Ep 31: The Upside Of Uncertainty

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In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explore why most of us resist uncertainty and how learning to embrace it can transform our leadership and life.


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Bridgette: Well, hello, everybody, and welcome to the Resilient Leadership Podcast, where everything that we talk about is aimed at helping you to lead with a greater sense of calm, clarity, and conviction, even in the midst of heightened anxiety. And my name is Bridgette Theurer, and, as always, I’m joined by my good friend, my co-host, my collaborator, Irvine Nugent. And, Irvine, our listeners can’t see this, but you’re wearing a wonderful blue sweater and you’re rocking it.

Irvine: Well, thank you. Oh, I appreciate that. Oh, that’s always nice to hear. Well, thank you. Yeah, I’m just returned from, I’ve been on the road for about two and a half weeks, so I woke up this morning and I can say it was by design, but I did look at it and I said, oh, I like that blue. So, I wear a lot of blue, I think it’s a good color for me.

Bridgette: It’s perfect. It brings out your eyes.

Irvine: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. So, Bridgette, I’m excited about the topic today. Introduce it for us, because it is something I struggle with all of the time.

Bridgette: Well, we called it the upside of uncertainty for a reason, because I think it’s a bit counterintuitive. We did a session on the upside of anxiety, also counterintuitive, and we just really wanted to do a deeper dive on this particular aspect of life. I think that for most of us, it has a bit of a negative connotation. Not everybody looks at uncertainty in the same way, by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it can be a challenge. I will speak for myself. It’s a challenge for me. Right now, I’m facing into some uncertainty in some really important areas of my life, and I notice that, that can be a bit of a challenge.

But truth be told, I think this has always been a challenge for me, finding ways to deal with uncertainty, it hasn’t been a comfortable journey. So, doing the podcast helps me to learn more. So, Irvine, what about you? You, kind of, hinted at it already, but how would you characterize your relationship with uncertainty?

Irvine: It’s interesting, as I think about this. I think my self-perception is that I don’t like uncertainty and that I have trouble sitting in a space where I don’t know what’s happening, I like to have things worked out. And yet, someone recently said to me, you actually do that very well. And I’m thinking, oh, I never really thought that would’ve been a strength. And then as I think about my childhood and certain things, I think listeners know that my family encountered, as a child, there was a pub bombing, and we lost our home and there was a lot of movement. So, I think part of my life has been with uncertainty about I don’t know what’s coming next.

And I think my father was a great model in that, my father always had this great confidence, and I think I’m getting some of that now, but I certainly recognize that it feels uncomfortable to sit in a space and not know what’s going to happen next. And I know that I acutely feel that at times.

Bridgette: Interesting. It’s like your life experience has built this into a strong muscle for you, you’re effective at it. But you don’t necessarily like it any better.

Irvine: No. I think I’m pretty good at it, but, boy, I don’t like it. I don’t like sitting in that uncertainty.

Bridgette: And it’s funny listening to you, because I think that’s how I am. I’ve dealt with uncertainty my whole life, losing my parents young, for example, and not knowing how to navigate without them and so forth. I think I have a good, strong muscle, but I would like to learn how to embrace it more because I still don’t really enjoy it, right? I prefer closure to uncertainty. And so, for our listeners, wherever you fall on that continuum, undoubtedly there’s some uncertainty that you’re dealing with. Because here in the United States, we have some big questions we’re asking, right? Are we headed into a recession?

There have been some huge layoffs or significant layoffs, I wouldn’t say huge, at some major companies. There’s a conversation, a question around, are there going to be more layoffs? And whatever these questions are at large, they, sort of, can create a generalized sense of uncertainty. But then, as individuals, we have our own unknowns, at any point in time. And so, for those of you listening right now, what are your unknowns? Maybe you have a question around the future of your career, you’re, sort of, at a crossroads and you’re not sure what the path is, or maybe there’s an impending organizational change and they’ve been talking about it and talking about it, they haven’t done it.

