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The psychology of uncertainty in a changing world

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 26 Oct 2022

Human beings are not wired to deal with uncertainty effectively, and the past few years have been anything but certain. How, psychologically, do individuals and organisations respond to this?

When Dr Carolyn Lorian, Head of Clinical Transformation at Silvercloud Health, was studying clinical psychology, one of her professors would describe human beings as ‘the descendants of cowards’. “It’s the people who were slightly cautious and who were not the ones to run off cliffs, who took a degree of cautiousness in their approach, that survived and passed on their genes. Therefore, we are hardwired for a degree of anxiety, a degree of pessimism and a need for information.”

It’s why uncertainty can take such a psychological toll on people, both at an individual level and collectively. It’s why the markets and businesses respond so negatively to uncertainty. And with uncertainty a persistent presence since the beginning of the pandemic more than two years ago, it has been taking its toll. 

“We’re constantly trying to look for familiar patterns in order to make things fit in with what we already understand about the world,” says Dr Zara Whysall, business psychologist and associate professor at Nottingham Business School. “This is a challenge, broadly speaking. It has a few implications. It means that often we might miss things that are actually new. There’s some interesting evidence about doctors looking at scans; if you put something completely random on a scan that shouldn’t be there at all, such as a very small picture of an animal, they will completely miss it because it’s not something that you usually see. It doesn’t fit the mould. So we might just fail to spot some things, but if our attention is drawn to them, it’s potentially overwhelming. In the business world, this is not a good thing.”

People have a limited cognitive capacity for uncertainty, Whysall explains. Some have more tolerance for it than others, but everyone has their limit. In finance teams, where the work is driven by set systems and processes, uncertainty can be tricky, but the profession’s response to the pandemic has proved that it collectively has the capacity to respond to it effectively. 

However, as Whysall points out, everyone has a limit. “Some people might vocalise if they’re feeling overwhelmed, but others might not – they might just withdraw. You’ve got to have those conversations. Leaders have to manage the paradox between maintaining stability, which gives people a sense of reassurance, but also helping people to have some sort of cognitive flexibility, to be able to roll to roll with it, because there will be uncertainty, increasingly so.” 

Lorian adds that there are other subtle signs, such as the concept of brain fog. People may not be able to concentrate or retain information as well. They may not be as productive as they usually are. 

“These are the kind of cognitive things that we don’t always associate with mental health, but are absolutely on that spectrum,” she says. “You might see that someone who was a high performer is no longer delivering at the same level, or someone who might be struggling to retain information or juggle multiple things. That’s the thing with uncertainty – because you’re taking on a lot of information you’re trying to juggle. Being able to focus and deliver can be harder.”

Addressing this and making the work environment feel more certain for your team is not easy. It requires balance, as ignoring the reality of uncertainty is as dangerous as letting uncertainty affect employees psychologically. 

Whysall uses the phrase “fix the vision, flex the journey” to explain how this can be done. Organisations should look to provide some certainty with clear, achievable goals and a consistent long term vision for the team or the organisation. But the team must also be prepared to respond to outside events while maintaining focus on that consistent vision.

Taking an holistic view of the organisation, from team culture to the support measures in place to leadership styles and development programmes, is an approach that Silvercloud has contributed to through its work with the NHS. 

“You need to think holistically about the different layers of the organisation,” says Lorian. “How can we adapt? Is there anything to signal some level of certainty when there isn’t certainty. This is where leaders need to step up and say – even if they don’t know – how they can give some of that confidence and support to their people.”

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