In the workplace, only those people who can defend themselves against threats to their survival and demonstrate their fitness (competence) will last and increase their chances of advancement. Defensive behaviour is the same in everyone (and in all animals). When a person perceives a threat to her survival (appearing incompetent or losing his job) it creates anxiety (fear). This causes a hormonal response that shuts down the pre-frontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain). The person then defends against the threat using a fight, flee, freeze or appease response. This is called the threat – anxiety – defence response.
The manager who is always telling people that they are stupid or useless, or telling them that they don’t know their jobs or are going to lose their jobs is going to make his people fearful or anxious. As a consequence, their thinking brains will shut down and they will fight (get aggressive, defend themselves or blame other people), flee (withdraw and try to fly under the radar), freeze (become paralysed and unable to take decisions or act) or appease (apologise, try to make nice, anxiously try to please).
The threat – anxiety – defence response sets up a vicious cycle. Here is an example:
Your boss is in a meeting with an angry customer. The customer asks her a question to which she does not have an answer. Your boss feels this as an attack on her competence (threat) and this provokes an emotional response in her (anxiety). She angrily promises the customer that heads will roll and heads back to the office. At the office, she calls you in and hauls you over the coals for not doing your job properly (threat of appearing incompetent), you feel anxious and angry (a double hormone whammy) and angrily remind her that you had been waiting for her to make a decision and come back to you. The only reason you had given her no feedback is that you were awaiting her decision so you could take action. So actually it is not your fault at all (defence). This does not go down well with your boss, who experiences the second attack on her competence in one day and … etc. etc. You get the picture.
People who are afraid will never perform well or take the initiative:
- Their brains cannot think because the pre-frontal cortex shuts down.
- They do not have the confidence to act because, if they get it wrong, their survival will come under threat – again.
- Admit that team members may be fearful and take responsibility for putting that right.
- Make it safe for people to report errors or mistakes, and treat them as opportunities for the whole team to learn. If you don’t, people will continue to hide their mistakes (can you blame them?) Better still, acknowledge people for having the courage to report errors or mistakes.
- Resist the temptation to yell, accuse people of being incompetent and threaten them with the loss of their jobs. That is the thing they fear most and it will cause their brains to shut down. It will also cause them to disengage from their work.
- Make the effort to connect with your people. Talk to them. Thank them. Show an interest in them, their work and their lives.
- Do not pass on any unhelpful stuff you experience with your own boss to your people – have the strength of character to act as a buffer.
Reflect on the following: