Our Brains Were Not Built for This Much Uncertainty

Leaders from all industries are trying to determine what the new normal should look like as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc. Understanding that the human brain was not designed to handle such uncertainty is essential for staying motivated in a world where there are unprecedented levels of uncertainty in all aspects of life. Understanding what your brain can do well and what it can do poorly will help you to determine the strategies that you must use to not only survive, but thrive. The authors offer three strategies that will keep your brain healthy, whether you're trying to stay motivated or engage others.
The working world felt like it was going through rapid and unrelenting changes in client preferences, employee expectations and competitive advantages before the pandemic. Covid-19 was able to change the few things that were relatively predictable like how we worked, what we did with our colleagues, and whether we even wore pants every day. Leaders across all industries are trying to determine the new norm, which is constantly changing under their feet, today.

We need to understand that our brains are not designed for such high levels of uncertainty. This is why we must stay motivated in an age when there is so much uncertainty. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your brain can help you to understand how to survive, as well as what strategies will work best for you.

We have lived in hunter-gatherer groups for most of human history. Individuals had established roles and lives. Although life was sometimes unpredictable, it was generally predictable. The brain has evolved to recognize patterns and build habits. This allows us to automate complex behaviors. Have you ever driven home from work only to find yourself in your driveway with no memories of driving? This is the type of thing we are referring to.

The brain was bred to avoid uncertainty because of the way it is programmed to recognize patterns and habits. A strong sense of threat is when things are less predictable and thus less controllable. You may already be aware that threats can lead to the brain's fight, freeze or flight response. It can also lead to decreased motivation, focus and agility, cooperation, self-control and sense of purpose and meaning. Threat also causes significant impairments to your working memory. You are unable to hold as many ideas in one mind to solve problems and you can't access as much information in your long-term memories when you need it. Because our brains are not designed to deal with uncertainty, threats of it make us less capable.

We have a lot of knowledge about how to make the fear of being threatened less overwhelming thanks to decades of research on human brains and human behavior. These strategies can help you stay motivated and engaged as a leader or to support those in your care.

Realistic optimism is key to setting realistic expectations

Realistic optimism is a powerful concept. It is simple, but it is effective. Believe that all will be well and accept that there may be some bumps along the way. Positive expectations, or as Albert Bandura, the pioneering social psychologist, called it: Having a strong sense self-efficacy and positive expectations is crucial for staying motivated despite setbacks and obstacles. Sometimes people mistakenly believe being positive means that you will succeed quickly or that success will come to you. Gabriele Oettingen, a NYU professor, has demonstrated that unrealistic optimism is a predictor of failure. When you believe things will be easy, it's often hard to prepare for the unexpected.

When you think about the changes and uncertainty the pandemic (and work life generally) will bring, be realistic and optimistic. Believe that you can get there. And acknowledge to yourself as well as others that it is possible to fail. This means that not everything will work right away. This means that if you persevere, things will eventually get better than they are now.

Lift to larger-picture thinking

At different levels of abstraction and concreteness, you can think about almost anything. This level of construal is what psychologists call it. This can be described as the act of voting, which is a high-level construal. It also includes checking a box on forms (low-level).

Our behavior is affected by the level of construal that we place on our actions. High-level construal helps us to feel more motivated and inspired. We are more effective at solving problems and anticipating potential obstacles when we get down to the details. Every level of construction has its benefits. It is best to shift your thinking and to drill down when necessary.

It is easy to get lost in the weeds. Our brains will naturally shift to a lower level when faced with uncertainty or difficulty. These are the times we need to remind ourselves why we do what we do. EY has developed a unique program to assist our employees in this process. It allows EY professionals to clearly communicate their personal purpose and vision using storytelling. They can connect their personal vision and purpose to the work they do every day, allowing them to see the larger picture when they need it. People who have completed the program are more likely to be able stay focused on the important things and to remain resilient when faced with challenges.

Embrace candor

We must communicate openly and constantly with each other to create the new norms and habits. This is not just about providing useful feedback, but also about having daily conversations about what's working and what's not. These are essential for creating a new normal.

This kind of honesty is difficult. When people share their truthful views, they worry about how others will perceive them. They fear that others might not value or welcome their views. They fear that their opinions might not be valued or welcomed. These concerns are valid. However, in reality, people can do far more damage if they operate in an environment lacking transparency and empathy. People will know when you don't tell them everything. The uncertainty that this can cause is unimaginable.

EY created Everyday Candor, a program that encourages open and honest discussion about difficult topics. Everyday Candor is not a workshop-style experience. Instead, it's a team-based toolkit that helps teams identify specific barriers to candor and choose a few new habits to implement together. This work must be done at the team level. Only then can you establish new norms and give support when there is discomfort. Participants ask one another daily: Could you be honest with me? and Can I have your candid perspective? This creates a common language that allows us to work together towards a new normal.


It is difficult to survive in the face of uncertainty and change. We believe that optimism (realistic) is possible if we have the right strategies and tools to help ourselves and others. Keep your eyes on the important things, communicate openly, and remember that it will all work out in the end.