What A Flight Attendant Can Teach Us About Creating Certainty in An Uncertain World

Aircraft flying in the night sky of lightning

Recently, on a cross-country flight from New York to California, the flight attendant announced: “We’re heading into a thunderstorm so the seatbelt sign will be on for the next 45 minutes. Feel free to get up and use the bathroom if necessary but keep in mind that we will remind you to return to your seats as quickly as possible.”

As a student of neuroscience, I was impressed by the attendant’s understanding of the “fight-or-flight” threat response. Because typically, what happens when there’s turbulence? The flight crew tells us to put our seatbelts on, with very little explanation or context.

No matter how often you fly, it’s normal to feel a bit uneasy when there’s turbulence (“how many thousands of feet are we up in the air?”). But this flight attendant’s delivery was so matter of fact, he made the situation sound totally normal and par for the course. He told us why it was happening, how long they expected it to last and anticipated our collective bladder concerns. In an inherently uncertain situation, he created a measure of certainty.

And, you know, our brains crave certainty. David Rock, head of the Neuroleadership Institute, explains: “ A sense of uncertainty about the future generates a strong threat or ‘alert’ response in your limbic system. Your brain detects something is wrong, and your ability to focus on other issues diminishes. Your brain doesn’t like uncertainty – it’s like a type of pain, something to be avoided.”

When it senses an unfamiliar pattern, our brains go into alert mode and, in my work with clients, I’ve seen over and over how common it is to take a seemingly innocuous situation —the usually responsive CEO didn’t answer an email — and immediately assume the worst case scenario (“He’s angry about what I said in the meeting”). Not only does this panicked conjecture burn up precious mental energy, it impairs our ability to make decisions, store and retrieve information and think creatively.

Likewise, without meaning to, any time you behave inconsistently, withhold information or make an unexpected change, you’re creating a potential threat response in your team — or any relationship.

A simple way to create more certainty is to make the implicit explicit: don’t assume others know what you think.

  • Announce up front how long the meeting or conference call will last, so participants don’t have to wonder (and then stick to your word).
  • Instead of a vague “Do you have time this afternoon to talk?” say “I need to talk with you about X.”
  • If there’s a possibility that your meeting will go long and you’ll be late for a 2:00 client call, alert them in advance: way too much energy is wasted in those moments of uncertainty where someone is wondering: “Are we having the call?” “Should I go ahead and make other calls?” “Did I get the time wrong?”
  • Give colleagues a heads-up: “I’ve got some personal stuff going on so if I don’t seem like usual chipper self, don’t take it personally.”
  • Create as much transparency as possible, even when there isn’t much. When I was on the biz dev team at a healthcare start-up, executive management was constantly changing strategy and priorities; each time my boss had to announce yet another a new direction, he would say things like, “I can’t tell you exactly what’s going on but I will when I can.”

Every day we experience countless moments of uncertainty. Most aren’t that memorable – or turbulent — in and of themselves but the accumulated effect of the repeated stress response adds up over time, impacting productivity and creativity.