What’s your earliest memory?
Mine is being smacked across the bottom by my father. I think I must have been about three years old. I have a clear picture in my head of walking with my parents along Cantilupe Road in Ross on Wye in the UK – past the school which would become my primary school – on the way to see my adored nana and grandad.
I remember asking my parents if we could cross the road so we could get to nana’s house. “Can we cross over now?” “Please can we cross over now?” “When can we cross over?” “Why can’t we cross over now?”
No response came from my mother or father. So, as any self-respecting three year old would do, I took control of the situation. I let go of my mother’s hand and ran out into the road to cross it.
Clearly I wasn’t killed but when my father caught up with me, I got smacked because he told me I could have been! That smacking didn’t make a whole load of sense to me when I was three and still doesn’t now – a pretty confused message isn’t it? ‘We don’t want you to get hurt but let me hurt you with a smack for trying!!’
What was really happening in my parents’ heads?
The real truth of the moment lay in some other words I remember dad said: “you scared your mother to death”.
And of course, as we know from The Almond Effect®, even though mum herself wasn’t at risk, seeing me run into the road and place myself in apparent danger, was enough to trigger her amygdala.
And it is probably true that I could have frightened her ‘to death’. Her body would have reacted as if she was the one about to die. Adrenaline surged through her and she froze on the spot. Fortunately she didn’t have weak heart! But I can remember her face when she caught up to me – just staring with her eyes wide open and tears running down the sides of her pointy nose.
Do you respond to fear with fear?
What do you do when people do something that gives you a fright? E.g. they take a risk; grumble and threaten to leave; don’t do as they are asked; breach company policies; don’t hit their deadlines; don’t turn up for training; miss teleconferences etc etc.
Do you respond in kind by doing something to scare them – just like my dad did to me? Do you get angry? Do you ignore it completely? Or do you face your fears, deal with them and produce an appropriate and effective response?
Here’s the challenge. If you or any of your team members, experiences fear at work – you may not be functioning at the optimum level. You may not be performing both individually and as part of a team to ensure that all of you reach your goals and objectives
Of course, fear and apprehension can act as a wonderful motivator. People convert their ‘nerves’ into the spark, energy and commitment that brings out the very best in themselves and others.
However reflect on what happens for example, when elite sportspeople, the best in their game, respond to their nerves (fear) during competition by letting nervousness take control rather than controlling it.
Naturally competitors feel anxious that they might not win. All their hard work, dedication and training is focused on winning.
But their competitive edge is in the mind game. Often it is their mind training that fails when they are in a winning position but lose. The loss is usually because they let their guard down too early (i.e. let their amygdala off the hook too soon). Or they realized they were so close to their dream and then got scared that they could still lose even when that close – that’s even scarier. Focus is lost as is the ability to perform at the level they clearly can.
You see this at work all the time. One of the clearest illustrations is in interviews and presentations. Enough has been said and nothing more should be said, the goal is achieved. But something (fear) in the silence or pause drives us to just add a bit more…..
The leader’s role
Basically memory and imagination use the same neurological circuits and potentially have the same impact. So our amygdala doesn’t ‘know’ the difference whether fears at work (or anywhere) are based on previous experience or imagined. Nor does it know whether these fears are justified or not. That’s the job of the pre-frontal cortex (PFC). Our challenge is to ensure the PFC is given the opportunity to take control of the situation.
As leaders and team members, we have to accept, even though we may not understand the reason why, that we work with people who have fears, real and imagined. Sometimes it’s impossible to know where they come from, how they are generated, why they stay with us, when, where and how they’ll show up.
Controlling responses to fear
So what we must do is learn tools to control our fears and our responses to them. We also need to provide our people with these skills to ensure they are not in a state of fear when they are working alone, as part of a team, interacting with customers.
Your job is to build a relationship with your team so that you can understand where peoples’ concerns may be coming from. Develop the trust between you so that your team members will share their concerns with you. I know plenty of examples where team members do not trust their managers or supervisors well enough to share their concerns for fear there may be retribution.
And teaching them STAR skills is a great way to start the conversation. Let me know if I can help you and your team develop and leverage the leadership skills to Stop-Think-Act-Rewire.