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This is Your Brain on Ambiguity

Periods of uncertainty aren’t new in the world of work, but the past two years have caused profound disruption for both employees and employers. Everything from working models, culture, talent attraction, and recruitment have been flipped on their head — leaving many to wonder what’s next in the world of work. Change will never slow down, but leaders can look to psychology to better understand how to help their teams and employees cope and work more effectively during periods of ambiguity.

To get started, let’s take a closer look at what’s happening in the brain: 

During periods of ambiguity or uncertainty, there are a number of systems working in our brains to close the gap between what we know and what we don’t know. One of them is called the “default mode network”, which houses our brain’s ability to imagine the future. We do this through two paths — one that creates and predicts the imagined event, and one that gauges whether that imagined event is positive or negative. These simulations take a lot of brainpower, and during periods of ambiguity, we often get swept up in imagining a negative potential future. This rumination diverts our attention and can be exhausting. To put it into perspective, here is how it can show up in your organization:

  • Burnout and stress amongst employees, leading to difficulty in attracting and retaining talent
  • Employees filling in any gaps in communication with rumors and their own version of events
  • Loss of productivity due to diverted attention or over-planning for worst-case scenarios

Another process happening in the brain is “cognitive closure”, which refers to an individual’s desire for a firm answer to a question. This level of desire isn’t the same for everyone, and individuals who have a higher need for cognitive closure are less comfortable navigating ambiguity. They might also be more susceptible to confirmation bias, where they find information that confirms their previously held beliefs. The need for cognitive closure is often amplified by highly stressful situations, such as health and safety concerns. This can show up in your organization in the following ways:

  • Snap decisions that lead to constantly changing priorities and a seemingly endless flow of new projects or approaches
  • Decision paralysis that keeps the organization in limbo
  • Biased and non-inclusive decision-making, potentially harming DE&I efforts

To limit the effects of ambiguity on your team and organization, below are a few key areas leaders should focus on: 

For an executive team making decisions:

  • Be clear on priorities. Ambiguity can be overwhelming and has the potential to divert your attention from the important tasks and decisions ahead. Determining the critical priorities can help you refocus efforts if your attention is drawn away.
  • Scale down your scenario planning. Be pragmatic about which scenarios are most likely, and make fewer predictions about what might come next.
  • Make smaller decisions and get feedback before committing to bigger decisions. This mitigates both decision-paralysis and flip-flopping.
  • Callout what you don’t know yet and identify how to get more information (or whether you can get it at all).

For drivers of organizational culture:

  • Develop a growth mindset. Learn from failures and assume that you can recover quickly by using minimum viable products and pilot programs. Reward the process, not the outcome.
  • Identify the people in the organization that thrive on ambiguity and invite them into decision-making meetings or ask them to speak to and educate wider employee audiences about the specific ways they manage ambiguity (as part of a champions network, for example).

For leaders supporting a team through ambiguity:

  • Be explicit about what any organizational changes or decisions will mean for your team (where you can) so that they don’t spend energy catastrophizing.
  • Use what you know and what you don’t know to create a framework that will make it easy to pivot. Contribute what you know and ask for guidance with what you don’t know – it’s okay to not have all the answers!
  • Communicate with your team by asking questions, checking and validating before making decisions, and playing back information.

As the world of work continues to evolve, navigating ambiguity will play a key role in determining the success of organizations – making it important for leaders to understand the processes that drive it, and how to mitigate its effects. Effectively addressing and combatting ambiguity will help your organization move through the future challenges and unknowns that are sure to crop up.

Gisela is a Managing Consultant with Daggerwing Group. She has a background in psychology, HR and Organizational Development which has fostered her keen interest in why people behave the way they do. She is a lifetime learner of behavioral science and tries to find robust and creative ways to weave it into work. Gisela loves to travel and uses the opportunity to try new foods and take colorful photographs.