When uncertainty is a good thing

Published on Feb 6, 2024

by Dr. Duck

Emoclew ot 4202! That’s opposite for welcome to 2024, of course!

We live in uncertain times. That’s one hell of an overstatement…sorry, that’s opposite for understatement!

In the past few years, we had a pandemic that locked us in our homes, massive inflation and cost of living challenges, new wars starting abroad, and reminders of existential threats: nuclear war, climate change, and artificial intelligence taking over everything.

Is it any wonder you sometimes get stressed?

But if you are here reading this, it means you got through all of it. You’re still here and welcome to 2024 where you can either enter the year with a list of worries or jump in and embrace the uncertainty!

I often tell people that uncertainty is anxiety’s best friend. Ambiguity or ill-defined threats have a way of preoccupying our mind. Mysterious figures—including those ones in our mind—simulate our deep primal fears about being the dinner of another predator. Today, for many, this mechanism is bored and goes seeking modern threats to worry about, including those ambiguous existential threats from the future or concerns about work, family and health.

When organisations go through significant change, it’s common for people to become fearful. The idea of change is an opportunity but it is also a risk. You can be placed in a new area of the business, lose your job or simply find your favourite projects shelved.

During periods of uncertainty, it is common for people managers and human resource departments to pave the way gently, providing regular updates and responding to queries to put minds at ease. Uncertainty, in some ways, is seen as an unpleasant situation that needs clarity, support and clear navigation.

But are we so certain that uncertainty is a bad thing?

Psychological research indicates in many instances, experiencing the feeling of uncertainty is not only necessary but functional, so long as we manage our response to it appropriately. Here are a few interesting findings:

Should leaders display certainty in the face of uncertainty? Employees generally report preferring their leaders to be open and honest about their uncertainty. However, staff also report lower confidence in their leaders who declare they are uncertain! It’s one of those damned if you do / don’t situations.

However, there is a subtle compromise. Leaders who acknowledge uncertain times (‘it is uncertain’) rather than inferring they are confused (‘I am uncertain’), are viewed more favourably. That is, staff prefer their leaders to be honest about a situation confident they can navigate it.

Uncertainty is not always stressful. After all, uncertainty can lead to surprises or curiosity that increase our interest and engagement. This is why there is a such a demand for mystery novels and television shows. It can also motivate us to explore complex problems to find solutions.

Uncertainty can improve memory. We assume that training material and concepts should be presented in a simplified manner to help with interpretation and memory retention. However, uncertain, or confusing information can be more memorable. This is because uncertainty can force us to engage with information more actively and, therefore, more deeply encode it in our memory. 

Uncertainty may increase our openness. When we are certain, we close our minds to new ideas and possibilities. We may even actively seek to prove our pre-existing beliefs. However, when we acknowledge our uncertainty on a topic, we are more open to listening to new ideas that help resolve our confusion.

Uncertainty can ultimately lead to improved decisions. So long as you don’t get caught in an analysis paralysis trap, accepting uncertainty can lead you to seek information so that your decision-making is optimised. Furthermore, if you have actively invested in analysing the options of a decision, you are more likely to commit to the decision and action.

Uncertain rewards are more stimulating. Behaviourists have known this for decades. Unexpected, random rewards tend to motivate individuals more so than a periodic, expected reward. The idea is that if you know your effort is going to be rewarded but not exactly when, your interest persists. A surprise gift, acknowledgment, or job promotion will excite more than a periodic performance review.


Key points to think about as we head into 2024:

  • Uncertainty keeps us on our toes, and gently encourages us to stay connected and informed. It is the oxygen that keeps businesses successful and teams innovating to stay relevant.
  • The experience of stress in the face of uncertainty is at least partly due to our perception of the stress. When uncertainty is viewed as an opportunity, chance to grow or challenge, we view it closer to excitement.
  • Nobody wants a leader who constantly expresses uncertainty and worry about their decisions but acknowledging the uncertainty of a situation might just display your recognition of reality rather than overconfidence, which can be perceived negatively.
  • Shake up your own routine and the structure at work. Some level of certainty and predictability is important for smooth operations but not to the point where all the variety has been replaced with production.
  • Avoid self-certainty, which is a killer for your own personal development. Accepting areas of uncertainty could be indicators of promising things to develop in 2024.

Looking forward to the uncertainty (well, not completely) of 2024!

!Tseb eht lla

Dr Duck

by Dr. Duck

My name is Nicholas Duck. I am a Doctor of Psychology with an interest in psychology in the workplace, film and television, the media, and the fields of emotion, unconscious, and motivation psychology. You can contact me at nick@opposite.com.au.

I am founder and principal consultant at Opposite, a consultancy that takes these applied psychological findings and helps workplaces improve.

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