And it’s like, when are they going to do it? And how is it going to affect me? Or maybe it’s just more closer to home, maybe there’s an important relationship for you that’s up in the air. So, whatever the case may be, whatever those unknowns are, our hope is that this conversation will shed some light, maybe provide some new insight or some new ideas for how you might lean into those uncertainties. And what I hope to get out of this is that I will, maybe get closer to embracing uncertainty more so than I do now. So, with all of that said, let’s start with the neuroscience, because I think there’s some fascinating neuroscience behind the brain and uncertainty that I think provides some useful insights, though. Irvine, why don’t you get us started with that?

Irvine: Yeah. So, it’s fascinating, I think we have mentioned many, many times in other episodes that part of the prerogative of the brain is to keep us safe. And part of safety is being able to predict what’s going to happen next. And so, the brain is always trying to create permutations and create, kind of, patterns between events and data. Taking in all of that and trying to, kind of, predict. And when we have uncertainty, when that prediction is not able to be made, then it comes across as a threat. Because we’re not sure, we don’t have certainty, then it may end up being threatening to us, we’re not quite sure. And our brain loves to conserve resources.

When everything is safe, when we know what’s happening next, the brain can rest. But when there’s uncertainty, the brain has to use more resources, and, of course, that’s something that doesn’t like to do. So, all of that is saying that, basically, as human beings, that whenever we face uncertainty, unable to predict that, in other words, our anxiety increases. Now, there’s an amazing research that came out in 2016, we’re actually talking about this. It involves some subjects, and here’s what the experiment said. They were told that 50% of you may get an electric shock, and then the other half were told that they would receive a shock, we were actually going to receive it.

And so, what happened was they did some measures of levels of anxiety, et cetera, around people. And what happened was you would think that those who were certain to get a shock would actually have more anxiety, et cetera, but that wasn’t the case. It actually was those who had the 50% chance. And when you think about it, that’s really interesting because you’re entering a moment of uncertainty. So, if you’re certain that something is going to happen, then what do you start doing? You start preparing for it, okay, I’m going to be shocked, this is going to be painful, et cetera, et cetera.

But then if you enter uncertainty, well, I may, I may not. What’s going to happen? When is, and you have all of this questioning, and, of course, it’s enduring all of this extra energy and uncertainty and knowing how to prepare, should you prepare, should you not? And so, therefore, it’s understandable that it invokes more anxiety. So, Bridgette, I know we talked about this research, what did it bring up within you?

Bridgette: I get it. I can just imagine myself being one of the study participants, and I’d want to know, and then I’d just start getting my preparations underway. And when I think about it in the workplace, I think that there are some clear examples of where a certain bad outcome is better than an uncertain one. Let’s say financially as an entrepreneur, as a business owner, your company has had a bad quarter, you know this. You also know the factors that contributed to it. And so, you go into a problem-solving mode with your team to figure out how to circumvent that, or not circumvent it, but how to put in place new measures to ensure a better quarter going forward. Okay.

But that might be more comfortable, in some ways, than not knowing at all what’s around the corner and not knowing at all how it’s going to affect performance. I can get my head around that. Or think about your boss. What if you report to somebody who’s consistently irritable, right. Not a bad guy, maybe he or she, bad guy or girl, maybe he or she is a competent manager, but just, kind of, on a consistent basis, a little bit of a dour, irritable person. That might be less stressful than reporting to somebody who’s very inconsistent and is, kind of, all over the place; one day they’re buoyant and they’re, kind of, like, yeah, easy going.

And then the next day they’re easily triggered and provoked and they seem quite uptight. You don’t know how to predict the behavior and the reactions of that manager. I can see that being more stressful than the known outcome of the consistent manager, right? So, to me, it makes a lot of sense. But what else? I think there might be some other bits and parts of this neuroscience that we could share that help us understand this at an even deeper level.

Irvine: Yeah. So, there is actually, what’s interesting, there is actually, now; insight into what exactly is happening there. One of the things about neuroscience is mapping in the brain where certain activities occur. And actually we have uncovered, or scientists have recovered the place in the brain that deals with uncertainty. There is a little place, and it is called the coeruleus, the locus coeruleus, the LC for short. And it comes into action whenever we have to deal with uncertainty. And one of the things that it does whenever we detect uncertainty is that a neurotransmitter is released, and that neurotransmitter is called norepinephrine.

