There is no doubt we are facing an uncertain future. This may not be a bad thing, the future might be great! That’s the trouble with uncertainty, we just don’t know. Unfortunately, we humans just don’t like uncertainty.
Throughout our evolution, to keep us alive, our brains have developed a ‘hard wiring’ which makes us very good at identifying threats. We are continually scanning the environment for both physical and social threats. Whilst few of us are exposed to physical threats in the workplace, most of us are exposed to social threats at some point. These include not being liked, being excluded from the ‘in’ group, losing influence or not being taken seriously. Increased uncertainty in the workplace makes us extra sensitive to social threats. When facing an uncertain future it’s pretty normal to become worried about how changes will impact on our influence, how we contribute and our job security.
The problem with social threats is that they are usually ambiguous and incomplete. To make sense of a possible threat we need to fill in the missing pieces. In doing so, we naturally create stories in our heads that we believe to be true, even if they are incomplete or missing alternative perspectives. Our thoughts become ‘facts’ and, subsequently, turn the heat up on our emotions leading us to become despondent, fearful or angry, etc. When the heat is turned up, it can be tricky for us to respond effectively and in ways we would choose when we are feeling less threatened. This is a major problem for organisations today. As the workforce worries about an uncertain future productivity decreases.
So, what does this look like? Here’s an example. Let’s assume the economic forecasts are down, you’re working hard to help your organisation to continue to be successful, but you’re still worried about keeping your job. Then you find out that you haven’t been invited to an important meeting, which you would have attended in the past. What stories are you now creating in your head?
Here are some common ones: -
- The ‘Political’ Story - I haven’t been invited because people are trying to reduce my influence and manoeuvre me out of the organisation.
- The ‘I’m not Good Enough’ Story - I haven’t been invited because I’m not good at doing my job.
- The ‘Likeability’ Story - I haven’t been invited because people don’t like me.
In this situation if any one of these stories, or one of the many others, start playing in your head then it could lead you to behave in ways that reduce your efficiency and effectiveness which could, in turn, put your job at increased risk. Whilst sometimes these stories may contain an element of truth, the actual reality of the situation may also be that you weren’t invited because people could already see that you were overworked and under pressure. Your colleagues may actually have been trying to help you.
Of course, for you, this may be just a fictional situation, but if you are like most people you are likely to have experienced something similar. It’s just our hard wiring. The problem here is not the stories showing up, they should, it’s our mind doing its protective job. The problem is when we believe the stories to be true, without checking them out, and react in ways which are not productive. For example, if the ‘Political’ story plays in your head you may decide to attend the meeting and dominate it, play politics yourself by manipulating people, or generally start to mistrust people. If the ‘I’m not good enough’ story plays you may start to become very perfectionist and work long hours. If the ‘Likeability’ story is playing you might become very dutiful and compliant or you may take yourself away and stop engaging with people. All of these responses can reduce your effectiveness and make you less productive.
However, there is an alternative. Learning these five skills will enable you to remain effective and thrive in today’s uncertain world.
- Witness your self - By practicing observing our own thoughts, emotions and behaviour, with curiosity and non-judgement, we become better able to notice when our mind is creating unhelpful stories during uncertainty which might lead us to become defensive and less productive.
- Untangle from unhelpful thoughts - When we believe the stories we create, we often get ‘tangled up’ with thoughts. By observing our thoughts, we can catch when we are becoming entangled with unhelpful thoughts and use ‘untangling’ techniques. For example, during uncertainty people often get tangled with the thought “I’m not good enough”. To untangle from this unhelpful thought it is useful to change it to “I’m noticing I am having the thought I’m not good enough”. This simple technique allows us to realise it is just a thought and not necessarily a fact. We can then get back to behaving in a way that enables us to be more productive.
- Move towards difficult emotions - It is natural for uncertainty to make us anxious and a little fearful. However, most of us don’t like feeling these kinds of emotions and tend to take actions to move away from them. These actions can be to become defensive, engage in the comfort of familiar routines, or self-medicate through consuming alcohol or comfort food. All of these can get in the way of us behaving productively. By moving towards the difficult emotions with curiosity and self-compassion, we can hear their messages, learn their wisdom and take the necessary actions with courage.
- Set your compass to your values - As we untangle from unhelpful thoughts and move towards difficult emotions we find we have greater psychological space and flexibility to choose how we want to behave in the face of uncertainty. We can now choose to work in ways that are aligned with our values. This gives our life greater purpose and meaning, which in turn enhances our resilience, well-being and effectiveness.
- Commit to values based actions - Through using these psychological skills we are able to overcome our hard wiring that leads us to habitually react defensively to uncertainty and, instead, respond with consciousness and flexibility. We can then commit to taking actions aligned with our values which will enable us to live through uncertainty in a way that gives our life greater meaning and purpose.
Through our 'Whole Person Growth' work we train people to use these and other psychological skills necessary for thriving during uncertainty.