Dealing with change can be incredibly unsettling, especially in the workplace. But understanding the neuroscience behind our behavior—how and why our brains work the way they do—offers insight into just what's happening in those moments of uncertainty and how best to handle them.
"If we want to be performing at our best, our brains need certain things," says Hilary Scarlett, U.K.-based author of the new book Neuroscience for Organizational Change.
What are those necessities? Fast Company spoke with Scarlett about what drives our behavior during moments of change and how best to handle it.
From before we can even remember, we possess a strong need for social connection. In fact, that drive toward connection is so real that in the presence of social pain or discomfort, our brains have been shown to react similarly to the way they do when we're in physical pain, according to research by neuroscientist and social psychologist Matthew Lieberman.
What's more, the brain's default network, which is made up of various regions of the brain that interact with one another during moments of wakeful rest-–that is, daydreaming, thinking about others, or contemplating the past or future-–is not only the thinking mode we divert to most, it's also closely tied to our social relationships and understanding of others. "The default network directs us to think about other people’s minds—their thoughts, feelings, and goals," Lieberman writes in his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. Deny your brain that sense of connection, be it at home or in the workplace, and you're denying yourself a fundamental need.
That extra reassurance from our social network is especially important in moments of change and uncertainty. "We've hugely underestimated our need for social connection, our need to feel part of the group," says Scarlett. "We know that in our personal lives, but somehow expect that at work, we suddenly drop it."
We've all heard the adage: Bad news is better than no news. There's science to back that claim up. Take for example, the seminal 1992 study that looked at the fear levels of test subjects who had been told they'd be given an electric shock. The researchers found that those people who knew they were getting a shock but didn't know if it would be mild or intense exhibited more fear than those people who knew for certain they were going to receive a more intense shock.
"The desire for clarity is consistent with an underlying drive for simplicity and sense-making," write Carnegie Mellon researchers Russell Golman and George Loewenstein. "The aversion that people feel towards uncertainty is reflected in neural responses in the anterior cingulate cortex, the insula, and the amygdala. It manifests in physiological responses as well."
Seeking out information in the face of uncertainty is therefore a crucial way in which we can better adjust to change, says Scarlett. "It's these little missing bits of information that are distracting," she says. "If you give people that information, it settles the brain."
One simple way to do this on a daily basis is making a list of what you know you need to accomplish in your day. "One of the key things we can do at the beginning of the day is to just say, 'What are my priorities?'" says Scarlett. "It gives you a greater sense of control, rather than getting caught up in the flow of other colleagues."
Decision making goes in tandem with moments of change in our lives. And with decision making comes a drain of energy that it's all too easy to underestimate. But there are simple things that can be done to help improve our ability to handle such moments of uncertainty. "Executive function can be restored and mental fatigue overcome, in part, by interventions such as viewing scenes of nature, short rest, experiencing positive mood, and increasing glucose levels in the body," researchers write in an influential study that looked at what factors played a role in how judicial decisions were made.
"If you've got a big decision to make, sleep is really important for the brain . . . It's that ability to stop, pause, and respond, rather than just reacting very quickly to things," says Scarlett. "We forget how much energy making decisions takes out of us. The impact of not having sleep is the equivalent of going to work drunk, yet we don’t see it that way."