And what norepinephrine is used for is it actually revs up the engine, prepares us for fight or flight, brings, and we’ve talked about this, brings in this whole action that prepares us, is it flight? Is it flight? How are we going to respond to this? So, it puts us on edge. It actually makes us feel a little weird or edgy, quite rightly. And that only happens when there’s uncertainty. So, whenever we don’t feel uncertain, whenever we know something’s going to happen, actually that neurotransmitter is not released in exactly the same quantity. And so, that’s why we are actually able to deal with this uncertainty and plan for it in a way that we don’t get when we’re not sure of what’s going to happen. And that’s really why we feel this unease, this edginess that happens whenever we’re not able to predict what’s happening next.

Bridgette: That, to me, is actually very comforting, because it helps me understand why my brain and nervous system works the way that it does, that there’s a rhyme and a reason to it. I know I’m not going to say it correctly, Irvine, but Norephrine, did I say it close?

Irvine: Norepinephrine.

Bridgette: Norepinephrine. There we go. So, if I’m understanding it correctly, it’s being released in the brain to help us deal with multiple possible outcomes, we don’t know what’s going to happen, right?

Irvine: Totally. Yes.

Bridgette: And somehow this allows our brain to get ready for lots of different possibilities and, of course, it feels uncomfortable. It’s, kind of, like a jittery feeling almost. And, to me, that makes a lot of sense, there’s such wisdom in the way we’re naturally wired.

Irvine: Absolutely. So, then, Bridgette, if that’s the case then, and our episode is about the upside of uncertainty. Let’s move to, maybe some strategies that we can put in place for dealing with periods of uncertainty in our life. What comes to mind for you when you think about that?

Bridgette: Well, the very first thing comes to mind is what you just shared with everybody, which is remember the LC. Next time you find yourself feeling on edge, jittery, uncomfortable in the face of uncertainty, remember that it’s your brain and your nervous system preparing you. And, to me, I find that incredibly helpful, right? In other words, I can relax into the jitters because I know they’re there for a reason, and I know they’re serving a greater purpose. So, that’s what I’m going to start practicing. Another strategy that I find helpful is reframing the way we’re looking at uncertainty, right? So, we’re always putting a frame around things.

And you and I tend to frame uncertainty in a more negative way, but there are positive ways to frame it that are equally valid. So, for example, one could look at uncertainty as the seedbed of innovation. Nothing really gets innovated, truly; until there’s some uncertainty in the mix. Didn’t the pandemic teach us this, if nothing else? Look at what happened. We came up with vaccines in record time. But we created virtual work environments that are still in place today, so much happened. That would’ve never been the case had it not been for this uncertainty that was swirling all around globally even. That’s one way to frame it. And, hey, we can handle that and we can innovate and we can create new things in the midst of uncertainty. And in fact, we’re actually wired to do it.

Irvine: Absolutely. Yeah.

Bridgette: So, that’s one way to frame it, but, Irvine, that’s not the only way to reframe it. What’s another way to reframe?

Irvine: Another way that comes to mind, for me, would be, kind of, looking at it as a learning opportunity; now, I know that seems like an, oh my god, such pie in the sky stuff, this is a learning opportunity for you to take. But really, there are some great evidence for this, some research from Daeyeol Lee, who’s a professor at Yale University, and talks about in the midst of uncertainty, there is greater neuroactivity in the prefrontal cortex. And we know that’s the executive function of our brain. And so, therefore, we’re primed for learning. It’s amazing. So, in other words, we face uncertainty, the prefrontal cortex is activated.

And so, what this is, it’s a learning, we’re going to learn from this. And this is an opportunity to do that, of learning. And a client comes to mind on this, part of the coaching that I do is with presence and speaking skills and presentation skills. And I had a client who, they were a very good speaker, but there was an area of speaking that they detested and they hated. And this was the question time. They hated it. And as we explored this a little bit more, well, what is it? Why is this? And it was the uncertainty. They said, I just have this reoccurring imagination that I am going to be asked difficult questions, and I don’t like not to be able to prepare. And what if I’m asked a question that I don’t know, and what if I’m stumped?

