This Is Your Brain On Hold

By Peter Ronayne and PJ Rooney

November 15, 2013

Now that the crisis du jour is over, it’s time to get back to work. Easier said than done. 

Sequestration. Two types of furloughs within a matter of months. A government shutdown. The specter of the U.S. Treasury defaulting on its obligations. Oh, and federal employees might do this song and dance all over again in January—because what’s Washington without a crisis? 

The shutdown, having forced hundreds of thousands of public servants into an open-ended period of potentially unpaid leave, equaled hundreds of thousands of brains struggling with uncertainty and its cognitive ripple effect. This backdrop of turbulence and unpredictability in the public sector provides a valuable opportunity to explore the brain science behind how people react to these conditions and to consider leadership strategies to minimize the effects of instability. 

Whether it’s not knowing your manager’s expectations, confusion over when you will get paid or wondering about your job status after a reorganization, persistent uncertainty has a profoundly negative impact on the human’s very social and emotional brain. Uncertainty generates feelings of irritation and annoyance. It also creates conditions for long-lasting disengagement, weakened emotional regulation, and diminished creativity. Why?

The brain seeks predictability. “Prediction is not just one of the things your brain does,” says Jeff Hawkins, founder of the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience. “It is the primary function of the neocortex and the foundation of intelligence.” 

From the feel of the chair underneath you when sitting to the flow of traffic while driving to the facial reactions of colleagues in a meeting, the brain is constantly scanning its environment. It compares hundreds of thousands of present-moment data points against what was previously learned and stored to ensure what is happening is consistent with prior experience. This continual scanning and learning allows patterns to emerge informing predictability of outcomes. With patterns comes predictability, with predictability comes the known and with the known comes comfort and the need for less deep concentration and focused attention—both of which the brain minimizes when possible to conserve precious energy and resources. 

Mild uncertainty can be intriguing and novel, creating manageable anticipation—a “tell me more” response. But heightened levels of unpredictability and chronic uncertainty—like that generated by a sequester and shutdown—create a powerfully negative swirl of emotions in the brain, which diminishes and weakens rational thinking and problem solving.  

Writing in Nature Neuroscience in 2006, Trey Hedden and John Gabrieli put it succinctly: “Even a small amount of uncertainty generates an ‘error’ response in the orbital front cortex. This takes attention away from one’s goals, forcing attention to the error . . . Large uncertainties, like not knowing your boss’ expectations or if your job is secure, can be highly debilitating.”

The debilitating effects of constant uncertainties alert the non-conscious brain that something is wrong and needs our attention. As the brain searches for a way to find certainty within conditions over which it has no control, we are left feeling irritated, annoyed, anxious, reactive and distracted.  Until predictability is restored, the non-conscious brain will continue to signal to the conscious brain that something is wrong, diverting resources from work, problem-solving and goal attainment in hopes of getting relief from the anxiety, irritation and annoyance. Relief can take the form of animated and fixated conversations, venting emails and annoyed Facebook posts. Meanwhile important assignments and projects slow down and even stagnate. The longer the brain grapples with the uncertainty, the less work gets completed and the more disengaged employees become.

This is not exactly what the motivated and focused public sector workforce needs during turbulent and challenging times. 

So what to do? Here are three actions you can take to keep yourself and your team moving beyond the distraction of the shutdown and to get re-engaged at work:

Build self-awareness. Understand that your brain is wired to create sometimes profound emotional reactions in the face of uncertainty. It is natural to ruminate over and loop back to the conditions creating the uncertainty; and it is natural to feel distracted, anxious, reactive and irritated. Allow yourself a specified amount of time to talk with colleagues or friends about the situation—and then get back to work. By setting limits for discussion, it signals the brain that you are aware of the problem and can monitor it without letting it engulf you. And getting back to work allows you to regain a feeling of satisfaction from contributing to the larger goals and mission, which is typically gratifying for the brain.   

Write out your thoughts. Whether they’re stressful or not, record your observations on a piece of paper or in your laptop or journal. Focus on what you can control, and write a plan to take action. Your mind can relax when it knows you are managing those items within your direct control, giving you an opportunity to experience less anxiety throughout your day.

Communicate with colleagues. Whether it’s about the post-shutdown situation and its ripple effect or about your own change initiative, share that information with others. Transparency is the best antidote to uncertainty. Communicate openly with peers and direct reports about the evolving situation, even if the most you can say is, “I don’t know.” Even if you think you’ve communicated too much about it, communicate again. Repetitive, thoughtful and consistent messaging with maximum transparency can profoundly reduce brain reactivity and help maintain performance and engagement. 

Whether it’s yesterday’s stock market crisis, today’s government shutdown—or possibly the next one—lead with the brain in mind. Knowing what it can do and what it can’t will help head off unnecessary anxiety and promote much needed employee engagement when it’s needed most.

Peter Ronayne is a faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership and previously was a dean at the Federal Executive Institute. PJ Rooney is a former FEI faculty member with almost 20 years of federal service. 

By Peter Ronayne and PJ Rooney

November 15, 2013