Why Not Knowing What’s Next Can Make You Crazy

Inside your head and mine is a prediction machine that doesn’t respond well to ambiguity and uncertainty.

Our brains.

Neurologically, we like shaking a wrapped present because we enjoy making little predictions. But put a larger amount of guesswork into the mix and our limbic system kicks in, elevating our sense of things being wrong.

This is one of the lasting lessons from one of my favorite classes in leadership this semester. To recall it, all I have to remember is the acronym SCARF. Created by Dr. David Rock, the SCARF model explains why it’s easy to become flooded by certain fears and insecurities. The most powerful hit us in five areas:

Certainty, the second letter in the SCARF acronym, is a commanding human motivator. In an interview, Rock said “Ambiguity of any kind generates a danger response.” Which means that when we’re faced with an uncertain situation, we can experience serious anxiety, especially at work.

This is important for leaders to know because the more clear you are with people about what’s going to happen, the more at ease they feel. This in turn allows them to feel more secure, which helps be more creative and productive. Clarity about future actions is critical for building and maintaining trust.

It seems simplistic, but it’s an easy lesson to forget. That’s partially because as David Foster Wallace so vividly explained, we are all locked inside our own tiny skull-shaped kingdoms. We come to believe that what makes sense for us makes the same kind of sense for others.

That’s a trap I fell into repeatedly.

As a teacher and department chair, it felt condescending to me to over explain things to my students and the English faculty. I had to remind myself — literally by looking at a piece of paper where I’d written this — to override my feelings and err on the side of over explanation.

And here’s the thing: no one ever complained. No one ever said, “Please stop explaining what’s going to happen and why.”

Giving people space and time to express the emotions they bottle up also helped. It’s important to note that I’m not talking about leading them through a venting session, which is actually counterproductive, but a guided discussion. We used tools like short reflective writing, peer discussion protocols and Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats to productively navigate the churn inside them.

Rock says to help people feel less stress, give them more choice. Teachers understand this. When students get a say in even minor things like the order in which they complete work or what music you play in the classroom, they tend to feel more empowered and therefore less need to act out.

Takeaway To Put To Work In The New Year:

As we close out a tumultuous year, it’s a good time to reflect on how we help those we serve to feel better about the uncharted waters ahead.

Help people see the things they do have control over.

This was essential for maintaining hope in both my students and staff in the Title I schools in which I worked for fifteen years. For students, I helped them focus on one or two concrete goals each week, plan the steps needed to meet the goal, and then celebrate the success, or revise the plan so it could be successful.

As staff, we generated lists of what we were able to change like the feelings of trust and belonging we cultivated in our classrooms. We also noted what was out of our control, like the poverty affecting the neighborhoods where our students lived.

Think of it as an equation: the more you combine clear communication with transparency about what’s next, the more you subtract confusion and add focus.


Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash


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