IdeaFestival 2016: 5 ways to navigate uncertainty in the workplace and use it to enhance creativity

New America think tank fellow Jamie Holmes explains how our human drive for certainty and closure impacts hiring decisions and creativity. She offers tips for effectively dealing with uncertainty.


Jaime Holmes speaks at IdeaFestival 2016.

Image: Hope Reese/TechRepublic

Our human discomfort with uncertainty may impact hiring decisions and creativity in the workplace, according to Jamie Holmes, a future tense fellow at the New America think tank.

Holmes spoke at IdeaFestival 2016 on Wednesday, when he explained that while we enjoy uncertainty during sporting events or while touring a new place, we don't like it at work, in healthcare, or in deciding whether or not to trust someone. "Uncertainty, whether good or bad, amplifies our emotions," Holmes said. "Our brains seek consistency."

The following are the five consequences of uncertainty, according to psychologists:

  • Assimilation: We extend a concept we already have about the way the world works. For example, Holmes said, if we see an albino crow, we might say, "That's a dove."
  • Accommodation: We change the way we see the world conceptually. For example, with the albino crow, we might say "Well, the eyes are red, that must be an albino crow, I didn't know those existed."
  • Abstraction: In uncertain conditions, we hunt for patterns, and try to to pull out new information from our environment. For example, skydivers are more likely to say they see patterns in pictures right before jumping out of a plane than when they are on the ground.
  • Affirmation: When exposed to uncertainty, we affirm our beliefs more ardently. If you show a person who is pro-immigration a story that questions the value of immigration, that person will express even more staunch pro-immigration views, and vice versa for other issues, research has found.
  • Assembly: Creativity. "One of the extra spillover effects of uncertainty is art," Holmes said. He cited psychologist Jerome Bruner, who said, "One of the sources of creativity... is when the ambiguity wins."

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These impacts can greatly influence the workplace. In a lab, asking participants to write about a time they lived abroad, friends from different cultures, or diverse musical and culinary experiences lowered their need for closure and also led to less discriminatory hiring processes in an experimental setting, Holmes said.

Another study had participants watch a presentation about either American culture, Chinese culture, or a mix of both cultures. Then, they were given resumes of different quality levels to examine with either Caucasian-sounding names or African-American-sounding names. A participant who watched either the Chinese-only or American-only presentation tended to rate high quality Caucasian applicants over high quality African-American applicants. However, those who watched the presentation of both cultures rated both groups the same.

Tips for your company

Holmes offered the following tips for students to embrace uncertainty and enhance creativity, that can also be applied to groups in the workplace:

  1. Ask employees to find or identify mistakes
  2. Have employees argue on behalf of unfamiliar positions
  3. Give employees tasks they'll fail at
  4. Present knowledge: Tell employees that discovery is messy and nonlinear, emphasize the current topics of debate, emphasise how facts change, and offer case studies on past failures
  5. Help people get used to confusion, and reduce the threat of confusion

"Discovery is much messier than it's often presented," Holmes said. "Facts presented as more stable than were, and past failures always presented as less mainstream than they were."

You can lower the need for closure by telling people that they will need to defend their decisions later or will be held accountable, so that they do not fall back on their own biases. You can also write down the pros and cons of different options and consequences to fully think through an uncertain situation.

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