Living with uncertainty – we’re all experts now

What a year we’ve had! The Brexit referendum, the Trump rollercoaster, a hung Parliament after an eleventh hour general election, the Macron phenomenon in France, volatile markets and currencies, appalling terrorist atrocities and now the Grenfell Tower tragedy. It’s hard to take it all in. So much change, so much disruption and turbulence, in just twelve short months. Uncertainty? It’s the new normal. We’re all experts now in uncertainty.

So what happens now – or next? There have been numerous times over the past year when many of us will have felt compelled to turn off the radio, TV or stop reading news apps because what was on there was just too depressing or confronting. Many have also had to scrap cherished business plans and go back to the drawing board as a result of the economic impacts parachuted upon them by events.

That old British adage of keeping calm and carrying on can seem a pretty remote prospect in turbulent times like these. What’s the point, we say to ourselves? Our political masters might only change the goalposts yet again in the not too distant future, thwarting our carefully thought-through “Plan B”. And then where will we be? It can be easy to lose heart and confidence about planning for the future at a time like this.

With or without recent disruptive events, there’s another reason why we can feel so blue. Nature hasn’t yet adapted to 21st century living. She has given us brains which are hardwired to crave predictability and certainty. Our grey matter doesn’t like change. Change and uncertainty equal threat in the brain department and threats aren’t good when you’ve only got a wooden club and a rock to protect yourself from the dinosaurs out on the savannah.

In her excellent book “Neuroscience for Organisational Change”, Hilary Scarlett looks back to prehistoric times and describes how, way back then, the brain had only one key driver: survival. To stay alive, our brains instinctively and repeatedly scanned the horizon for threats. And that is what they are still doing for us, many millennia later. At a frequency of five times a second. No wonder many of us find it so hard to relax! This persistent “threat state” can mean that we are more vulnerable to anxiety.

It makes perfect sense therefore to try and get in touch with our emotions so that the anxious cavewoman or caveman inside us becomes more of a known quantity. And can learn to calm down. Developing that emotional intelligence about ourselves can also make our lives and our connections with others so much richer and more impactful.

And the more senior a leader gets, the more valuable her/his emotional intelligence becomes. All those people interactions! Helps to be able to relate well to your teams and your clients. All those rapid-fire decisions! Helps to be able to tune into your gut instincts when making those quick choices as well as surfing through the data. Daniel Goleman, surely the grand-daddy of emotional intelligence, describes this gut instinct as our “inner rudder” . He believes that this capacity to sense messages from our internal store of emotional memory forms the core of our self-awareness – the foundation for all emotional intelligence.

One of the psychometric tools that I use with leaders interested in exploring their emotional intelligence is Lumina Emotion. There are a few things which I like about using this tool. First, it gives a clear visual depiction and helpful insight to leaders on why they feel, react and respond to perceived threats in their working environments in the way that they do. Are their internal emotional preferences more oriented towards risk or reward? Or a balance of the two? There’s nothing right or wrong about these orientations and organisations need a mix of both preferences in their leadership teams in order to thrive. Second, the tool recognizes that we adopt different behaviours in different circumstances and actively works with these diverse personae. And third, it thoughtfully identifies 21 relevant competences for emotional intelligence which leaders can measure themselves against and incorporate into their leadership development plans as appropriate.

Years ago I remember a seniorish exec in the media industry telling me that he’d been warned by his HR director that he was unlikely to make the “cut” for a senior leadership position in his organization because he had a relatively high “F” (ie feelings preference) score in a recent psychometric test. “We don’t do emotion”, he was told. I’m so glad that this anti-emotion prejudice from the past is now receding. How can we ignore such a fundamental part of our makeup as human beings?! Emotion fuels our passion and our creativity and our connections with others – essential attributes of effective leaders. We all need to “do” emotion.

We may not be able to directly impact world events and uncertainties, but at least we can get to know the different aspects of our personality which shape our responses and reactions to them. And influence these over time. Addressing our own inner uncertainties – that’s got to be a good first step.

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