Resilience to uncertainty

Eleonore Batteux.

We cannot know what the future holds. Unexpected events will occur. The complexity and interconnectedness of our society means that unexpected events have the potential to affect us widely and deeply. Can we build resilience to uncertainty by taking a proactive approach?

The pandemic has caused a great deal of harm. It was a known possibility, but we did not know when or how it would unfold. Although the unexpected might be unavoidable, perhaps some of the consequences are not. Resilience is the ability to survive, and even thrive, through challenging circumstances. Through evolution some species have adapted successfully to even the most extreme changes of environment. Some individuals and organisations have learnt to adapt, but there are also plenty of examples of a lack of resilience resulting in significant loss and harm.

We can never control the future, but can we become better at adapting when unexpected events arise? Crucially, what can we do now to become more resilient to future uncertainties?

A broad vision
We are predisposed to an optimism bias. We are quick to accept good news and underestimate the probability of bad events occurring in our lives (Sharot & Garrett, 2016). This can be beneficial for our mental health – who needs to think about their marriage possibly ending in divorce while exchanging vows? – but in a world of uncertainty it can also mean we fail to prepare for the unexpected.

This bias is exacerbated by the draw of information which offers a semblance of certainty, even in contexts of uncertainty (Batteux et al., 2020a). Our research shows that this false sense of certainty can prevent us from building resilience to uncertainty, instead setting us up for disappointment when that promise of certainty is shattered (Batteux et al., 2020b).

A more adaptive way of approaching an uncertain future is fostering ambivalence – holding both positive and negative feelings towards a future outcome and accepting uncertainty (Rothman et al., 2017). This involves becoming comfortable with the experience of both doubt and excitement when making decisions, while framing that doubt as a reminder that decisions could not turn out as expected. We keep in mind that the undesirable could happen rather than turning a blind eye to it, ensuring we have a broad vision of possible futures.

Key communicators – employers, politicians, journalists – have a responsibility in fostering ambivalence by presenting a balanced view and acknowledging uncertainties. In fact, we find that it is in the communicator’s interest to do so if they want to maintain trust over time. In acknowledging uncertainties, communicators can enable people to set more realistic expectations for the future.

Being alert to the possibility that things can go wrong helps us to avoid a maladaptive response when things do go wrong, and to bounce back quicker. We become more resilient in the face of unexpected events, which become less unexpected the more we make room for them in our expectations. This approach to dealing with uncertainty differs from a lot of the research on psychological resilience, which takes a more reactive look at how to cope with unexpected events when they arise. Both are crucial – there is only so much you can do to prepare for a disastrous global pandemic – but thinking more proactively about uncertainty is something we could all benefit from.

Room for error
Many organisations have the resources and leverage to make decisions which impact society on a large scale. People are arguably less responsible for the emergence of crises and the response to them than organisations are. Organisations which can prepare for the unexpected should do so, yet many don’t.

Organisations typically optimise their processes to reduce costs, avoiding what seems like inefficiency. For example, hospitals make predictions on the minimum number of beds needed based on the data they have. But where does this leave resilience? Where is the room for error, for events provoking a sudden need for hospital beds and tough choices over who gets them? (Sound familiar?)

The problem here is that organisations rely on numbers derived from models which they hope predict the future accurately. The key word here is hope. In an uncertain world, predictions and quantifications are limited and only offer a semblance of certainty (Thompson & Smith, 2019). At best these models are an educated guess; at worst, a crutch relied on to make decisions which seem optimal, while blinded to the possibility that a very different future could unfold. Optimal decisions in such areas require a kind of knowledge about future outcomes that is not possible under ‘radical uncertainty’, where past and present data are not sufficient to anticipate the future.

Adaptable organisations
What organisations should really be aiming for is modularity through creating systems which are adaptable in the face of uncertainty (Reeves et al., 2020). Modular organisations are able to quickly reorganise their structure and resources in the face of adversity, making them more resilient. Organisations should model the flexibility and adaptability to changing circumstances that employees are expected to show.

Weak forecasts should be replaced with tools that foster ambivalence. Scenario planning, a rather under-used tool, can do this: organisations examine how they would fare under a variety of possible futures (Laguarrigue & Ramirez, 2020). It helps broaden the organisation’s long-term horizon, and promotes adaptability – a good starting point to prevent them from crumbling further down the line.

Most other tools at our disposal, like cost-benefit analysis, have been developed assuming that we can make optimal decisions, ignoring radical uncertainties. This was highlighted by the CRUISSE network (Challenging Radical Uncertainty in Science, Society and the Environment) led by University College London’s Centre for the Study of Decision-Making Uncertainty (CSDU). CRUISSE found that the needs of practitioners are not currently met by academic research. They outline a call for a new multidisciplinary research institute focused on real world decisions to help practitioners navigate radical uncertainty beyond a focus on optimal decision-making (CRUISSE Network, 2018).

Why aren’t organisations embracing ambivalence? Numbers are attractive. They give the impression that decisions have been made according to ‘science’ and models which hold special authority. Those numbers might be wrong, but at least the decision-maker can evidence a so-called rational process. Relying on more intuitive processes might be harder to justify. But under radical uncertainty, intuition, narratives and emotions are crucial to decision-making (Tuckett & Nikolic, 2017). In the absence of complete information, that is how you build conviction.

In fact, many executives do make business decisions based on ‘gut feelings’, but they tend to hide it in the boardroom (Gigerenzer, 2014). Instead, they hire consultants to draft documents full of number-driven reasons to support their gut feeling. CSDU’s work with the Bank of England shows that narratives can build a shared understanding of what is happening in the economy, which in turn affects the success of the Bank’s operations (Tuckett et al., 2020). Such narratives can also be mobilised to communicate monetary policy as a narrative the public can understand and commit to.

Decision-makers should be encouraged to use their intuition effectively and openly. This requires accepting that a decision can fail to reach the desired outcome, without that failure meaning it was the wrong call in the first place. Otherwise, our decisions only advance us as far as our ability to predict the future goes – not very far, particularly while playing catch up in a rapidly changing environment.

Embracing uncertainty
Uncertainty opens up the possibility of unexpected events, including positive ones. It is the fuel for the unanticipated moments which change our lives for the better. We should embrace it by turning uncertainty into opportunity, or in other words, serendipity. Adopting a serendipity mindset means remaining open to multiple futures, i.e. harnessing the positive side of ambivalence (Busch, 2020). It requires reframing our thoughts to allow us to identify opportunities, while cultivating the motivation and perseverance to seize them. In doing so, we expose ourselves to the possibility that our lives could take an unexpected turn; to those conversations with strangers which turn into lifelong partnerships, lightbulb moments during an unrelated task, or failed endeavours which end up being a turning point. We need to think of uncertainty as a carrier of opportunity which propels our lives forward in ways we could not have imagined.

There are plenty of examples of the pandemic being that carrier of opportunity. It made us reflect on our priorities, both as individuals and as a society. It enabled organisations to renew themselves, while others sprung into existence. We should learn from this that uncertainty can bring about positive change. Let’s approach uncertainty with excitement rather than dread, and find the strength to build resilience.

- Eleonore Batteux is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Decision-Making Uncertainty, University College London, and a Behavioural Scientist at Public Health England

Key sources

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