessary for giving us a fighting chance of survival.  But in doing this, blood is also taken away from the parts of the brain that do the planning, rational thinking and managing of emotions.

Our response to prolonged threats

In prehistoric times, the threat to a caveman/woman tended to be over quickly – you killed the sabretooth tiger, or it killed you. Today, the equivalent would be if our car is about to crash. At times like these, when there is acute, extreme danger, our brain’s ‘in-the-moment’ response is highly effective.

But when a threat is prolonged our ability to respond as efficiently is hampered.  The pandemic was a prime example, sending our world into disarray and creating a heightened sense of uncertainty that the brain sees as a threat. And because this disruption is set to last for a while, our brains will struggle to respond as effectively as they did when a sabretooth turned up at the entrance to our cave.

Threat in our working world

A period of uncertainty, experienced as a prolonged threat state, can hamper how we function. We become more distracted; unable to think clearly; anticipate additional threats that might or might not be there; or are less able to remember things. Translate this into the impact on our work and we may:

  • Struggle to focus on a task and retain information
  • Avoid making decisions
  • Procrastinate or hesitate rather than progress work
  • See/experience relationship tensions, particularly as many adjust to working remotely
  • Misinterpret people’s behaviours
  • Experience/use over controlling behaviours

3 ways to manage the uncertainty better

While we live in extraordinary times, there are things you can do to help manage uncertainty. We’ve selected three of them – tried and tested methods to help calm real or imagined fears, allay that sense of threat and help you stay focused and positive.

Build clarity to create more certainty

Anchor people back to your shared vision, your ‘purpose’ and ‘why you are focusing on this’. This is a stabilising practice – it enables a team to understand what the priority is and to become really focused.

How to do it

Introduce a simple matrix (see Fig.1 as an example) that can be used virtually in a 10-15-minute team call. It will help people to talk about what to focus on, prioritise for the week and what to deprioritise right now.

For more ways to build team clarity and focus on top priorities, download our free toolkit: ‘How to build team clarity and focus on top priorities’.


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How to build team clarity and focus on top priorities

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Build connection and belonging

Virtual working in particular can create a heightened sense of isolation. The brain sees this as an additional threat, with our caveman/woman instincts telling us the tribe has left and that we are now more vulnerable to danger. In response, building a sense of team support is critical. This is about having formal support mechanisms in place that help a team stay connected and able operate effectively during periods of pressure, change and disruption.

How to do it

  • Book in a virtual team coffee. Doing this at the start of the day is ideal so that people can talk about what they’re working on, or how they’re feeling that day.
  • Hold regular team check-ins where you use a structured approach to discuss priorities and the pressures people are experiencing. A useful tool to aid this conversation and to see how people are feeling is the performance pressure curve (Fig. 2). You could use this in team meetings to ask where people feel their level of pressure is right now and why. As a leader/manager ensure you contribute to this too – be vulnerable and talk transparently about how you’re feeling, your level of pressure and the impact on your performance. This will encourage the rest of the team to do the same.

For more ways to build formal support mechanisms, download our free video and toolkit: ‘Building formal support mechanisms to boost a team’s resilience’


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Building formal support mechanisms to boost a team’s resilience

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Learning environment

When we’re going through a period of uncertainty, the anxiety we feel can create a sense of paralysis – significantly hindering our ability to come up with solutions and innovate (at a time when we need it most).

How to do it

Build an environment where everyone has a part to play in finding ways to overcome the problem. Use a tool like the radial solution focused planning model (Fig.3).


This tool helps people move into a future focused state. To use it:

  1. Ask the team to convert the pressure or problem into a goal and place it into the centre.
  2. Reframe it into an outcome focused goal.
  3. Get the team to vocalise all the perceived blocks in relation to that goal – this helps people relax, as they are able to voice their concerns.
  4. Identify solutions for each block.

By taking this approach (even if it is just completing three or four blocks) it encourages a solution-focused mind-set.


Neuroscience for Organizational Change: An Evidence-based Practical Guide to Managing Change, Hilary Scarlett

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