Understanding ourselves can be a humbling experience. Whether it’s recognizing a small mistake or understanding what microscopic specs of stardust we are in the context of the universe, these are moments when truth intrudes upon our sense of self.
One of the most important truths neuroscience provides for us as leaders, and one of the most humbling, is just how quickly and easily we can do harm through our attitudes. As with all such truths, this can help us to become better leaders.
Emotional contagion might sound like something from an episode of Star Trek, but it’s an all too real challenge. We might think that we have our emotions under control, but in reality we give off many tiny indicators, and the people we interact with pick up on our emotional states before either we or they are aware of it. Happening in mere milliseconds, this leads to the spread of emotions, especially negative emotions. Neural systems responsible for emotional arousal kick in before the conscious mind has had time to process the information. Unhappiness, frustration and other counter-productive emotions spread.
This means that our bad moods as leaders can easily spread as we move around the organization. Even when we think we have our feelings under control, we may leave disenchantment in our wake.
Much of the way our brains work is designed for a simpler time, when we were struggling to survive. This includes the threat response.
Triggered by unexpected events, the threat response causes the brain to activate neurons and release hormones intended to help with survival. It diverts oxygen and glucose, the fuel by which all the cells in our bodies are powered, to the parts of the brain responsible for dealing with threats. This deprives other parts of the brain of these resources, reducing our ability to solve problems, analyze situations and create new ideas.
But though the modern office is a much safer place than the environment we evolved in, there are still things in it that can trigger the threat response. Social situations can kick the response into gear, for example unexpected challenges or feeling ostracized. For many people, an appearance by the boss is exactly the sort of event that triggers a threat response and so vastly reduces their efficiency. This is particularly true when visits from the boss are associated with bad news, work challenges and negative feedback.
If our every word can cause such damage, what can we as leaders do to turn these responses to good?
The answer is simple, and is good for own well-being as well as that of our staff. It’s self-awareness.
We all have times when we lose track of our emotions, what is triggering them and what signals we’re sending out. By developing greater self-awareness you can increase the amount of time you spend in more positive emotions, spreading them like a benevolent contagion and avoiding triggering threat responses.
The simplest way to promote self-awareness is to regularly take a few minutes to do nothing, empty your mind and pay attention to your emotional state. Consider what you’re feeling and where it comes from. See if you can let go of the negatives, or act on them so that they don’t linger. For a more sophisticated approach you could consider exploring mindfulness, a technique similar to meditation and designed to promote emotional awareness and control. There are a whole range of books and courses on the subject.
Stopping to reflect on your emotions may not sound as productive as reading a memo or sending an email. But the knock-on effect will make it well worth your time.