“Don’t share this with anybody”.
Has your boss ever said that to you? Have you ever said it to your team?
The secret might be about a restructure, change in product line, new technology, the company’s financial results, a mistake, a failure, a possible merger, something about themselves, another employee or even about your role yet you are sworn to silence.
And what about at home? Have you ever withheld something from your partner or kids? An action that’s left you feeling uncomfortable at best and dishonest at worst?
Apart from the discomfort you almost certainly experience, I am sure you’ve witnessed the effect of secrecy on people around you especially if they suspect something is up and they are already operating in an information vacuum.
People generally hate being kept in the dark. You are right if you suspect that our amygdalae are implicated in reactions to silence in ‘suspicious’ circumstances.
You are so predictable!
Let’s explore this. Most of what we do everyday we don’t need to think about - we run on ‘automatic.’ We consciously don’t need to think about what to do next – we just ‘know’. Our brain guides us to take action based on pre-existing patterns of behaviour (habits) and predictability of outcomes.
So from the moment you get out of bed to the time you go back to bed, you probably follow a comparable routine each day. We don’t like to think we are predictable but we are. We have to be otherwise our working memory would be exhausted and we would be bushed from the sheer effort of using our brains so much.
Routines are the basis of how we live
For me, my early morning outline is to get out of bed, go to the bathroom, then to the kitchen, turn on the electric jug, get my vitamins out, turn on my computer, open the sliding doors to the deck, open the front door and go down the steps to collect the newspaper, get my breakfast and so on. I don’t actively think about it - it just happens like that most mornings.
My sub-conscious brain is guiding my actions and making decisions (like, is there enough water in the jug, stop pouring milk into the bowl) based on neural patterns laid down in its hardwiring that predict outcomes
Of course, if the paper hasn’t been delivered or I’ve run out of vitamins then the routine is interrupted. Then I have to stop and think about what to do – well actually first my amygdala automatically does some checking and assesses the risk to my survival with this break in pattern.
Usually it’s no big deal because my amygdala knows based on history that the lack of vitamins or a newspaper is not life threatening!
However if my computer tells me when I turn it on that my hard drive has failed then that’s another reaction entirely - my ‘almonds’ kick in!
I immediately have to manage my survival response (manifesting as words that it’s preferable not to use!) and stop panicking long enough to get my thinking brain (pre-frontal cortex PFC) to work out where I put the number and service code for Dell, what I backed up, what I lost and what my priorities are.
My predictable morning didn’t go as planned so The Almond Effect® kicked in – and I haven’t even been up longer than 10 minutes!
Is it the same at work?
What do you do when you get to work, do you follow the same routine? For example, it could be that you turn on the computer, get coffee, say hi to people at the workstation across from you, open your email, look at your diary etc.
No drama, all normal just as your brain predicted, unless an unexpected alert starts flashing on your screen to call your manager urgently. Your brain’s hard-wired pattern-based operation is stopped in its tracks as it rapidly tries to assess the ‘threat’ and predict what the urgency is all about.
Your amygdala is immediately on red alert asking whether the interruption is a threat to your survival. If history shows that an alert saying to call the boss immediately is likely to cause a problem, then The Almond Effect® kicks in.
I hope that because you have been in one of my workshops, you’ll immediately put STAR into operation and get your PFC engaged to think before you act!
Not knowing is worst for the brain than knowing
Uncertainty really throws our brains into a muddle because in the absence of any pattern to the contrary, our brain defaults to predict the worst outcome as its natural survival mechanism (The Almond Effect®) – even in non-life threatening situations at home or at work.
This is why you should never be surprised that withholding information, keeping secrets etc will lead to gossip (flocking) pessimism and worst case scenario interpretations.
Lack of certainty creates anxiety, frustration, gossip and innuendo – all expressions of The Almond Effect®.
And anxious people don’t concentrate or perform well –their brains are distracted - focussing on the cause of the anxiety. They are searching for any kind of predictable outcome so that the brain can operate with certainty again.
The situation is clearly exacerbated if we are already operating in an information vacuum because our brains will predict the worst case scenario so we can prepare ourselves to survive.
Applied at home, it means for example that if your teenager isn’t at the place they said they were going to, your almonds go off. If you unexpectedly find a hotel receipt in your spouse’s pocket, if your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere – you get the picture!
Whether you are implementing changes at work or trying to hide something from someone at home, be aware that if the other party’s amygdala can’t see a ‘safe’ pattern, it will get suspicious. And the natural default reaction will be to focus on the worst case interpretation of the events with all the ramifications that will flow.
That’s why most people say, just tell us what’s going on – and then we can work out how to deal with it.
If you think you are doing people a favour by only giving information on a ‘need to know’ basis, think again – brain biology wants just the opposite.