Your predictive brain is leading you astray


The Workplace

We’ve all found ourselves in situations at work that seem to escalate out of control rather quickly and unintentionally.  It may have been when your boss asked you to perform a task you were not trained in or it may have been in a project meeting where tensions around deadlines were running high. Interpretations of body language, phrases, and tones  starts to result in  uncertainty. Uncertainty creates a gap in knowledge that we start to fill with interpretations (not facts). Combine that uncertainty with an already heightened awareness and you have the potential trigger for a workplace engagement that is less than positive.  

In a world where workplace environments and supports are being scrutinised it is important to understand that our brain operates with a single system for detecting threats -both physical and social.

Many of life’s most impactful experiences involve either social safety (e.g., acceptance, affiliation, belonging, inclusion) or social threat (e.g., conflict, isolation, rejection, exclusion). And our brain processes the psychological pain similarly to physical pain and has a great impact on our ability to perform.

Stressors possessing this potential include those factors identified as common psychosocial hazards which look at social conflict, aggression, devaluation, discrimination, isolation, rejection, and exclusion. To detect such social-environmental threats, the immune system relies on the brain, which continually monitors the extent to which the individual is in a socially safe versus threatening environment.

While our threat response is fast, efficient, and necessary, it can also lead to errors in judgment.

With so many potentially threats in modern workplaces, it is important that leaders and employees have a suite of strategies to identify, manage and mitigate the threat responses so that we can more accurate interpret our emotions, control our reactions and improve our decision making and impact on others. 

“The best leaders understand where their emotions come from and take accountability. They continually work on understanding themselves and their impact on others. It’s a skill that cannot be under-valued”.   Carolyn Grant.

“Emotional agility is the ability to be with your emotions with curiosity, compassion, and especially the courage to take values-connected steps.

We own our emotions, they don’t own us.”— Susan David

Your predictive brain

Studies show that your brain spends 60 to 80 per cent of its energy on prediction. In every moment, your brain issues thousands of predictions at a time, based on past experience, and the ones that win are (usually) the ones that fit the situation in the next moment.

Since the brain’s primary goal is to keep us alive, it constantly scans the environment for potential threats. When it does register a possible danger, either real or perceived, it responds fast with a rapid shift in our attention to the source (Blanchard et al., 2011). 

While this is a highly evolved process that is essential to our survival, it often goes awry. Overestimating the severity of a threat, or failing to mitigate a counterproductive response, can negatively affect executive functioning, such as cooperation, critical thinking, creativity, and emotion regulation (Arnsten, 2009; Schmader et al., 2008; Vogel & Schwabe, 2016).

Our brains constantly scan our environment for potential threats to launch an adaptive response, which we often have little control over. There is a reason for this: These “behind-the-scenes” neurological processes trigger a response before we can consciously process what is happening to us.

Survival Mode

The construct of emotion

The purpose of the brain is to budget the body’s internal resources (such as water, salt, glucose, and hormones) to keep you alive and healthy. The brain must continuously anticipate the body’s needs and attempt to meet them before they arise. To do this, it must make predictions about everything, including emotions.

With all the stimuli your brain is constantly receiving, it would operate very slowly if it were always in “reaction” mode. Instead, before you take any action, your brain predicts what’s about to occur, and what your body will need for that to happen—for example, by giving you a shot of cortisol to help you get out of bed in the morning.

Your brain makes predictions about your body’s needs, tests these predictions against sensory input, and updates its predictions accordingly—all within an instant.

For example, if someone’s brain predicts the presence of a snake as well as the unpleasant affect that would result upon encountering a snake (“interoceptive prediction”), that brain might categorise and construct an experience of “fear.” This process takes place before any actual sensory input of a snake reaches conscious awareness. 

The brain’s generalisation creates a context of “fear” that is predicted by your physiological response to being asked by our team leader to perform a task you have not been trained in, in front of 100 witnesses.

