This is a great story by organizational psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich about workplace situations that trigger our reward/threat response (sometimes with funny results!). As the SCARF Model®explains, we try to minimize uncertainty in our environments. For example, in the absence of information, employees often just fill in the blanks. CEOs, leaders, and managers can take lessons here about communication, transparency, and influence.
I was once hired to coach an oil and gas executive. The project began, as it always does, with my interviewing about 20 of his colleagues.
My client set me up in a huge corner office on another floor of their building, and for two days, people shuffled in and out at regular intervals for their interviews.
When I returned to review my client’s feedback with him, he shared a rather interesting rumor that had cropped up since my visit.
Apparently, the employees who sat outside “my office” had concluded that I was a recruiter—and that I was meeting with everyone on my client’s team to decide who would keep their jobs!
This initially funny story revealed a deeply sobering truth. As human beings, we have a powerful needto make sense of what’s going on around us. And when we can’t, the psychological—and physiological—havoc that ensues is no laughing matter.
In one study, researchers scanned the brains of participants placing bets on a card game: some made risky bets (where there was a low, but known, probability of winning) and others made ambiguous bets (where the probability of winning was unknown).
Surprisingly, the ambiguous betters were worse off than the risky betters—in fact, their brains experienced the same “fight or flight” response that would be activated by coming face-to-face with a grizzly bear.
Clearly, humans are hard-wired to avoid uncertainty. It follows, then, that if we don’t have the information we need, we are more than happy to make it up!
To put it another way, in the absence of information, people create conspiracy theories. This can be especially true in times of change, where uncertainty is a permanent fixture.
The origins of the oil and gas recruiter rumor were completely understandable. The conclusion that I was one ofthe Bobs from Office Space was definitely far more dramatic—and creative—than the truth. But because we didn’t communicate the real truth, this conspiracy theory became their reality.
There’s an important lesson here for anyone who wants to improve their influence. Regardless of your place in the organizational pecking order, your colleagues will be on the lookout for the “why” behind what you do. If you don’t provide this information, they will make it up, often with a far less charitable outcome.
If you do make it a habit to regularly communicate the context for your decisions and the intentions behind your actions, you won’t just have a positive effect on those around you, you will become more trusted, respected, and effective in the process.
Whenever we can reduce uncertainty for people we work with, it’s faster, easier, and far more enjoyable to do our jobs. After all, as author Norman Vincent Peale once observed, “understanding can overcome any situation, however mysterious or insurmountable it may appear to be.”
Dr. Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist, researcher, and New York Times best-selling author of INSIGHT and Bankable Leadership. Her life’s work is to help leaders become more self-aware and successful. She offers many helpful tools and approaches. I highly recommend her Organizational Leadership Assessment.
This piece was originally published in Tasha’s monthly newsletter, The Insight Bulletin.