It's a jungle out there

If you stand back a moment, on any given day, on any floor in a large organisation, you will witness a somewhat unusual phenomenon take place.  

I am leader, hear me roar

(Please use your best David Attenborough-style narrator voice when reading this.) Looking to the left we see the elevator doors open and the team’s senior leader arrive. The tension is palpable. The atmosphere is electric. Every creature seems to hold their breath. One by one we see their heads pop up, meerkat like, over cubicle walls. It’s like watching a giant meerkat Mexican wave across the entire office floor, as each individual checks in to see what the mood and demeanour of their leader will be today.
(End voice over).

Our brains have evolved to protect us, and one of the ways they do that is to constantly scan for danger – the proverbial lion. Except now, every negative person we interact with, every ‘urgent’ email, can elicit a physiological ‘danger response’ in us.

Caroline Webb, author of the book How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life, writes: “We’ve escaped the rough-and-tumble of the savannah, but our survival circuits are still working just as hard to protect us.” Our brains are always asking the question, ‘Is this a threat I should defend myself against (defensive mode), or a reward I can embrace (discovery mode)?’.

The defensive detriment

Interestingly, Webb states: “Our brain reacts just as quickly to personal affronts as it does to genuine physical threats.”  In her article How small shifts in leadership can transform your team dynamic  she writes: “It takes surprisingly little to put someone’s brain into defensive mode — anything threatening a person’s self-worth, even the smallest social slight.” 

We’re all human. We bring the worries, difficulties and personal ‘slights’ of our lives with us, which means we can be in ‘defensive mode’ before we have even walked into the office. 

When our ‘defensive mode’ is triggered, we go into ‘fight’, ‘flight’ or ‘freeze’ mode. Our nervous system pumps adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol into our bodies making us react very quickly but not always accurately. So, for example, we may overreact to something we thought was a threat – like a colleague looking at us the ‘wrong’ way. Defensive mode also takes much of our cognitive skills and intelligence offline which means we can’t think clearly and don’t react as our most ‘evolved’ selves. 

As leaders it’s important to know when we are in ‘defensive mode’ and how to switch ourselves back into ‘discovery mode’. Being aware of these two ‘modes’ will also help us to understand why our colleagues may react in ways that surprise or confuse us – they are also working on a spectrum of ‘defensive to discovery’.

Scan the horizon for rewards

So, when we have been triggered into ‘defensive mode’ what can we do about it? One of the most effective strategies, according to Webb, is to look for the potential rewards in the situation we are facing. When our brain’s reward system spots something it likes, says Webb: “It sends us chasing after it like a Labrador retriever after a tennis ball, by releasing neurochemicals (including dopamine and endorphins). This shoots us back along the defend-discover spectrum into ‘discovery mode’.”

Webb summarised the key things we need to know as leaders about the ‘discover–defend’ axis as:

  • We’re constantly moving along a discover-defend axis in our daily life, as our brains scan for threats to defend against and rewards to discover
  • When we’re in ‘defensive mode’, we become less smart and flexible, as our brain devotes resources to our response
  • In ‘discovery mode we’re motivating ourselves with rewards of learning or experiencing new things
  • The better we are at knowing when we are slipping into ‘defensive mode’ the more resourceful we’ll be in handling workplace challenges. Refocusing on potential rewards when we are triggered can help shift us back into discovery mode.

Whilst we all have the ability to impact the mood of those around us, as leaders it’s our responsibility to be especially conscious about how we might be triggering our teams into defensive mode and ensuring we manage our own reactions when we are triggered.

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