This is your Brain on Change

Recently I’ve been paying attention to the brain. Actually, my brain has been paying attention to the brain – which is a great reminder that our cognitive mind can fool us into thinking it is all there is. Of course we humans have other kinds of intelligences – our hearts and our bodies for example. These other ways of knowing often get crowded out by a busy brain that wants to direct our thinking.

 At a coaching conference last week I heard Linda J. Page, PhD, a Canadian researcher and president of Adler International Learning, speak about how the brain works. In plain language she described parts of the brain, how they work together and especially how our brains react to perceived threats. She explained that the limbic function of our brain’s system is particularly sensitive to threats and to negative emotions. Her presentation was relevant for leaders given the rapid changes in the workplace and the accompanying fear and anxiety they produce.

 A few leadership considerations:

  1. The limbic system, when it is activated by a threat, disrupts the functioning of the other parts of the brain, especially inhibiting the pre-frontal cortex functions. Leaders need to be sensitive to signals that a person is experiencing anxiety. This can include an inhibition of important functions like empathy, intuition, flexibility and short-term memory. Pay attention when someone on your team seems forgetful, when they seem colder or more aloof, when they seem too rigid and unable to see a new way. They may be experiencing threat-related limbic activation.
  2. Linda described the SCARF model which helps us remember the type of social threats that challenge our brain’s normal functioning. When the following are threatened, our limbic system reacts:  Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. Think about changes that you are trying to implement with your team. Is someone’s status or value to the team going to change? Is the outcome uncertain? Will team members lose the ability to make their own decisions? Who might feel isolated and unconnected? Is there a chance of unfairness?
  3. We can help rebalance the brain, ours and others, through healthy social interaction. Talking about our anxieties and negative reactions to change lowers feelings of isolation and helps us feel normal. Team support and group discussion widens our thinking and takes the brain’s mind off of our narrow self, helping us to see different options.
  4. Another way to settle our brain is to self-reflect. As Linda says, “We can use our minds to change our brains.” We can accomplish this by taking time to journal, or by making quiet time to step away from our experiences as a witness/observer. Many people use mindfulness meditation training to learn to self-observe in stressful situations.
  5. Messages delivered to the brain are very powerful. As a leader, you can reassure people by offering hope and the vision of positive futures when they are most anxious. It is very effective to repeat the same message many times and in many formats. For ourselves, we can speak to our brains and offer soothing messages like “It’s going to be alright.” Or even “This won’t last forever.”

For more information on the brain and the SCARF model read the Book “Coaching with the Brain in Mind: Foundations for Practice” by David Rock and Linda J. Page.

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