Mindful Leadership: Fear and Emotional Contagion

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“But I need my people to be afraid of me – it keeps them on their toes. They perform better that way…” The leader who made that comment, objecting to something Michael said in a presentation on mindful leadership, is almost certainly wrong. It is likely that the fear he instilled lowered, rather than raised, his people’s performance at work.

We hear objections like that quite often. Sometimes they come in the form of “I need adrenalin to keep me going at work – it raises my game.” That perception is misleading and can even be dangerous, and here’s why:

Adrenalin and all the other components of our threat-response system have their place in the overall ecology of our emotional lives, but in modern workplaces they can easily reach a level where they prevent us from functioning at our best.

Millions of years of human evolution have left us with three primary emotion regulation systems. Let’s call them the blue, the red and the green systems. 

The blue system is about striving and reward seeking. Crudely put, it’s the system that moves us to get food and to mate. Dopamine is one of the main drivers of this system. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning to work – to feed ourselves and our families. It’s the blue system that has us seeking success in life. Under its influence, we want to do well.

Then there’s the red system. This is threat focussed and safety seeking. Adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol are big actors in this system. When we leap back to the safety of the kerb as we spot a car hurtling towards us on the road, that’s the red system doing its work.

The green system is all about calming and connecting. Seratonin and oxytocin are big players here. Under their influence we feel good and are moved to bond with others.

Evolution honed and refined these systems. We’re here because historically they performed wonderfully well. Fifty thousand years ago, if you were out in the woods foraging and hunting and suddenly you got a hint that there might be a bear behind that rocky outcrop you’d immediately freeze – you’d not want to alert the bear to your presence. Adrenalin would flood your system, raising your heart rate and pumping your large muscle groups with blood, getting you ready to fight or run away. Cortisol gets going too. This sets you up for rapid responses and it thickens your blood so you heal more quickly if you’re bitten or bruised. Too much cortisol over time undermines your immune system, but right now the bear is the problem – it’s not going to be a disaster if you get flu next week. You stop digesting too – you need your energy for the bear, not digestion. Your muscles tighten, so you’re ready to fight or run, and your hippocampus shuts down – this is no time for new learning. Instead you get tunnel-visioned: focussed on what you already know how to do – fight, run.

That works really well and you escape from the bear, take your prey home to the family campfire and it’s all great. Oxtytocin and serotonin get going, helping everyone bond and feel good. Creativity sparks up and everyone makes new songs and dances about your now legendary escape from the bear.

That was great fifty thousand years ago. But evolution hasn’t caught up with the modern work environment.

One harsh comment from a scary boss and that same threat system flares up.  Your heart-rate and blood pressure go through the roof in case you need to fight or run, cortisol floods your system in case you’re bitten or bruised, you stop digesting and your muscles tighten getting you ready to punch or flee. Your hippocampus shuts down and you can’t think straight let alone be creative.

What’s more, because we’re exquisitely set up to read one another’s emotions unconsciously and rapidly, that same fear will spread through the team – undermining everyone’s well-being and performance.

The Ashridge neuroscience research published earlier this year explores the role that such emotional arousal plays in leaders’ ability to learn and perform well. When the leader is in ‘challenge’ mode, they feel moderately aroused; they perceive themselves as having the resources to deal with the situation facing them and so the level of arousal is ‘just right’. In ‘threat’ mode however the sympathetic nervous response releases adrenalin and the leader experiences the desire to ‘fight’, ‘flee’ or ‘freeze’.

Anxious people, caught in the grip of ‘threat’ get tunnel-visioned. They don’t think straight and they’re not able to be very creative.

A leader who leads from the red zone generates a ‘threat’ response in their teams and before too long that redness can spread through their organisation.

But it doesn’t need to be like that. We can do our blue zone striving at work better from the green zone. When we’re feeling calmer and more connected to others, well-being and performance increase. You can be ambitious, in ‘challenge’ mode, without being anxious and leaders who lead from the green zone more readily bring their people with them.

Mindfulness training enables leaders to manage that red-green axis more effectively. They can spot when they’re getting red and they have some methodologies to hand to help them become green again. Mindful leaders enable, and don’t disable, their people. Do your blue zone leading and striving from the green zone and you’re much more likely to do just that. What’s more, your team is likely to follow your lead.

We will be exploring mindful leadership in our new programme Leading on Purpose at Ashridge Business School.  This innovative programme will help you to develop the perspectives, practices and capabilities essential to leading mindfully, on and with purpose, in the 21stcentury.

kim hollamby