Leadership Skills

Think back. Somewhere in the deep dark recesses of your mind, you have a distant memory of that Introduction to Psychology course. You learned all about brain function, cognition, memory, learning, and emotion. Now you’ll learn how Psychology impacts everyday leadership skills.

At some point in this course, there was a discussion of a nifty little part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is part of the limbic region, sometimes referred to as the “reptilian brain.” From an evolutionary perspective, this is the part of the brain that kept our species alive by sending out clear signals, particularly in stressful situations.

Immediate Actions

When our early ancestors were confronted by a sabertooth tiger, it was exceedingly helpful to make a quick decision. In that situation, you needed an immediate decision; stand your ground and attack, or run like heck to the cave and hope you were faster than the guy that joined you for the hunt.

The term “fight or flight” captures the basic impulse that the amygdala sends out when confronted with a perceived risky or dangerous situation. The amygdala does not turn itself off during business hours. Every time we encounter another individual in a business situation, we are potentially competing with that individual.

Fight or Flight

For example, you may want to make a sales deal at a certain price point and your counterpart, who may indeed be a valued, long-term customer, is also looking for a favorable price point as well.

If the interchange becomes stressful for any reason, the mighty amygdala kicks in and starts a chain of powerful reactions. On a subconscious level, the amygdala directs the brain to send signals to either “fight” and confront a perceived threat, or “flight” and retreat from the perceived threat.

While typically not as threatening as a sabertooth tiger, subtle or overt threats that we encounter with business colleagues, customers, subordinates, and peers can easily set off the amygdala.

How to Take Control Back from Your Amygdala

Competing with the survival goals orchestrated by the amygdala is a much larger portion of the brain referred to as the frontal cortex. The cortex controls much of our cognition, rational thought, and logic.

In stressful situations, the frontal lobe attempts to mediate the signals from the limbic system and make rational decisions based on information rather than just instinctual reactions. With that in mind, we can anticipate a fight or flight response when we encounter a stressful situation.

Here are some well-tested responses when confronted by a stressful situation that elicits the fight or flight reaction:

1. Recognize What’s Going On

When confronted by a potentially threatening situation, carefully and intentionally bring to consciousness what’s going on and how you choose to respond to the situation. This gives your huge frontal cortex a chance to kick into gear before the amygdala takes complete control.

2. Take Time to Think

Rarely is it a good idea to make a decision when you are in an emotional fight or flight situation, unless you are about to be hit by a bus.  The situation may seem immediate but you have a choice to take a break, go for a walk, and allow your rational side to kick in before you take action.

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3. Filter Your Response With a Plan

The amygdala is set up for short-term reactions. Most business situations allow for plenty of time to collect more information, analyze alternatives, and execute with a clear plan. Take your time and remove yourself from the immediate, stress-evoking situation before deciding on a course of action.

The Three “A’s” of Managing Fear

You can become more successful at managing fear if you practice a simple, three-step reconditioning technique every time you become aware that you are experiencing a fear response generated by the amygdala. Incorporate this discipline into your daily activities and you will quickly develop a greater sense of control and well-being in your life.

Awareness

In many cases, fear can be a gnawing, uncomfortable feeling that lingers just below the level of perception. This increases our stress level because we experience the fear reaction without the awareness of what to do about it.

Awareness allows us to acknowledge that fear is real, it is powerful, and that we are presently experiencing fear. Simply say out loud, “I am feeling fearful. This is very normal and healthy reaction given the situation I’m in right now.”  Saying this out loud will instantly strengthen your awareness.

Acceptance

This is a very brief but important step and it is a matter of choice rather than any kind of realization. Acceptance simply means making an active choice to accept the situation you are in and that fear is a part of that situation. It is also helpful to accept the circumstances that surround the fear.

Don’t rationalize, justify, or refute the cause of fear – simply accept that the circumstances exist. This by no means makes the fear go away. It simply allows you to accept that the fear is real and impactful, and that acceptance clears the way for you to move on to the final step of reconditioning.

Action

Taking action drives away fear.  Any time you take action in a way that directly challenges the basis of your fear, you are taking control of the situation. Every action that you complete related to the fear moves you into the driver seat.

Taking direct action against fear is challenging and, with practice, it can be extremely rewarding and even fun. All successful athletic competitors realize this and use this dynamic challenge to drive their performance.

Fear is a natural aspect of everyday business life that impacts your leadership skills.  Unfortunately, we are hard-wired with that little piece of our brain based on a time when threats were more real than imagined. The more insight you have on the root cause of fear, the more successful your business decisions will be.

How Does the Brain Affect Leadership Skills?

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Dr. Kirk Hallowell
Kirk is the author of, The Million-Dollar Race: An Insider’s Guide to Winning the Job of Your Dreams, to be published by Greenleaf Book Group the end of 2012. Kirk is President of MatchPoint Learning & Development.