Your emotions aren’t hardwired into your brain; your brain constructs them using concepts (fear, sadness, loneliness, happiness, comfort). Your emotions are the product of every emotion concept you’ve ever learned, so the more you add to your emotional vocabulary the better and more accurate your brain will predict a context.  

Researcher and academic, Lisa Feldman Barrett   maintains that you are responsible for learning new concepts to rewire your brain for different actions.

All brains evolved for the purposes of regulating the body. Any brain has to make decisions about what to invest its resources in: what am I going to spend, and what kind of reward am I going to get? When those sensations are very intense, we typically use emotion concepts to make sense of those sensory inputs. We construct emotions.


Regulating responses

Accordingly, if your brain is using your past to construct your present, you can invest energy in the present to cultivate new experiences that then become the seeds for your future (for your predictive brain). You can cultivate or curate experiences now and if you practice them, they become automated enough that your brain will automatically construct them in the future. This is you taking accountability and control.

1. Emotional Granularity – increasing your emotional vocabulary will create newer constructs and allow your brain to predict more accurately. Instead of being “fearful” of talking in front of others you might actually be feeling “anticipatory at the opportunity with a touch of apprehension”.  Feldman-Barrett has suggested looking at words and language from other countries to be more definitive. Look to the People Plus Science Linked In posts on a Friday to see some examples of emotional granularity.


2. Emotional Agility – Susan David, author of Emotional Agility says that simply put “emotional agility is about loosening up, calming down, and living with more intention. It’s about choosing how you’ll respond to your emotional warning system.”

In her book, Susan says that there are three broad areas of opportunity if people wish to make changes. 

  • You can tweak your beliefs or your mindset;
  • you can tweak your motivations;
  • you can tweak your habits.

3.  Vicarious learning – an alertness about threats can create increased attention to the learning experiences, stories and lessons from others. 

4. Scenario testing and hypotheticals – using imagination to identify different paths or consequences allows a person to identify new ways to mitigate threats.

5. Reframing – taking a threatening situation and reframing it into a positive experience around “learning” or “gain experience”.

6. Self awareness – creating self awareness about our interpretations, responses, triggers to environment is critical to providing context and the regulation for scientific inquiry. Are you responding because you a fearful or are you fearful because you have not diagnosed what you are really feeling?

7. Scientific inquiry – the ability to pause and inquire about the “situation” is an important step between feeling and responding. If we can regulate enough to take the time to inquire we will be more in control and have the ability to be more cognitively aware thus improving relationships and decision making.


Key Takeaways:

Humans have a great capacity to learn what is important in changing environments and optimise behaviors accordingly.

1. In times of heightened uncertainty, our emotional responses and responding behaviours are often impacted by the automatic responses of our brain that are often predictive and often incorrect in its assumptions.

2. Our brain’s predictive responses (often believing a threat exists) is often made up of prior experience, beliefs, perceptions and interpretation of the surrounding context.  These predictions may create misunderstandings and detrimentally shape our thoughts and behaviours in the workplace. 

3. The misunderstandings and interpretations our brain makes categorising the situation as threatening, can be mitigated by providing clarity and sharing a shared language or shared meaning to commence (sometimes difficult) conversations.  

4. Emotional intelligence includes understanding your own responses to various situations and improving the interpretations our brain gives to physiological and cognitive responses. ie slow down the predictive brain and use observation and questioning to interpret situations more accurately.

5. Managing social threats can be collaborative. Creating a shared and common language can reduce misunderstandings and build the foundations for successful conversations. The introduction of social contracts in team settings also provides an agreement about acceptable behaviours.

6. Heightened vigilance is energy draining so we need to be able to “reset” before going back out into the workplace jungle.

“Neuroscience is the foundation for the approach we bring to every engagement, and it provides a means for consistently making informed decisions that accelerate organisational performance and well-being”.  Carolyn Grant

Interested in Learning More?

Book a briefing on psychological safety today. Mitigate your greatest risk and drive high performing, thriving teams.