When our brains are more alert, we’re more likely to spill the beans on something embarrassing or incriminating. How should HR respond when this happens at work?
Have you ever said something to your manager that you wish you could take back? Perhaps a ‘too honest’ or ungenerous comment about a colleague or senior management? What about those regretful text messages sent to a colleague sharing embarrassing details about your personal life?
Sorry, I sent that to the wrong person!
Sure you did.
New research from Brent Coker of the University of Melbourne and Ann McGill of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that when our brains are aroused – that is, alert and awake – we’re more likely to blurt out personal information that we wish we had kept to ourselves.
Too much information
Analysing data collected over three years through eight different experiments, Coker and McGill found that, while you might assume we have more control over our actions when we’re alert, such arousal actually depletes our cognitive resources and causes us to become loose lipped.
“Our research finds that information we’re usually careful about concealing, such as secrets and very personal information, is more likely to be disclosed when we default to more automatic responses. We found arousal makes people reveal more personal information, disclose secrets, reveal incriminating information and share frowned-upon experiences with strangers,” says Coker in an article for The Conversation.
How would that play out in a work context? Well, if you’re suppressing a strong emotion towards a colleague – be that pure hatred or all-consuming love – you might be more likely to tell them about it when you’re feeling mentally stimulated. For example, around this time of year many organisations are throwing office Christmas parties and we know too well that this can be a prime time for staff to embarrass themselves.
Of course, copious glasses of mulled wine don’t help, but the environment in and of itself (sans alcohol) can still work against us.
“Christmas is stressful, and stress leads to chronic arousal. When people are aroused, they’re more likely to say things they probably shouldn’t,” says Coker.
Not only does this behaviour have the potential to lead to an awkward Monday morning at work, it can also leave a sour taste in your colleagues’ mouths (and not just the ones you confessed to hating/loving).
In one experiment, people who jogged on the spot for 60 seconds (releasing all of those good exercise endorphins) were more open to sharing embarrassing stories about themselves. Another experiment revealed that those with highly alert brains were more likely to disclose incriminating information about themselves, like unkind and malicious things they had said online. Is this the kind of stuff you really want your colleagues to know about?
With all due respect, please shut up
So how can we lower our arousal levels? According to the researchers, it’s simple – just chill out, man.
They offer the usual advice: deep breaths, relaxing music, less coffee, more sleep, etc. These practices are helpful in preventing you from putting your foot in your mouth, but what should others, HR in particular, do once the cat is already out of the bag?
It can be uncomfortable telling someone that you really don’t want to hear about the sordid details of their personal life, even more so if they’re a colleague. But sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and have that conversation.
For example, if Andrew just told you he’s having an affair and you absolutely don’t want any further details, you need to stop him in his tracks immediately.
“There is nothing worse than festering animosity, especially in a work setting,” says Bill Fish, co-founder of Tuck.com in an article for Credibly. “Delayed action allows emotions to multiply on top of each other, and the issue can spiral out of control.”
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In the same article, Thomas R. Harris, co-owner of The Exceptional Skills, suggests that managers avoid “triangulation” in conflict management, that is unnecessarily involving someone in a dispute.
An employee’s first instinct might be to involve HR in a workplace spat. While that is often a necessary move, Harris suggests it can end up wasting everyone’s time.
“If someone has an issue, they should go directly to the person they have an issue with and resolve it,” says Harris. “If they can’t resolve it, they can either choose a third party they both agree with to mediate, or there could be an established team leader or mentor who has that responsibility. Either way, have it set as company policy.”
Triangulation can lead to employee’s building allies for their disagreements, Harris says, which pits people against each other and could fan the flames of the original conflict.
Having a formal policy in place to manage these situations could end up saving your organisation a lot of time and energy. Kathy Green, office manager at TheraSpecs shared her company’s O.I.I.R. method, which she says is printed on posters in each room of their office.
The method includes:
- Observation – Take note of the facts and remain as neutral as possible.
- Impact – Outline the impact the observation had on you and use ‘I statements’. “When you started telling me about your affair, Andrew, I felt uncomfortable.”
- Interpretation – Make interpretations of the situation based on the observation and the impact, rather than making assumptions.
- Request – Think about a respectful request that will change the behaviour. “In the future, I’d prefer you didn’t talk about your personal affairs at work.”
What’s difficult, says Coker, is that at work our brains are cognitively stimulated – whether that’s by stress or excitement. Taking steps to remain calm in these scenarios will help you to stay in control of your messaging and avoid saying something you might later (or instantly) regret.