Values have a strong impact on status. An organization that appears to value money and rank more than a basic sense of respect for all employees will stimulate threat responses among employees who aren’t at the top of the heap. Similarly, organizations that try to pit people against one another on the theory that it will make them work harder reinforce the idea that there are only winners and losers, which undermines the standing of people below the top 10 percent.
A Craving for Certainty
When an individual encounters a familiar situation, his or her brain conserves its own energy by shifting into a kind of automatic pilot: it relies on long-established neural connections in the basal ganglia and motor cortex that have, in effect, hardwired this situation and the individual’s response to it. This makes it easy to do what the person has done in the past, and it frees that person to do two things at once; for example, to talk while driving. But the minute the brain registers ambiguity or confusion — if, for example, the car ahead of the driver slams on its brakes — the brain flashes an error signal. With the threat response aroused and working memory diminished, the driver must stop talking and shift full attention to the road.
Uncertainty registers (in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex) as an error, gap, or tension: something that must be corrected before one can feel comfortable again. That is why people crave certainty. Not knowing what will happen next can be profoundly debilitating because it requires extra neural energy. This diminishes memory, undermines performance, and disengages people from the present.
Of course, uncertainty is not necessarily debilitating. Mild uncertainty attracts interest and attention: New and challenging situations create a mild threat response, increasing levels of adrenalin and dopamine just enough to spark curiosity and energize people to solve problems. Moreover, different people respond to uncertainty in the world around them in different ways, depending in part on their existing patterns of thought. For example, when that car ahead stops suddenly, the driver who thinks, “What should I do?” is likely to be ineffective, whereas the driver who frames the incident as manageable — “I need to swerve left now because there’s a car on the right” — is well equipped to respond. All of life is uncertain; it is the perception of too much uncertainty that undercuts focus and performance. When perceived uncertainty gets out of hand, people panic and make bad decisions.
Leaders and managers must thus work to create a perception of certainty to build confident and dedicated teams. Sharing business plans, rationales for change, and accurate maps of an organization’s structure promotes this perception. Giving specifics about organizational restructuring helps people feel more confident about a plan, and articulating how decisions are made increases trust. Transparent practices are the foundation on which the perception of certainty rests.
Breaking complex projects down into small steps can also help create the feeling of certainty. Although it’s highly unlikely everything will go as planned, people function better because the project now seems less ambiguous. Like the driver on the road who has enough information to calculate his or her response, an employee focused on a single, manageable aspect of a task is unlikely to be overwhelmed by threat responses.
The Autonomy Factor
Studies by Steven Maier at the University of Boulder show that the degree of control available to an animal confronted by stressful situations determines whether or not that stressor undermines the ability to function. Similarly, in an organization, as long as people feel they can execute their own decisions without much oversight, stress remains under control. Because human brains evolved in response to stressors over thousands of years, they are constantly attuned, usually at a subconscious level, to the ways in which social encounters threaten or support the capacity for choice.