We’re hardwired to avoid uncertainty – and that’s not good

08 December 2020

Gihan Perera

Gihan Perera is a futurist, conference speaker, author and consultant who gives business leaders a glimpse into what's ahead - and how they can become fit for the future.

Regardless of how hard you’ve been hit by COVID-19, there’s no doubt the future has become less certain. Gihan Perera explains how you can overcome your natural hardwiring and become more comfortable with uncertainty.

How well do you deal with uncertainty? Probably not as well as you’d like – and that’s a problem, because the uncertainty we have faced in 2020 will continue for some time to come – for you, your business, and your clients.

Unfortunately, we’re hardwired to prefer certainty.

In 2016, researchers ran an experiment to find the relationship between stress and uncertainty. They designed a computer game where participants were asked to turn over rocks on the screen, and were given an electric shock if there was a snake under a rock.

The researchers could change the game in two ways:

  • Increase the danger by putting snakes under more of the rocks; or
  • Increase the uncertainty by moving the snakes around between each move.

As you would expect, the participants were more stressed as the number of snakes increased. But they were even more stressed when they didn’t know if a ‘safe’ rock might have a snake under it next time. They would rather have a dangerous environment with more snakes, as long as they could eventually determine where the snakes were.

In other words, they were more stressed by uncertain outcomes than by predictable negative outcomes.

The same applies to our future

There are two kinds of future – the kind you can see and the kind you can’t. You must get ready for both.

It’s like planning a journey over a mountain. We can see the summit, so we can plan that half of the journey – even if it’s difficult and treacherous. But we can’t see what’s on the other side, and that uncertainty causes the most stress.

This is probably true for you (and you know it)

In a recent presentation for the Governance Institute of Australia, I asked participants – who were senior leaders and board members in many of Australia’s largest organisations – about these two futures.

I asked them four questions. The first two were about how they – as individual leaders – dealt with certainty and uncertainty; and the next two were the same questions but about their boards.

Chart 1 shows the results (each question is a rating from 1-5).

Chart 1: Future Focus

As you can see, these leaders rated themselves and their teams (boards) high when they are facing a known future – even if it’s a challenging or difficult future. But they also rate themselves and their teams significantly lower at operating in an uncertain future.

I’ve asked the same questions to leaders across many industries, and the results are similar. We’re confident of managing challenging scenarios and achieving big goals, as long as we can see the future ahead. But as soon as the future becomes cloudy and uncertain, many people flounder and don’t know what to do.

I heard somebody say you know what real pain feels like when you step on a piece of Lego on the floor when walking barefoot in the dark from your bedroom to the bathroom in the middle of the night!

Only it’s worse.

What if you didn’t have any light, you were walking on slippery polished floorboards, and the Lego pieces kept randomly moving around the floor?

That’s our world right now

The U.S. military coined the term VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) to describe our changing world. The future is:

  • Brittle (volatile): We think we know what’s coming, but it doesn’t take much to shake it up.
  • Slippery (uncertain): We feel like we’re always walking on shifting, slippery, shaky ground.
  • Messy (complex): Everything is connected, so a small change in one area can dramatically affect everything else.
  • Fuzzy (ambiguous): Even the things we can see aren’t clear, so it’s tricky to ‘get a handle’ on them.

How do you thrive in this brittle, slippery, messy and fuzzy world?

The biggest mistake most people make is to try to simplify the world: they either ignore the uncertainty or they only set short-term goals. But that only works in the short-term, leaves you vulnerable to change, and doesn’t reflect reality.

You can clear the Lego from the floor today, but tonight it will be there again. And tomorrow. And the day after. And you can’t wait until the kids outgrow Lego before making another midnight trip from your bedroom!

Don’t try to simplify the world around you – that’s a battle you can’t win. Instead, aim for clarity, so you can operate in a world that isn’t simple anymore.

This means accepting the brittle, slippery, messy and fuzzy world – and figuring out how to operate in it.

Here are the differences between people who try to achieve simplicity and those who aim for clarity:

  • Brittle (volatile): Don’t just set smaller goals. Keep setting big goals, but be agile so you can change course quickly.
  • Slippery (uncertain): Don’t just take smaller steps. Take decisive steps instead.
  • Messy (complex): Don’t try to reduce the number of choices. Improve your decision-making skills instead.
  • Fuzzy (ambiguous): Don’t drag your feet endlessly trying to gather more data so you can make the perfect decision. Instead, act, test, measure and act again.

Become more comfortable with uncertainty

Regardless of how hard you’ve been hit by COVID-19 – either its health impact or economic impact – there’s no doubt our future has become less certain. And as much as we would like to think it’s a temporary problem, all the signs are that we’re in this for the long haul.

So, overcome your natural hardwiring and become more comfortable with uncertainty.

If there’s one thing for certain, it’s that the future is uncertain.

Gihan Perera is a business futurist, speaker, and author who works with business leaders to help them lead and succeed in an uncertain but exciting future. He is the author of The Future of Leadership and Disruption By Design. For more, go to GihanPerera.com.

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