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Your Brain is Letting You Down

Your Brain is Letting You Down

Social scientist and award-winning CEO, Dr. Mary Donohue, reveals the way your brain functions could be the reason why you’re feeling stressed at work.

How stressed are you at work? If you’re like 67% of the population, you suffer from acute stress in the workplace. The bad news? Stress leads to burnout. The good news? You can lower your stress quickly by understanding the cause of it. That cause is lack of clarity in digital communication.

Please try a quick experiment with me. Imagine I am your manager and we are on good terms. We meet casually in the hall, I ask you the following questions, and you give me the following responses:

Me:      “How are you?”

You:    “Good.”

Me:      “How is your day?”

You:    “Good.”

These are normal responses – no thought required because it’s a normal social pattern. People have asked you these questions thousands of times. Your brain, specifically your thinking brain (the part of your brain closest to your eyes), recognizes this. It can see that, as your manager, I’m not opening up a long conversation, but rather following social norms.

Now, imagine I send you the following emails five minutes apart:

Email 1: “How are you?”

Email 2: “How is your day?”

What would you do if you received these two separate emails from a manager?

My research demonstrates you’re unlikely to respond to the first email because you receive 115 emails a day, on average, and over 40 percent of them have to be answered. On top of that, you also spend over four hours a day in meetings. That means seven hours of your day is consumed by emails and meetings. You’re too busy to reply to what seems to be a social query, so you move on to other tasks, but in the deep recess of your thinking brain a message may start to form, causing you to become suspicious: “Wait, why is she asking that? Why does she want to know how I am?”

When you receive the second email, that voice gets louder. Again, you hear the message in your head, but now the voice may become guarded. Perhaps you start asking questions like “Does my manager know something I don’t?” or “Are people being laid off?” Within seconds, these simple questions have become distracting and put you on edge. Your fight-or-flight response has kicked in. These same six words caused two very different responses solely because they were delivered in different ways – in person and by email.

Prior to our 24-7 digital workplace, we all had a cognitive superpower at work – we understood each other. We knew when people were angry or disappointed because of how they were acting and the tone of voice they were using. Today, most of us are still working from home and the majority of office workers communicate digitally through emails, texts, and virtual meeting programs like Zoom. Our cognitive superpowers are restricted by digital interactions, and we’re left to guess the meaning of the messages exchanged.

My research proves we’re guessing wrong 80 percent of the time because our brains can’t identify patterns of behavior and social cues, like gestures or tone, during digital communication. We are not understanding others, nor are we being understood. When we get things wrong 80 percent of the time, we grow tired and stressed, and productivity drops. We get ill because our brains can’t break through and recognize the social patterns in communication. The brain begins communicating messages of fight-or-flight, and that is very bad for us, as it leads to acute stress.

While your brain may be letting you down, it can also be retrained to identify patterns and key social cues in digital communication. That’s the point of my book, Message Received, launching September 29. It will help you understand the seven barriers causing you stress and then give you the patterns, tools, and charts to help you overcome it. Learn more with this fun quiz.

To read more from Mary Donohue, check out her new book, Message Received.

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Your Brain is Letting You Down

Dr. Mary Donohue is a leading social scientist who has pioneered research in the field of digital mental health with a focus stress reduction and communication through technology. Recognized as one of the 18 Outstanding Women in Tech and Diversity MBA’s top 100 Most Influential Women of 2020, Dr. Mary is best selling author, TEDx presenter, and CEO of Donohue Learning, whose clients include Microsoft, American Airlines, Walmart, and TD Bank.