Leadership hack 004 – controlling the monkey

We all do it.  Someone questions the work that you have just completed or your thoughts on a topic or problem, and you feel the threatened.  You roll our eyes, become defensive or even worse, passive-aggressive.  Deep inside you know that your response is unhelpful, and does nothing to solve the problems you face or improve your relationships with other people.  But why does this still happen?

Several authors argue that your ‘reptilian brain’ or ‘limbic response’ (see ‘The Chimp Paradox Thinking Fast and Slow or Decisive) is responsible.  These authors argue that it is the limbic system which enables us to respond to threats by fight, flight or freeze.  When someone questions your work or opinion, they may not be threatening you physically, but they are threatening something deeper – your identity.  

Humans are storytellers.  Everyone constructs their own internal narrative.  I would bet that you see yourself more as Rey (or Luke Skywalker), battling evils and the odds, rather than Darth Vader, or Stormtrooper number Tk-361.   Your work and opinions are important parts of your life.  I am sure you feel that your work and your opinions are the result of considered thought and hard work.  So when someone questions these, they indirectly question and threaten your positive self-narrative.  It is this threat which triggers the limbic response.  But what can you do?

It takes over 90 seconds for the threat response to subside, by which time the damage may is done (you can see Dr Jill Bolte Taylor TED speech here or get her book here).  Which strongly suggest that a pause or a break in your line of thinking would help (e.g., counting to ten in your head).  Others solutions may be mindfulness training, and attempting to make a conscious decision to reframe the threat, but the evidence base for these approaches is limited.

As a leader, it is also important that you try to prevent this automatic trigger in others.   Neuroscientist Dr David Rock proposed the SCARF acronym: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness framework.

Status.  Hierarchy has evolved from being the alpha male of a tribe in a cave to being the CEO of a multination business.  In both cases, your position determines both your security and your ability to provide for you and your family.  While this may be difficult to fix in many organisations, you can lend others your status to others by publically supporting and praising them, and not undermining them.

Certainty.  This is especially important for those who love to plan and are uncomfortable with ambiguity.  Fear of the unknown is powerful, and uncertainty will make people feel a loss of control (see Tom Robins’ great TED talk).  Be as open and transparent as possible about what you know, and what you think may happen.

Autonomy.  People want control over their destiny (however impossible this may be!).   Presenting someone with a decision that has already been made, or micro-managing them will elicit a feeling of loss of control (see Dan Pink’s TED talk here).  Providing choices and asking for people’s input and opinion will increase their feeling of control.

Relatedness.  Humans for strong emotional bonds.   We form groups or tribes (see Simon Senick’s great TED talk) which provide safety.  Without these bonds we see people as a threat.  Getting to know your colleagues and building an emotional relationship will create a safe environment, reducing the likelihood of a threat response.

Fairness.  Many studies have shown the importance of fairness (see a paper from PLOS One here).  When people feel that they have been subjected to injustice, they see it as an attack.  Establishing and respecting ground rules or team norms and negotiating, rather than directing, is less likely to result in a threat response.

In conclusion, when you feel that you are under attack – take a break and count to ten in your head.  As a leader, think about how you interact with others and consider your status, your relationship with others and the impact of what you are saying on other people’s certainty and autonomy, and whether they believe they are being treated fairly.