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Embracing Unexpected Change – Make sure you’re putting human basics at the forefront


The Brexit vote last year divided the nation and created enormous amounts of uncertainty. This will persist for the foreseeable future with the Government set to trigger Article 50 at the end of this month. This will put more pressure on workplaces, many of which were already struggling with difficult market conditions.  How do you create a high performance workplace?

Psychologists have known for years that uncertainty is a significant stressor. Human beings are generally happier and more likely to thrive when their environment (for example, their workplace) is reasonably predictable.

In these uncertain times, well-meaning employers are quite likely to deploy stress management and resilience programmes as part of their ‘coping’ strategy. Others might prefer a high performance angle, looking to optimise the performance of their teams and to galvanise resources. Neither of these approaches is wrong, as such. Both are addressing the problem of optimising performance from different angles.



There are various definitions of Uncertainty: Here is one……

A state of having limited knowledge where it is impossible to exactly describe the existing state, a future outcome, or more than one possible outcome.

When times are difficult and employees are subjected to stressors such as chronic uncertainty, it is more important than ever to refocus on real human basics. It’s about creating the right conditions to allow great performance. This will apply universally, no matter how sophisticated or simple the occupation, because fundamentally we are built of the same stuff.

Sustainable behaviours is the key

To survive tough times, it is sustainable behaviours which will get teams through intact, and this should be the aim of any training intervention. It is easy to go down the wrong route though, for example by bringing in trainers who attempt to motivate teams with a short term boost, but whose messages fall flat once the team is back in the office.

External training is a significant investment which you need to get right. Not only can you risk wasting time and money on misdirected content, it is also vital to support your teams with experts who can provide evidence-based content based on deep expertise in human behaviour, and with the added ability to deal with or signpost issues which are beyond everyday stress. For example, where an employee is showing signs of a potential mental health issue, which is way beyond the scope of the workshop.

Key areas of human focus during uncertain times:

Leadership and the understanding of trust

It’s all about trust and authenticity, and this is not something you can fake. Trust (or the lack of it) has certainly been a big factor in the leadership shown in the recent Brexit vote. Whoever is tasked with leading negotiations going forward will surely require vast amounts of trust from their party, the public, and those they are negotiating with.

The field of neuroscience, an area of increasing interest to those who study leadership, has provided much evidence which helps us to understand trust. There is a vast body of research going on in this area. For example, Jonathan Freeman and his colleagues (Freeman et al. 2014) state that “with only a glance, humans form instant impressions of another’s face. Such impressions are often beyond our conscious control. They help us distinguish…..those whom we should trust from those of whom we should be wary”. At a chemical level this is recorded as activity in the amygdala, which is a structure of the brain involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. It is also involved in the processing of emotions such as fear, anger, and pleasure.

A few tips for establishing trust:

  • Be consistent – do what you say you are going to do, when you say you will do it
  • Be honest and clear about your expectations, strategy, priorities
  • Connect and communicate – listen, be visible and accessible, thank people, and even if you have no news about something important, actually say you have no news. It’s far better than saying nothing.

Motivation for your teams…

We’ve spoken of the need for sustainable behaviours, particularly in difficult conditions.
The researchers Deci & Ryan have been very influential in helping us to have a deeper appreciation of motivation. They have found that “human beings can be proactive or engaged, or alternatively passive and alienated, largely depending on their social conditions. People are of course motivated by external factors such as reward systems, evaluations, or the opinions they fear others might have of them. Yet just as frequently, people are motivated from within, by interests, curiosity, care or abiding values”. These are basic human needs which underpin many of our choices. These intrinsic motivations can ignite passions, creativity, and more sustained efforts.

There are a number of very compelling recommendations from this research which will help to create a workplace which is positive, productive, innovative, and critically that will create the best climate for employee’s wellbeing.

  • Create a sense of shared purpose – try to create a shared vision, communicate this, and make sure to develop it in collaboration with your teams
  • Create a sense of autonomy – make sure you show trust in people to deliver what is asked of them. Make sure roles are clear and agreed by all involved.
  • Enhance feelings of competence – understand the strengths of each person and give plenty of opportunities to use them to the full. Provide opportunities for people to learn and improve.

(A word of caution – the opposite also applies, so be equally careful that the culture you create is not one that sabotages the above basic psychological needs).

Transition from resilience to high performance

Once some of these vital human basics are in place, it is a great opportunity for employers to shift from a resilience focus (let’s try to survive this), to a high performance focus, where the question becomes: “let’s see how good we can be in these conditions, how we can draw upon our strengths and be better than our competitors”.


Freeman, J.B., Stolier, R.M., Ingbretsen, Z.A., and Hehman, E.A. (2014) Amygdala Responsivity to High-Level Social Information from Unseen Faces. The Journal of Neuroscience, 34, 10573-10581

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

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