Disbelief, anger, joy, happiness – these are just a few of the feelings that one heard during the days following the Brexit referendum. Regardless of whether you are a Brexit-supporter or not, all Europeans are affected by the uncertainty surrounding Britain leaving the EU. In essence, there is no precedent.
On a daily basis in business, this uncertainty shows itself in many facets: will one hire an EU citizen if it remains uncertain whether that person continues having the right to work in the UK? Do you invest today in a plant in the EU if you no longer know how taxes and tariffs will develop? Or do you for this very reason invest in the EU, assuming that with your investment you will have a foot in a 400-million-people market? As business has to carry on, many of these decisions have to be made today.
Research now shows that this degree of uncertainty leads to similar emotional reactions as the actual Brexit vote. Usually, we operate in a high-comfort-zone doing routine tasks with a high degree of confidence of being able to master them – we are highly self-efficacious. The stress created by uncertainty leads to a drop in self-efficacy, sometimes leading to an entire organisation being paralyzed with no one making any decisions anymore and a negative perception of the future ahead.
Obviously, this should not carry on forever. So, what can leaders do? Experience and research point to several areas to increase self-efficacy and have a positive outlook into the future:
First, change has always happened, otherwise we would still be sitting around open fires in our caves. While many may say that some of these changes were prompted by external (namely natural) factors, the standard of living we enjoy today clearly stems to a large extent from the ingenuity and creativity of us as human beings. Thus, if past performance is an indicator for future performance, leaders can take a positive stance towards the future and remind their teams about this.
Second, psychology suggests that states can be used to change perceptions. The feelings created by uncertainty are pre-dominantly defined by past experiences and stored in so-called ‘somatic markers’. While for many uncertainty triggers negative feelings, for some it is also very positive; these people thrive on uncertainty. Thus, a deeper look into our past experiences can help us to analyse our approach to uncertainty in the past and identify experiences of successfully dealing with it. In the end, even for Brexit, many aspects of change are certain and once we identify these, we can start to relax.
Third, neurosciences recommend bringing people in the socio-emotional brain state that is required for reflection and gaining insight. Uncertainty and stress often lock people in the task-oriented brain state in which they efficiently work through their tasks but which does not allow them to learn. In our action-focused world, this may be most difficult for leaders to do. Nevertheless, they are also the people that are best positioned in an organisation to let their teams experience this: they are free to design meetings etc. to allow moving into the desired state.
So, how is this done in practice? Henley Business School Germany has developed the ‘Reflective Development’ approach that focuses on making both cognitive and emotional processes that occur in stressful situations visible. This approach builds on the experiences of psychotherapy and coaching and brings them into the area of self-reflection. Whenever one feels stressed, one can take time out and spend a few minutes asking oneself: ‘What do I think about this situation?’ and ‘How do I feel about this situation?’. Research shows that spending just ten minutes on these questions individually in private increases self-efficacy by more than 50% because people gain more clarity on the issue and feel more relaxed – in short, their view of the future becomes more positive.
Thus, when leaders feel that their team members are concerned with uncertainty, be it in meetings or 1-on-1s, simply asking them the questions above and giving them (and themselves) a few minutes to reflect, will do the job. The extra time invested is clearly worth the effort.
Starting practising Reflective Development today seems like a good investment: the election of Donald Trump shows that plenty more events creating uncertainty are just around the corner.