And so, this was really painful for them, this uncertainty. And as we worked through this, part of the learning that this person actually, initially they thought that everything had to be totally practiced and rehearsed, et cetera. One of the things they learned, that they were actually very good in spontaneous thought. And when things happened that actually they pulled from within themselves, answers that even they were surprised at. And they were like, where did that come from? And so, part of that learning was that this uncertainty was actually an opportunity for me to play a little bit and not get so uptight, and just to trust that that an answer will come, and if an answer doesn’t come, it’s okay to say, I don’t know.

So, you can just see that uncertainty causing confusion and then moving into, actually I can be playful with this. This is a way for me to play with the information that I have and trust that something will come up.

Bridgette: Boy, that’s such a lovely example, because they uncovered a strength they didn’t know they had, in the uncertainty. And we don’t, typically, move out of our comfort zones unless we have to, or we’re pushed. But in there, we, typically, do make new discoveries about what we’re made of. That’s so cool. I love that.

Irvine: Yeah. Yeah. So, what else comes to mind, Bridgette, when we think about strategies for embracing moments and periods of uncertainty in our life?

Bridgette: Well, I will share two others that seem to, at times, be helpful, for me, and for some of my clients. And one is really identifying our certainties. In other words, really explicitly naming what isn’t going to change, what isn’t up in the air?

Irvine: Oh, I like that. Yeah.

Bridgette: When you’re facing into a pretty big uncertainty, it feels so disruptive that it seems like the rug has been pulled out from under us and everything’s up in the air. But even with the, kind of, uncertainty that can be devastating, like an illness, a diagnosis that is just shocking. Our world spins and everything feels unknown, right? And yet, if we stop to think about it, so much is going to stay the same. And it can be helpful to really name those things. And then I think the other one is a practice that I call capture your questions, because in the unknown, when we’re facing uncertainty, we got a lot of questions and we don’t have the answers. And they can go round and round in our head and really, kind of, form a bit of a clog in there, because it’s circular thinking.

We’re asking questions, but we’re not getting anywhere with them. And so, I ask people often, tell me, what are the questions you’re asking yourself these days about X. Whatever X is. X is that uncertain career. X is that upcoming organizational change? What are the questions you’re asking? Let’s get them down on paper, and then let’s have a plan for how you might begin to make some progress with some of those questions. And that seems to have a calming effect, you know? So, those are some strategies that came to my mind. How about you, Irvine? Is there a strategy that’s coming to your mind?

Irvine: So, it’s not so much an extra strategy, but I really, really love this idea of capturing your questions and maybe taking that a step further about that and just noticing the nature of those questions. What type of questions are you asking? And to really reflect, are these questions adding to my anxiety? And if they are, is there a way of reframing those questions that might actually be more empowering for us and more generative? So, I’m thinking of a situation we’ve actually mentioned before, we’re entering, kind of, a period in certain industries of layoffs. Actually, I was just talking to a friend of mine who is going through this themselves in Ireland, actually. They work for Microsoft, and Microsoft is letting a lot of people off worldwide.

So, their workspace is absolutely filled with uncertainty, at the moment, about what’s going to happen. And when you think about it, there are no two more powerful words in the workplace than possible layoffs, people take that and they run with it. But think of some of the questions that you can get into yourself when you hear that. Am I next? What if I’m next? Or when’s this decision going to be made? Is it tomorrow? Is it the day after? What if I can’t find another job in this market? There are a lot of IT companies, Twitter, et cetera. A lot of them are laying off people.

So, there are a lot of people out there looking for, what if I can’t find another job? And so, each of those questions, you can just feel the anxiety in each of those questions. So, maybe we could begin to reframe some of those questions which are more empowering and less stress generating. So, say for example, what if I’m next? Could be reframed to, if I’m let go, what resources can I draw upon now? And that other, when’s this decision going to be made? Could be reframed to, what can I do to be prepared in the event of a layoff? And then the third question is, what if I can’t find another job in this market? Could be reframed to what do I really want? And what are some initial steps that I might take to uncover those opportunities?

