How Much Uncertainty Can You Hold?

by Susie Amundson

On one of our first trips of my beloved and I, we ferried along through the San Juan Islands (in Puget Sound). Mid-way between ports we met a state ferry going in the opposite direction and it was at that point, I bounded to the railing and started enthusiastically waving to the passengers aboard the other ferry.

Well you guessed it. I got the tall one’s dumbfounded look like “where did you come from, goofball?”

But he already knew that. A tiny town in North Dakota. Where every kid knew the time that the afternoon freight train rolled through – and yes, we were often bicycled down to the tracks with waves ready.

Perhaps it’s the same phenomenon that draws me to Ravn, the commuter flight between Anchorage and Homer. Our house happens to be on the flight path about 9 miles out from the Homer Airport. And every evening around 7:10 (weather pending) the Ravn plane with its bright flashing beacon can be spied in the distant sky as it approaches.

And whether I’m in the kitchen washing dishes or sitting at the dining table enjoying dinner, its approach immediately, and always (and I mean always) evokes this soothing sensation through my body. If my body could talk, it would see the flashing light of the plane and say, “Ahhhhh, there you are.”

And then I feel relaxed. Warm. Calm. With a deep knowing that amidst all of life’s frenzy, there is a rhythm, a routine, a pattern. There is Ravn Air, sort of on time.

Now, I bet you are imagining the next frame. Me running outside and waving. Right? OK, I’ll just leave you guessing on that one.

It’s Certainty. 

As you will recall from past posts, we are mammals. This isn’t news. And whether we are in the workplace, home, or in community, phylogenetically we all present with safety and social needs. Yes, everyone (unless you’re a toad or another amphibian).

And so in rolls Certainty. It’s one of our basic social needs as a mammal.

Simply put, it’s our sense of confidence of knowing what’s lying ahead. It offers us a reasonable amount of security about our future. And sometimes as in the case of my Ravn Air, it’s an experience of a familiar pattern that leads to a safe, predictable picture of the world.

How Much Uncertainty Can Your Neurophysiology Tolerate?  

We can assume there’s a wide continuum about how much. Certainty is needed for individual mammals. Some folks need a lot of Certainty in their jobs and lives to feel secure. Others will need less. Others will say they don’t need much but then really do. Living and working around that said mammal can be . . . difficult. You know who you are.

Alyssa is a proposal writer who really enjoys the flexibility and creativity of her work. Her writing tasks hold a mild amount of uncertainty that spark both her curiosity and interest. Every client’s proposal is new and fresh and perhaps a differing topic than the last proposal. This newness is just enough to energize her to solve problems effectively and be pro-active. Her neurobiology feels calm, alert, and engaged with this level of uncertainty.

Other parts of Alyssa’s job scream with high levels of uncertainty and that’s when she has a different neurobiological response. A client changes his mind and flip-flops on strategy after the proposal is written. Her boss realizes that the due date changed to this afternoon and half the proposal is undone. Alyssa’s teammates drop the ball on their work for the deadline.

OK, we know what’s going on here. Alyssa’s perception of uncertainty is peaking. Her neurophysiology moves into the RED ZONE. She’s experiencing a stress response sidetracking her glucose and oxygen to the noticeable physiological reaction in her body instead of her brain. And unfortunately, her performance and focus are now plummeting.

It’s when our perceived level of uncertainty is screaming loudly that we panic and make bad decisions.

But Life And Work Are Full Of Uncertainty 

Absolutely. And we also know that when we lessen some of the high levels of uncertainty in organizations, it makes for a more fertile culture for staff engagement, productivity, and better working relationships. (Remember the Earthworms?) Home life works this way too. Anytime you can gear down high levels of needless uncertainty, you and your organization will perform better.

Tips for Enriching Your Organization’s Culture

  • Share big picture plans so everyone knows what direction the business or nonprofit is heading.
  • When the Leadership Team makes a decision, get very clear on the talking points.
  • Over-communicate with clear messages using different methods and differing times.
  • Use team protocols and pathways to increase efficiency and certainty. They are roadmaps not concrete streets.
  • Get clear on people’s roles, responsibilities, and authorities (the latter being what and where they can they make decisions). It’s highly stressful knowing your responsibilities while being uncertain about the authorities to match them.
  • When organizational changes are being considered, involve more staff in order to gain more buy-in and investment.
  • When organizational changes are rolled out, hold a meeting to share and discuss altogether so everyone can understand ‘what does this mean for us?’

There’s No Denying Certainty

We all need a bit of confidence of knowing what’s lying ahead in our lives. As an organizational consultant, some leaders share with me they like uncertainty. Oh, you get the irony of this – they are leading (as in charge of) the organization. Wink, most leaders like certainty too.

As for me, my neurobiology thrives with certain patterns and clarity in life and work. And I bet yours does too. It’s because we are mammals and need to honor ourselves in that way.

As for waving to the Ravn plane? Well, I’m happily waving from the inside.

May the incoming light brighten your spirits and days.

Susie