Uncertainty fatigue is tanking productivity, creativity, and critical thought.

What should leaders do about it?

A consistent theme in my conversations with leaders and employees recently is an uptick in stress due to unrelenting uncertainty. Many wonder why suddenly, things seem worse, but to me, it makes sense.

Over the summer, we became accustomed to a certain level of uncertainty. But now, with Fall arriving, uncertainty has increased.

  • Kids are going back to school or starting school online — but how school will look in the next weeks and months is uncertain.
  • Parents are taking students back to college, or not — but how long colleges stay open in uncertain.
  • Flu season is around the corner — how that will affect elderly family members and those at-risk is uncertain.
  • The election is looming and is, by definition, uncertain. Nobody knows the outcome, and no matter your affiliation, that uncertainty is stressful.
  • Hurricanes, floods, civil unrest, and concerns about systemic racism and the economy stoke the fires of uncertainty.

Our brains like a predictable environment. None of this seems predictable. The unrelenting nature of our unpredictable environment is creating uncertainty fatigue.

We perceive uncertainty perceive as unsafe and potentially painful. Whether the situation is predictably positive or predictably negative, our brains prefer something familiar to something unfamiliar.

Our hardwired reaction to feeling unsafe is to protect ourselves and avoid pain. One of the most disastrous effects of chronic high stress is that it blocks critical and creative thought. In other words, the part of the brain responsible for critical thinking is busy dealing with the perceived risk of an unpredictable situation.

Uncertainty fatigue makes this reaction worse. Our brains don’t multitask; they focus on only one thing at a time and then have to switch to the next task. This task-switching not only impedes productivity, but it also creates a paralyzing loop of anxiety when the uncertainty isn’t momentary but rather a constant state.

If we work and think best when we feel secure, how do leaders counteract the stress caused by long periods of uncertainty?

Leaders combat uncertainty fatigue by being predictable

The most significant gift leaders can give their people is the security of being predictable in their reactions, support, and resources. Over and over, my research shows people will dig in and work in an environment where they feel valued, supported, and connected to the organization’s mission. Right now, this is even more important. As a leader, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I communicating that my people are doing a good job (or showing progress in a difficult time)?
  • Am I asking about the barriers to their performance
  • Am I delivering the support and resources my people need to do a good job?
  • Am I predictable in my response to challenges and successes?
  • Do my people know how their efforts support our mission?

One more thought…

If your organization has regularly scheduled all-hands meetings, annual conferences, employee resource group meetings, sales kick-offs, awards, or incentive events — those are predictable events that people value and an essential way they feel connected to the mission. Don’t cancel your event! Find a way to deliver the content and connection in a virtual environment.

Suppose you are concerned about whether your people are feeling more stressed and are looking for strategies to increase productivity by addressing uncertainty. In that case, I’d love to have a conversation about using my assessment tool to pinpoint opportunities to reduce job stress and increase performance. Contact us to start the conversation.

You can find resources to reduce stress caused by uncertainty in my new book as well as my e-book on Coping with Uncertainty


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