Brexit: Why Leaders must show Tolerance of Uncertainty

Flag of Europe with star missing

Dear Reader,

You know what’s happened. 52% of the British electorate voted in favour of leaving the European Union. What we don’t know is what’s going to happen next.

Brexit has inaugurated a period of inscrutable ambiguity. We don’t know how the next Prime Minister will run the office, whether Scotland will jump ship, or what’ll happen to non-British citizens residing in the U.K. Yet, despite much of this being outside our control, we do have control over our reaction to current uncertainty. To best support this reaction and positively modify our thoughts, feelings, and behavior in these times, we at Positive know it is of huge importance to enhance tolerance of uncertainty and cognitive flexibility.

‘CEOs with a higher tolerance of ambiguity are related to firms with higher market and financial performance (Westerberg et al 1997)’

When confronted by uncertainty we tend to go into a threat state. This is an evolutionary reaction for survival. However, when threatened our cognitive function is clouded by anxiety and stress, which can result in unhelpful thinking and irrational behaviour. The protracted stress uncertainty arouses can also have adverse consequences for our physical health.

Individuals with high tolerance of uncertainty experience fewer negative symptoms when tested by uncertainty. They tend to be open to experiences and perceive uncertain situations as interesting opportunities. Whereas individuals with low tolerance of uncertainty tend to have negative predictions of the future, resist change, suffer from greater worry, stress and anxiety, and have lower overall life satisfaction.

The cost of intolerance over the coming months can be massive, since the threat and intimidation we feel can spread throughout our teams and the wider organisation, via conscious or unconscious emotional contagion. This has been shown to reduce the probability of rational risk-taking, creativity, and openness to new ideas, stagnating idea flow and creating cultural echo chambers (Social Physics, Alex Pentland).

The most effective way around this is to enhance individual, team, and organisational tolerance of uncertainty. To avoid the perceived threat of Brexit exacerbating our levels of stress and rumination, we must also enhance cognitive flexibility. This helps us remain rationally optimistic, solution-focused, and open to ideas when under intense pressure.

Positive aims to improve cognitive flexibility and thereby improve responsiveness to internal changes within organisations and external changes in the outside environment at national or global level. Such responsiveness is always important, but it is more important now than ever as we prepare to navigate through whatever storms Brexit may bring.

No matter which side of the debate you were on, since what’s done is done we are now required to individually and collectively adapt to the circumstances as they are. By enhancing our cognitive flexibility and building our tolerance of uncertainty we can turn the threatening nature of our current political, social, and economic ambiguity into opportunity. Those of us who realise that opportunity lies in uncertainty know, on a fundamental level, one crucial thing: It is not what happens, but the view we take of it that matters.

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