Uncertainty Causes People to Do Strange Things

posted in: Career | 2

The lesson I took away from this article reminds me how important communication is to any relationship. More specifically, though, it made me think of the workplace.

In the wake of San Francisco’s devastating 1906 earthquake, as survivors sifted through rubble and fires raged, the city’s men and women responded to the chaos in an unusual way: by getting married.

The magnitude 7.9 quake demolished the city, killed 3,000 people, and left hundreds of thousands homeless. But in the 10 days after the disaster, marriages in San Francisco and Alameda County surged to four times the normal rate. The Oakland Tribune observed “young couples scrambling about among the ruins trying to find where marriage licenses were issued,” and The Louisville Courier-Journal remarked that couples were being “earthquaked into marriage.”

Getting hitched might seem like an odd reaction to a disaster. But in an uncertain time, these couples found something stable in each other. As psychological studies show, uncertainty triggers a deep craving in all of us for stability, and that can motivate people to do strange things.

uncertainty photo
Image by nicubunu.photo

When employees are faced with uncertainty, the lack of information can make many of them feel the same way as those Californians did in the aftermath of the earthquake. Oh sure, they may not be in fear of their lives, but they start to try and fill in the blanks with things they are certain about. That’s only natural. At work it could play out by taking what they do know, and trying to piece together what is “really” going on with the organization. You might not like what that looks like.

Again, if I’m an employee, and I’m being faced with a manager who doesn’t communicate with me, then I do not know what is actually happening within my own team, let alone the entire organization. So, I try to find out what is really going on, mostly by trying to find out from other people. Those people might not be the most reliable of sources, but faced with the lack of official communication, they are the only source I have. So I try and piece it together, and make decisions based on that information. I look for patterns, does my manager appear to communicate with other people on my team? Are other teams facing the same lack of information? Does my answer to either of those questions make me think I’m about to be fired, or the company is doing poorly? If so, maybe it’s time to get out of here.

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This is just one example of how this plays out, but trust me, everyone who works in your organization goes through some version of this. In times of change, it may be inevitable, but during times of relative stability, this still happens. Not because there are plans to make big changes, but simply because employees aren’t being communicated with. Add in the remote nature of much of today’s workforce, and the problem is only exacerbated. (I’m a remote worker, I am keenly aware of how little I actually know about what is going on at any given moment. Communication is vital.)

So if you start to see folks making curious decisions, think about how much uncertainty you are leaving them with. Sometimes, things are uncertain, and you’ll have to deal with the consequences of that. Plenty of other times, however, there is only uncertainty because we’ve let the communication slide. Get on top of that.

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