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Why does uncertainty feel so painful?
The uncertainty we all feel due to Covid-19 is gigantic in scale and enormous in emotional impact. As my seven-year-old might say, it’s “ginormous.” Even the most resilient among us are getting knocked on our behinds. Why is this?
Brain science provides an answer. Here’s David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute: “Uncertainty registers (in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex) as an error, gap, or tension: something that must be corrected before one can feel comfortable again. That is why people crave certainty. Not knowing what will happen next can be profoundly debilitating because it requires extra neural energy.”
It isn’t you. It isn’t me. It’s our brains!
Why “hunkering down” won’t make anything or anyone better
One way many leaders respond to uncertainty is by “hunkering down'” or “keeping their heads down.” The rationale goes something like this “I don’t know what’s going to happen next, and it’s not in my hands, so what can I do?”
The implied answer: do nothing. Why don’t we ask the same question, not with resignation, but with curiosity. What can I do?
Three conversations that can calm people’s brains by creating pockets of certainty
If uncertainty accelerates the brain’s threat response system, what slows it down? In leadership, conversations are the center of the universe, so let’s start there. Here are three conversations you can initiate to calm others’ nervous systems:
1. “How we will decide”
Say you’re the President of a university. Everyone wants to know what will happen in the fall. Will the school be open? If so, how will that work? If not, what does this mean for students, faculty and staff? It will be a few months before you can answer these questions, so you may be tempted to stay quiet until then. Here’s an alternative: have a conversation with people about how you will decide what to do in the fall. Walk them through the criteria you will use, the impacts you will consider, and the facts that will come into play. This will create a pocket of certainty in people’s brains.
If you haven’t thought any of this through yet, start today. If you need to involve others—like a faculty council or planning task force—to create the criteria, initiate those conversations now.
2. “What happens next”
This conversation is about time. What are the key dates in the coming weeks and months that you want everyone in the university to know about? What will happen on each date? What won’t happen on each date? The clarity that people experience in learning this will register in their brains as a form of certainty.
Make sure everyone is clear. Create visuals. Invite questions. Take the time to explain things. Remember: understanding and the certainty it brings lives in the eyes of the beholder.
3. “What we can offer”
This conversation is most valuable if you’re a level or more below the top of the organization. Let’s say you’re a VP in a large company, and you’re waiting for more senior leaders to tell you what’s next. What can you and your team do until then?
Reframe the moment. What you’ve called “waiting” is actually a hint from the universe to take the initiative. Gather your team together and come up with a project that builds on its strengths and adds real value. Build this into an offer that you can make to senior leaders. If they accept, you’ve just positioned your team well. If not, you’ve exercised the thinking, collaborating and doing muscles that otherwise would atrophy.
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