Your Brain and Ambiguity




Larry Seal


At work, ambiguity happens when a person is faced with unanticipated change, conflicting directions, a shift in strategy, or even a relatively benign change that is poorly communicated. Why? When people are confronted with significant and unexpected stimulus, their normal ability to think rationally and problem-solve gets overridden by the actions of an almond-sized structure in their brain known as the amygdala.

Your Amygdala Gets Hijacked

The amygdala is an actual physical structure and a central part of the brain’s limbic system. This system is responsible for your emotional and behavioral responses, so as you can imagine, it’s pretty important. The amygdala is responsible for triggering your fight-flight-freeze responses, which it does without any direction from you. When triggered, it tells your brain to begin pumping adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones that prepare your body to deal with the perceived threat. This set of reactions isn’t put in motion by a conscious decision; it happens in thousands of seconds whenever your brain senses a threat. This is called the amygdala hijack. Normal thinking and processing are greatly diminished as you shift into survival mode. You can imagine how that might happen when you face a life-threatening moment, but does it also occur at work? Brain researchers tell us it most certainly does.

Consider this example

A senior manager criticizes your work in front of a room of your coworkers. If you are like most people, that immediately creates an uneasy feeling in your stomach. That experience is a precursor to strong emotions that can feel like embarrassment or even shame. In other words, it feels like a personal attack. This is where your fight, flight, or freeze response kicks in. Neural researchers can demonstrate that the brain’s reactions to this sort of a “threat” are no different than when a person is faced with actual immediate physical harm, say a car swerving unexpectedly into your lane on the freeway or finding yourself face to face with a bear on a walk in the woods.

Our Responses

  • Freeze - When faced with this public criticism, you may find yourself unable to respond, or to think clearly, your eyes may drop, your breathing might get shallow, your system is shutting down.
  • Fight - Other times, you may respond aggressively by attacking back; without considering the consequences or the actual intentions of the other person. You might yell and accuse and likely create an even more charged circumstance where an overall positive outcome is unlikely.
  • Flight - You can also go into “flight mode,” which might cause you to stand up, rage quit and walk out.

None of these reactions serve you incredibly well and yet, these are predictable outcomes that all too often negatively impact us at work. As your experience with a person or a set of circumstances grows, you tend to grow your ability to react to that circumstance more gracefully and effectively. Why? Precisely because there is less ambiguity because you can predict how people and circumstances will react and unfold. In the public criticism example, a seasoned employee is more likely to understand the criticism isn’t about them as a person but rather a particular work result. That realization alone, that ability to separate oneself from the moment and its emotions, will greatly increase the likelihood that they will respond logically and rationally.

In my experience, many of the most successful people have cultivated this ability to step back, recognize their natural biochemical reactions, and then consider how those might drive irrational or self-destructive responses. They are able to see their situation more accurately and actually choose their responses rather than being a slave to their limbic responses.

Meditation as a Leadership Tool

Studies show that a regular practice of meditation can help significantly in being able to detect and, therefore, positively channel the amygdala’s natural reactions. I’ve had a mediation practice for more than two decades. Like many meditators, I find that when I am diligent with my practice, my perceptions of the world change. Everything seems to slow down and I am able to process my own thinking and reactions in a far more useful way. I find myself thinking more clearly and can react to most stimulus with more curiosity and calm vs. when I “have gotten too busy to meditate.”

How does it work? Extremely simple, actually. At the heart of all meditation is breathing. This rhythm is one of our most fundamental human processes, and when we take the time to focus our attention on it consciously, the whole brain (including our amygdala) starts to slow down and come into clearer focus.

We all know how chaotic things can feel as we move through life. Meditation is a brake on that chaos and it allows you the space to process and react far more gracefully. After 25 years of cultivating a meditation practice, I can speak first-hand to how difficult it can be to calm your mind and experience something slower and easier to manage. Like most everything, however, the more you practice, the easier it becomes. In my experience, this is the single best tool to help you to navigate all the surprises, challenges and opportunities that present themselves. The analogy I like is this – You can find yourself in the middle of the river and get swept towards the coming rapids with no awareness other than the water you are in. The second approach is a slower approach, one that lets you clearly assess the entirety of your situation and see the banks of the river in the distance and begin to move towards that safe shore one stroke at a time.


Today’s business world is more unpredictable and tumultuous than ever before. Leaders who are better able to tolerate and manage their own reactions to stress, change, and ambiguity are more capable of making sound and rational decisions. Given our biology and the presence of our amygdala, you can either cultivate methods to deal with its inevitable reactions or not.


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