We humans are designed to work and play well with others, as Matthew Lieberman so eloquently wrote in his new book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.
Thanks to the fMRI technology, a type of brain scanner that collects images of oxygen use inside an individual’s brain, Dr. Lieberman and other researchers have been able to observe brains of live humans as well as conduct experiments.
Among their many findings, their work shows that people vary in their ability to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity. The differences seem to relate to genetics, personality, past experiences and ideology.
Their research also provides insights into how these differences affect us in adapting to uncertainty and ambiguity. Uncertainty and ambiguity are hallmarks of the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world that now engulfs us.
Recently, while listening to a lecture on uncertainty and ambiguity and its impact on the brain, I realized the enormous work implications for my clients and me.
Because we’re constantly dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity both inside and outside our organizations, we can better manage and lead change if we’ve got the right mindset and skills. (Even though we’re genetically predisposed to crave certainty, we can learn to adapt and cope with uncertainty.)
This means, assuming technical skills being somewhat comparable, my clients and I should staff projects with individuals who embrace the VUCA world, or at least don’t hide from it, as opposed to individuals who may experience melt-downs.
Granted this approach may suggest Darwin more than today’s politically correct leaders, but it’s a competitive world out there.
So without further ado, here’s my list of top 10 traits for collaborators to help you navigate through uncertainty and ambiguity to get better results.
1. Be positive. That is, see the glass as half full, not half empty. Positive-oriented individuals are more open to new ideas and possibilities and are more creative, as explained in David Rock’s book, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Avoiding Distractions, Regaining Focus and Working Smarter All Day Long.
2. Have medium to high self-esteem. People with low self-esteem who experience social rejection under ambiguous settings are more likely to blame themselves and release more cortisol, the stress hormone. (See Self-esteem moderates neuroendocrine and psychological responses to interpersonal rejection by Ford and Collins, The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2010.)
3. Have low anxiety. People who are more anxious tend to interpret ambiguous information—including facial expressions—as more threatening. (See Neurocognitive Mechanisms of Anxiety: An Integrative Account by Sonia Bishop in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2007.)
4. Stay calm and carry on. Those who regulate their emotions can avoid flying off the handle and help others stay calm. They also can interpret for themselves and others ambiguous situations positively, or at least neutrally, which also helps them and others cope better, as described in Your Brain at Work.
5. Be more liberal than conservative on the political spectrum. (This isn’t because I live near Berkeley, CA either.) People who are conservative try to avoid uncertainty, are less tolerant of ambiguity and are more resistant to change. (See Are Needs to Manage Uncertainty and Threat Associated With Political Conservatism or Ideological Extremity? by John Jost et al. Psychology and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2007.)
6. Be able to put oneself in others’ shoes. Individuals who can easily look at situations from others’ perspectives and reflect on how they may be perceiving issues are able to help team members harmonize with one another more easily, as Dr. Lieberman explained. This can improve understanding, increase empathy and contribute to better problem solving among team members.
7. Get seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Regular sleep helps the brain’s hippocampus consolidate memories, which helps with recall.
8. Exercise regularly. Exercise relieves stress and helps stave off depression, as described in Exercise Helps Keep Your Psyche Fit.
9. Practice relaxation techniques. Those who practice yoga, take time to rest, get massages, meditate and do other activities that they’ve found to relax and recharge them are able to better manage uncertainty, as the mindfulness experts and research show.
10. Have a sense of humor. Humor helps with bonding, stimulates problem solving (the “ha-ha” to the “ah-ha”) and eases anxiety.
It’s even better if you have some or all of these traits yourself. After all, it helps to set a good example. However, if you or your team members slip, that’s okay. After all, the road to good intentions is paved with hell. We need collaborators though. In a VUCA world, community is especially important for us social creatures. So no bowling alone!
What do you think?
Connect the dots plus dot the “i”s to be more intentional, inquisitive and inclusive
How well are you tapping into the skills and wisdom you need to lead in a BANI world?
All the old playbooks are out-of-date. Instead, you need to reach inside yourself, tap into your wisdom, and connect the dots for yourself and others.
To start, you can use these 5 tips to embrace your humanity and become a better leader.