Have you ever wondered why people love office gossip so much?
Not the scandalous kind that includes details of our co-workers’ private lives, but the work-related kind that speculates on who’s getting what promotion or whether recent budget cuts will lead to layoffs?
It’s this kind of water-cooler predictions that are driven by our innate need for assurance. We need to feel a level of certainty and be able to predict how situations will play out so we know we will be safe.
Uncertainty, or a lack of assurance, is processed by our brains as a threat, which activates our amygdala (the part of the limbic system that sounds the alert on danger). That’s because during times of change, it’s hard for our brains to predict what will happen next. We start to play out all possible scenarios of how we may be affected, pushing us further into threat mode. This helps explain why many of us struggle in new or different situations, and why productivity dips at these times: we’re so distracted by the threat of all the unknowns.
When we don’t have all the information we want or need, or can’t easily predict an outcome, our brain searches for familiarity, making change adoption even harder. A lack of assurance gives us an underlying sense of unease.
Of course, some people thrive on not knowing how things are going to play out. But for most of us, the need for certainty is critical.
At work, our need for assurance can be compromised in many different ways, such as when there are unclear expectations or insufficient plans and communication, or you sense someone is being dishonest or withholding information.
Neuroscientists call out brain a prediction machine. It craves familiar patterns and searches for them endlessly to save energy. It’s far more efficient to run off our brain’s hardwiring than having to process everything we experience by using our energy-hungry prefrontal cortex.
Leaders can easily provide the assurance their teams need by clarifying expectations, sharing goals and clear plans, and openly and regularly communicating what is known, and even unknown. Acknowledging the uncertainty goes a low way to quietening the noise in our brains.
When this happens, the brain is able to better focus on the work at hand, rather than a perceived threat – which is assuring to everyone.
Noesis delivers neuroleadership consulting and training to organizations handling everyday change and major transformation initiatives. We help our Fortune 500 clients scientifically improve leadership.