If my manager treats me like crap, I’m going to treat all of you the same way!
These were the exact words of a credit manager to his team. Devastating and unfortunately true.
This outburst came as a result of earlier feedback he had received from his manager, the CFO. He was scrutinised and yelled at for not managing his team to drive higher performance, despite his team consistently achieving KPIs. It makes me question what type of relationship exists between these two individuals. It makes me curious about what else is going on in the background that directs this behaviour. I’m intrigued to understand their inner worlds.
Because they say Words Create Worlds. What world are they living in?
Using the neuroscience of conversations, we can say that both managers were emotionally triggered into a stress state known as an amygdala hijack.
What is an Amygdala Hijack?
It is a stress state triggered by an emotional response when feeling threatened. These threats can show up as experiences that create uncertainty, failure, hopelessness, or fear in all of its myriad forms. As a result, the person shuts down and goes into protective mode. It is a way to put their guard up and assume a strategy for coping within a stressful situation.
The amygdala is a structure in the brain that forms part of the limbic system. Here is where our emotions reside, yet without language.
We engage other parts of the brain to put words to our feelings. But failing this, we are unable to deal with our emotions effectively.
Language is what gives us the ability to understand what we feel. Awareness allows us to consider appropriate responses to these feelings.
And our human brain is all about ensuring the individual’s survival at all times. With a built-in safety mechanism that protects us from threats, the amygdala makes no distinction between physical threats and ego threats. Nor does it distinguish between actual and perceived threats. Science has shown that conversational threats are just as real and trigger the same responses.
When a threat occurs, the amygdala initiates a release and suppression of neuro-chemicals such as cortisol, noradrenaline and adrenaline. This will trigger one of three subconscious survival strategies.
These strategies are better known as the fight, flight or freeze response. As an example, these responses can be translated as aggressiveness (fight), anxiety (flight), and helplessness (freeze). Something to remember is that these stress responses occur subconsciously in the heat of the moment.
Think for a moment, have you observed any of the below behaviours in your workplace?
- Going into a meeting without being given an agenda
- Storming out of meetings
- Raised voices, stating point of view without compromise
- Not wanting to listen to others’ ideas
- Not speaking up to resolve underlying issues to the problem being discussed
- Blaming each other
- Taking credit for work done by someone else
These are just a few examples of individuals behaving in protective mode and operating under the influence of an amygdala hijack.
Recent studies in neuroscience have shown that the power of one word can put someone into an amygdala hijack. The same neuro-chemical cocktail is triggered. This has the potential to instantly destroy trust in the relationship.
Imagine the impact on the credit team when the credit manager spoke that entire sentence! They would have shifted into an instant amygdala hijack!
There is always a solution
Take heart! There is a solution for helping your manager out of an amygdala hijack.
I’m a great believer that every single person is responsible for their own behaviour. That is because we always have a choice to act in a certain way. Having a choice requires a level of self-awareness. To develop self-awareness, start noticing how you react in certain situations and with certain people.
- Do they trigger negative responses in you?
- How do they make you feel?
- Are they triggering you into a stress state where you shut down?
Start asking yourself why and make the choice to react differently the next time you interact with them.
When you find yourself in a situation, feeling the impact of your manager’s words and actions, raise the bar and discuss what just happened. Bring language to the behaviour and open up the space for a caring and candid conversation. This is how you defuse the threat, and instead promote the release of positive neuro-chemicals such as oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin.
A person’s behaviour is a reflection of their inner world (what they feel, see and hear).
Perhaps they aren’t aware of the impact of their conversations and behaviour. We can’t change them, but we can take a different attitude that fosters a mutual space of trust and respect. Sometimes we need to offer the olive branch despite feeling that it wasn’t our fault in the first place. This is part of being conversationally intelligent.
Managers and leaders who have the ability to communicate with empathy, care and candour, are unlikely to take part in a devastating domino effect from the top down. It’s easy to blame management for a toxic work environment, but change starts within each and every one of us.
That’s not to say these individuals don’t get triggered. It’s their ability in recognising their behaviour when in a stress state, and knowing they have a choice to react differently and in such a way that is mutually beneficial for all concerned.
Words Create Worlds. What world are you creating?
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