Workplace Ambiguity - How to Increase Job Satisfaction According to Science


Most people will experience ambiguity in their workplace at some point in their career. When it occurs, the experience can feel very stressful, or even scary. It diminishes the positive of successes and exacerbates negative sensations when things do not go as planned.

Recent neurology research may hold some clues about fundamental mechanisms in our brains activated by expectations of wins or losses. Learning about these neural mechanisms may reduce the severity of the distress that can be caused by workplace ambiguity. They can provide information to restructure how tasks are tackled throughout the course of the day. This may allow better scheduling for when challenging or stressful tasks must be handled or let us more deeply rejoice in successes when they occur.

Perception of workplace well-being is the aggregate of the feelings generated from experiences. Adjusting one’s workday to better match with how rhythms condition us for certain responses to good or bad events, or at the very least, simply being aware of the priming that takes place in our brain, may improve positive feelings and enhance well-being in the workplace.

Ambiguity is an unclear statement, task, or goal. In an ambiguous situation, we don’t have all of the information that we would like when making decisions. It’s reasonable to say that most of us have an expectation of clarity, appropriate levels of information, and supportive guidance from our supervisor or organization for the decisions we make and the outcomes for which we are held accountable. That’s a normal healthy workplace structure, and thus it is a reasonable expectation that most of us hold as default.

When we don’t feel comfortable navigating our roles and decision-making, the toll it can take on health and well-being is substantial. While every workplace will have different degrees of flexibility, an awareness of these patterns can help enhance comfort.

The Role of the Reward Response in the Brain

A team of researchers from Australia found a link between circadian system timing and activation of a part of the brain called the putamen. The putamen has a robust impact on our perceived state of well-being. When you perceive the joyous sensation of a ‘win’ or a ‘reward,’ this is because your putamen has become especially excited (i.e., generates an increase in measurable electrical impulses).

The putamen is where our ‘reward response’ drive originates. It is the part of you that becomes excited when it identifies a reward has been obtained, or a ‘win’ has occurred. This process is called neural reward functioning, and it feels pleasant when it occurs inside of the brain.

Previous research suggested that reward function appeared to be modulated by circadian rhythms to some degree, but the neural basis of that interaction remained unknown. This newer research attempted to explore that underlying mechanism between the circadian systems and the activity of the putamen. This also requires a better understanding of the diurnal rhythm.

The diurnal rhythm waveform was investigated using an fMRI to observe the part of the brain containing the putamen. What they found may be applicable to understanding why the brain reacts the way it does to positive or negative outcomes at work. This also applies to how ambiguity lessens overall feelings of well-being and enhances the feeling of a lack of control.

The Putamen and Pre-Determined Expectations

In a sense, the putamen appears to demonstrate the concept of pre-determined expectation (and the subsequent realization of) a particular outcome, with expectations alone able to alter the scope of the activity response. When the putamen is not expecting a reward, but it does receive one, it becomes especially excited. It becomes more excited because of the mismatch of expectations than it would become in response to an identical, expected reward.

This is believed to be the mechanism that can make gambling particularly addictive for some individuals; the wins are essentially at random and the rush of excitement from landing one can be hard to top.

Here is where these newer findings come in. Consider the phenomenon of the afternoon slump. Prior to this research, it was postulated that this dip in mood could be due to two different processes. One theory proposed that reward response simply followed diurnal rhythm—after it hits its early afternoon peak and begins to decline, so too do the reward response capabilities of the brain.

Researchers modeled each scenario, within the same brain, in a series of subjects at various times of the day. The reward was in the form of a game that was rigged to force a win or loss on the subject, but this was not known to the subjects.

The results of this research suggest that the actual mechanism is due to a prediction error of the brain—the aforementioned mismatch of expectation and reward that renders an unexpected award especially exciting for the putamen. Expectations within the brain appear to be set by the diurnal rhythm.

Our Brains are Primed to Expect Afternoon Rewards

The data gathered in this research demonstrated robust results on this hardwired reward timing expectation. At the start and end of the day, the brain is primed to not expect a reward. Conversely, every afternoon, the brain changes expectations, and now expects a reward or win.

As we learned earlier, a mismatch of expectations to outcome causes a more extreme reward response in the putamen. These findings are of great relevance to mental health, well-being, and stress in the workplace. We will have a different level of emotional response to the exact same event, simply because it happened at a different time of day.

In the midafternoon (specifically at 2:00 PM in this study), the brains of the subjects consistently demonstrated a higher expectation of reward. If subjects won the game that took place at the 2:00 PM timepoint, the brain behaved as though the reward was expected. This was ascertained by lower levels of activity being measured by the fMRI even though a ‘win’ was obtained; the rewarding occurred, but only mildly pleased the putamen.

In comparison, the same event was measured at a morning and evening timepoint. Same game, same win. But the response was not the same in the brain—the putamen went wild with excitement, despite the more blasé response to the win if it took place at 2:00 PM.

From this experiment, researchers were able to conclude that the level of expectation appears to fluctuate in a predictable rhythm over the course of the day, specific to expectations of a reward. In the afternoon slump, the brain is most expectant, and the environment fails to produce the expected reward. In sum, excitement is modulated by pre-determined expectations.

Takeaways: How to Increase Well-Being in the Workplace

It is in many ways quite marvelous that the gray wrinkled organ inside of our skulls is capable of generating such a rich life experience. There are times when that life experience can feel more stressful; in the workplace, ambiguity is a well-recognized high-stress trigger.

Ultimately, our perception of how stressful an environment is cannot be captured in a single moment; rather, it is, the sum of our emotional responses to situations over time. Our brain responds to rewards differently at different times of the day—and substantially so. This primes us to handle positive or negative tasks better at certain times of the day.

Awareness of one’s rhythms is one of the most powerful tools to regain a sense of control in an ambiguous work environment and in life overall. Tracking one’s mood at different times of day in a regimented fashion can quickly capture sufficient data to help you identify your own patterns to consider how you may be able to rearrange your day to take advantage of these cycles.

At the very least, an awareness of these mechanisms taking place can help improve positive feelings by being able to put them into perspective as the universal sensations that they appear to be. Our sense of self and well-being is modulated by electrical activity occurring in various parts of the brain.

While it feels very individual and personal, these are far more universal than previously thought. Leveraging every tool available, circadian rhythms included, can optimize one’s career trajectory and enhance the life experience to a great degree.

Elizabeth Bradford Kneeland, MBA
Elizabeth Bradford Kneeland, MBA

Elizabeth Kneeland is a telemedicine and sleep medicine innovator living in Philadelphia. As the director for Crozer Health System sleep labs, she oversees the process, staff, and technology required to diagnosis a wide range of sleep disorders. Her career focus has straddled novel operational and financial modeling, and traditional academic research, providing her with a unique perspective in programmatic development and care optimization strategy.

Kneeland built the first for-profit telemedicine program for the University of Pennsylvania Health System in 2015. She also has helped build and scale sleep medicine startups in the U.S., as well as in China and Taiwan. She has co-authored publications in peer-reviewed journals on topics ranging from device validation to clinician-level educational interventions and has been an invited speaker at medical conferences throughout the U.S., China, and Taiwan.

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