If you had to name a word that encompasses all that 2021 was (and wasn’t), what would yours be? I’ve been pondering this question as I reflect on this last year, and my word is “Ambiguity”. The level of uncertainty on so many levels can be disconcerting; the “how” questions can feel overwhelming. How do we emerge out of a global pandemic, design the right strategy for hybrid work, win the war for talent and find the best in ourselves to show up as leaders, despite the toll this last year and a half have taken on us? The answers, and the predictability we seek, can feel more elusive than ever as we turn the corner into 2022.
Our brains are hard-wired to thrive in certainty. According to Mithu Storoni from Inc., our brains are “constantly creating and updating a set of rules that can predict how your world works. A mismatch between its prediction and what actually happens creates a moment of uncertainty.” Storoni says that facing uncertainty feels scarier than feeling physical pain and illustrates this with a great example. In 2016, a group of London researchers explored how people react to being told they will either “definitely” or “probably” receive a painful electric shock. The researchers found a counter-intuitive result; volunteers who knew they would definitely receive a painful electric shock felt calmer and were measurably less agitated than those who were told they only had a 50 percent chance of getting the electric shock.
Uncertainty and ambiguity have been studied extensively by neuroscientists extensively; their research shows that ambiguity creates:
- A threat or alert response
- A feeling that something is “wrong” – our ability to focus on other issues diminishes
- A type of pain that’s manifested when we don’t know what to do
As we think about how we can thrive going in to 2022 in the midst of ongoing ambiguity, how can we equip ourselves to face ongoing uncertainty more effectively? My advice for clients we work with includes:
- Focus on what you can influence, not what you can control. The best leaders know that influence is the key to thriving in the midst of ongoing, continued anxiety and ambiguity.
- Adopt a continuous learning mindset; recognize that what got you here won’t necessarily be what takes you forward. Set specific goals to learn something new in this next year – to stretch and grow yourself
- Build experimentation into your process (and expectations). Ideate with a diverse group of people, using Design Thinking to open up new ideas & expect (and welcome!) mistakes.
- Develop informed intuition (this is a great Ted Talk that explains how informed intuition influences our decision-making)
- Be incremental – find the first step and move! Take small steps to make progress and celebrate quick wins.
Finally, remember that facing uncertainty and ambiguity, and finding a way to thrive, will help underscore the resilience we will all undoubtedly need going in to 2022!
Sheri Browning is a Partner at PeopleResults. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sbPResults.