Since the pandemic, leaders are faced with decision-making amid relentless uncertainty. Lack of data, little likelihood of it becoming available, misgivings over a single source of truth, censure and misinformation…it’s a challenging arena for leader and their teams.

Maurice Schweitzer, professor of Operations, Information and Decisions at Wharton University explains: “Our brains are best suited for certain situations. We prefer to think in causal terms and we like predictable outcomes. We want to open door #1 when we know what’s behind it. We want to make the best-informed decision, but there’s a tradeoff for waiting. It’s the opposite of the rush-to-solve bias. And when you fail to account for uncertainty appropriately, you can make some serious errors.”

The science of uncertainty has gained new focus since the pandemic. Neuroscientists at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research have homed in on key brain circuits that help guide decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. In parallel, a team of psychologists at the University of California (working under Kate Sweeny, PhD) is studying the human response in stressful periods.

The waiting process generates worry, anxiety, frustration, anger and distress. It's generally accepted that coping strategies will get you through. But this approach does not address the behavioural changes triggered by ever-present negative emotion. Some leaders start to exhibit overconfident behaviour. They mistakenly anticipate that good things will happen, plus falsely assume they have a clear sense of best and worst case scenarios.

Other leaders can become risk averse, a behaviour often to the detriment of the organisation. To up the chances of success, management needs many small teams taking risks. However, when people suspect they may be punished for failure, this concern creates apprehension and worry.

The unfortunate truth is that emotional triggers are contagious. In addition, negative emotions prompt the spread of unhelpful behavioural habits through the team. When an anxious boss starts acting indecisively (repeatedly procrastinating, overthinking and second-guessing), it's hard for anyone to get a straight answer. Hesitancy becomes the leadership norm. Mired in doubt, team members are fearful to challenge and everyone remains stuck in uncertainty.

Finding the way forward starts with managing negative emotions, both in your leaders and throughout their teams. Transformational Emotional Alignment (TEA) is the easiest and safest way to unstick negatives by releasing emotion (think: fear, worry or anxiety). Getting a handle on the emotional challenge of uncertainty allows your leaders to foster productive behaviours, benefiting the whole team. Begin lining up TEA for everyone and serve it from the top down!

Related content: Behavioural Alignment podcast on "Flipping Uncertainty"