Our brains are hardwired to make much of modern life difficult. This is especially true when it comes to dealing with uncertainty. On the bright side, if you know the right tricks, you can override your brain’s irrational tendencies and handle uncertainty effectively.
Our brains give us fits when facing uncertainty because they’re wired to react to it with fear. In a recent study, a Caltech neuroeconomist imaged subjects’ brains as they were forced to make increasingly uncertain bets—the same kind of bets we’re forced to make on a regular basis in business.
The less information the subjects had to go on, the more irrational and erratic their decisions became. You might think the opposite would be true—the less information we have, the more careful and rational we are in evaluating the validity of that information. Not so. As the uncertainty of the scenarios increased, the subjects’ brains shifted control over to the limbic system, the place where emotions, such as anxiety and fear, are generated.
This brain quirk worked great eons ago, when cavemen entered an unfamiliar area and didn’t know who or what might be lurking behind the bushes. Overwhelming caution and fear ensured survival. But that’s not the case today. This mechanism, which hasn’t evolved, is a hindrance in the world of business, where uncertainty rules and important decisions must be made every day with minimal information.
As we face uncertainty, our brains push us to overreact. Successful people are able to override this mechanism and shift their thinking in a rational direction. This requires emotional intelligence (EQ), and it’s no wonder that—among the 1 million-plus people that TalentSmart has tested—90% of top performers have high EQs. They earn an average of $28,000 more per year than their low-EQ counterparts do.
To boost your EQ, you have to get good at making sound decisions in the face of uncertainty, even when your brain fights against this. Fear not! There are proven strategies that you can use to improve the quality of your decisions when your emotions are clouding your judgment. What follows are eleven of the best strategies that successful people use in these moments.
They quiet their limbic systems
The limbic system responds to uncertainty with a knee-jerk fear reaction, and fear inhibits good decision-making. People who are good at dealing with uncertainty are wary of this fear and spot it as soon as it begins to surface. In this way, they can contain it before it gets out of control. Once they are aware of the fear, they label all the irrational thoughts that try to intensify it as irrational fears—not reality—and the fear subsides. Then they can focus more accurately and rationally on the information they have to go on. Throughout the process, they remind themselves that a primitive part of their brain is trying to take over and that the logical part needs to be the one in charge. In other words, they tell their limbic system to settle down and be quiet until a hungry tiger shows up.
They stay positive
Positive thoughts quiet fear and irrational thinking by focusing your brain’s attention on something that is completely stress-free. You have to give your wandering brain a little help by consciously selecting something positive to think about. Any positive thought will do to refocus your attention. When things are going well and your mood is good, this is relatively easy. When you’re stressing over a tough decision and your mind is flooded with negative thoughts, this can be a challenge. In these moments, think about your day, and identify one positive thing that happened, no matter how small. If you can't think of anything from the current day, reflect on the previous day or days or even the previous week, or perhaps you’re looking forward to an exciting event. The point here is that you must have something positive that you're ready to shift your attention to when your thoughts turn negative due to the stress of uncertainty.
They know what they know—and what they don’t
When uncertainty makes a decision difficult, it’s easy to feel as if everything is uncertain, but that’s hardly ever the case. People who excel at managing uncertainty start by taking stock of what they know and what they don’t know and assigning a factor of importance to each. They gather all the facts they have, and they take their best shot at compiling a list of things they don’t know, for example, what a country’s currency is going to do or what strategy a competitor will employ. They actually try to identify as many of these things as possible because this takes away their power.
They embrace that which they can’t control
We all like to be in control. After all, people who feel like they’re at the mercy of their surroundings never get anywhere in life. But this desire for control can backfire when you see everything that you can’t control or don’t know as a personal failure. People who excel at managing uncertainty aren’t afraid to acknowledge what’s causing it. In other words, successful people live in the real world. They don’t paint any situation as better or worse than it actually is, and they analyze the facts for what they are. They know that the only thing they really control is the process through which they reach their decisions. That’s the only rational way to handle the unknown, and the best way to keep your head on level ground. Don’t be afraid to step up and say, “Here’s what we don’t know, but we’re going forward based on what we do know. We may make mistakes, but that’s a lot better than standing still.”
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