And I think in all of those questions, we have moved to wallowing in the uncertainty to actually taking some real practical action. And I think part of that, the research that I’ve read anyway, whenever we feel empowered, whenever we feel we have power over a situation, it lowers our anxiety. And part of what’s happening in those questions is we’re moving from a sense of powerlessness to a sense of taking action. And actually in the midst of this uncertainty, I can actually do something practical and helpful.

Bridgette: That is so helpful. I don’t think we, typically, consider when we are asking questions in our own head we’re often not paying attention to is that an empowering question?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And if it’s not, then let me find a better way to ask a question. Because to your point, I will feel a lot calmer if I feel like I have some power and some efficacy here in this situation. So, that’s really cool. I love that.

Irvine: Cool. Well, as always, Bridgette, we try and finish with a practice that we can turn to that really brings summary to what we’ve been talking about. What comes to mind when you think about the upside of uncertainty and a practice that we could use?

Bridgette: Well, I’m going to call this practice using your eyes to combat tunnel vision. And it’s going to take me a minute to explain it, and it’s based on some fascinating research about how our eyes actually can hold the key to moving through uncertainty and threat. And so, when we’re anxious, we get anxious when we’re facing into uncertainty, usually what happens, and this is just part of the threat response, our focus, our vision narrows, right? And so, we, kind of, get tunnel vision and that’s there for purpose, because from a survival perspective, that’s designed to keep us focused squarely on an immediate threat.

And yet, it can also get in our way, because if it’s not an immediate threat, usually with uncertainty, it’s not an immediate threat right then and there, or we don’t even know how to deal with it. So, what do we do? How do we get out of that tunnel vision and expand what we’re looking at? And so, research has shown that lateral eye movement, and this is very interesting, even if you’re just sitting at your desk, if you lift up your gaze and you move your eyes laterally, that, that movement tells your amygdala to calm down.

And the reason that is so is because when you are in forward movement of any kind, forward action, whether it’s walking, whether it’s cycling, whether it’s running; your vision is naturally moving laterally so that you don’t trip and fall, you’re scanning the environment. And it’s as if it’s telling the amygdala, I’m going to move into this, right? If you combine that lateral eye movement with a walk, like get up and move and actually start to have some forward momentum with your body, the combination is very, very powerful. It starts to tell our brains and our nervous system, I got this; I’m leaning into this friction, right? I’m confident, I’m capable. And it sets up a different, kind of, experience for us than just sitting at our desks narrowly focusing on is there a layoff coming? Which just gets us more and more worked up.

So, I started practicing that this morning, I was just sitting there and I remembered this, and I lifted, kind of, up my gaze. I was looking down, tunnel vision at my computer and I moved my eyes laterally, comfortably, and then I got up and walked for a few minutes and did the same, just inside my home. And I felt different, I have to say. Now, was that the placebo effect? I don’t think so, because the research, and if anybody wants to look it up, Dr. Andrew Huberman at Stanford, he’s the guy that I was listening to him talk about this research. It’s fascinating, and it makes a whole lot of sense from a neuroscience point of view. So, there you have it.

Irvine: Oh, I have to try that. I’m totally fascinated by this. I’ve not heard that before. And, yeah, I love that. I love, kind of, exploring different exercises and its potential impact.

Bridgette: Well, play with it.

Irvine: I will. I will.

Bridgette: We’ll report back at our next podcast. We’ll see how the practice has borne fruit.

Irvine: We’ll see how the practice is going. Well, Bridgette, thank you so much. This has been such a fascinating discussion, and I’m sure that many of our listeners, as they deal with moments of uncertainty in their lives, hopefully, they found some value in this. As always, thank you for listening, and please feel free to share this episode for someone that you think might really benefit. And, Bridgette, thank you so much, I appreciate it.

Bridgette: Irvine, great being with you as always. Take care, everybody.

Irvine: Take care. Bye now.

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