The Amygdala and Leadership

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How is it possible that an almond sized piece of our brain have so much power? It can take a person’s glance and turn it into a potential catastrophe, at least that is what we perceive.  The catastrophe is where my default response tends toward.   It could be a person’s glance or a late night email from a client. It must be a catastrophe.

The amygdala tells us whether we should avoid something or approach something.  The avoiding response comes from the days of the mighty and hairy caveman.   The amygdala reacts before something hits our consciousness.

The approach and avoid response impacts our work.  We want to avoid the boss that is threatening.  On the other hand, we want to approach work that is meaningful, fits within our skill set and has the potential to provide a positive outcome.

When you experience an event called “amygdala hijack” it removes the ability of your pre-frontal cortex to complete complex tasks such as creativity, problem solving or even being present in a meeting.  Essentially, the amygdala will push us to viewing everything as a threat vs. an activity that may provide a reward.

Leaders have the opportunity to create the approach response on their team.  To do this, leaders must address the five social / work domains represented in the acronym – S.C.A.R.F.

Status:  This is defined as our relative importance to others.  We could also call this ‘pecking order’ or seniority in business.   The perception of a real reduction in status can generate a threat or avoidance response.

Leaders can increase the status experience by helping employees focus on their own growth and development vs. their growth in comparison to others. Comparison is toxic, but comparison to ourselves actually serves a productive purpose.

Leaders that provide positive public encouragement can actually raise the status experience of employees.   At the other end of the spectrum, performance reviews can actually generate the avoid response and a feeling of being threatened.  This lowers the engagement response that leaders are looking for.  This is why performance reviews are being dropped by companies around the nation in favor of alternative methods of motivating employees.

Additionally, consider focusing on the quality of the work vs. the quantity.   It might help to use the phrase “Trust the process” vs. “focus on the outcome.”  We tend to take a short term quick fix viewpoint of work vs. a long term trajectory perspective. This is compounded by a culture of immediacy.

Certainty is about being able to predict the future.  Everyone has a certain tolerance level of uncertainty.  Leaders have the ability to influence the amount of certainty we create for our teams.  This is why change can be so difficult for many.  During change, the perceived level of certainty has been removed and now new tracks of certainty must be laid.

A leader can help this process by generating a business plan, adding a project close date or placing a time limit on a meeting agenda.  These methods provide clarity and hope during a time of disruption.  Even breaking down larger projects into smaller tactical steps can provide a modicum of certainty.

Autonomy is the perception that we have control over our work and environment.  The opposite of autonomy is micro-management or being micro-managed.  Leaders may think that being more of a micro-manager is in the best interest of the company.  In actuality, it can generate the threat response.

My very first manager was a classic micro-manager.  I never felt that I could make my own independent decisions.  I experienced a lack of trust and therefore my engagement was much less than it could have been.

Autonomy is generated by giving employees special projects that they initiate.  Giving employees the chance to manage their workflow, manage their time and take risks can be autonomy building.   This is the most difficult area for managers because there is a fine line between micro-management and healthy management.

Relatedness is the sense of safety that people experience.  It is just like the lunch room experience in junior high school.  Essentially are you ‘in’ or are you ‘out’? We are people of the pack.  A leader helps individuals know that they are a part of the group.

The threat response is activated when we perceive that we could be kicked out of the group.   Creating outside of work social activities can generate a strong sense of relatedness within the group.  Connection is good and disconnection is bad.

Fairness is about knowing that I am being treated just like everyone else.  Leaders can improve fairness by giving the same rewards to every employee.  If Sally gets special treatment and Steve does not, then the threat response could emerge by this demonstration of unfairness.

The almond sized piece of our brain does have power and so do you.  You have the opportunity to influence these 5 factors today.  How are you doing with the S.C.A.R.F model? Which one do you feel exemplary in? Which one needs improving?