Archive for April, 2010
The amygdala is often thought of as the emotional center of our brains but is actually made up of several regions in the brain – the amygdala (regulates emotion), hippocampus (is important for attaching emotional significance to experiences), hypothalamus (regulates biological needs such as regulating body temperature, breathing, sex and other bodily functions), and the frontal cortex (responsible for thinking, making judgments, planning, decision-making and conscious emotion). It takes in environmental stimuli and assesses whether it is a threat or reward.
The limbic system is basically an emotional thermometer that is highly sensitive to threat and reward in our environment. It is triggered very quickly when danger is present and warns us to ensure our survival. When over aroused we act first then think later. The fight or flight reaction is an essential function of the limbic system and is quick to respond to threat with the onset of fear. No matter how small the threat, fear will spark arousal in the limbic system in milliseconds. Cortisol and adrenaline, the stress hormones are secreted into the blood stream and begin accumulating in the amygdala. Too much of these stress hormones in the system can initiate an uncontrollable hijack of the amygdala and will drive us to demonstrate uncontrollable behaviours with complete lack of intellectual reasoning or rational thinking to handle the situation. An amygdala hijack demonstrated in the work place very often leads to disciplinary action up to and including termination. Therefore it is important to understand what influences our limbic system and how we can control it.
A sad yet common occurrence is when people are constantly exposed to stress and threat in the workplace. The accumulation of stress hormones caused by emotionally challenging tasks and fear based experiences will drive people to the edge until they reach a point of saturation, the point of no return and can explode with rage and do something that sabotages their work, career, or others health and safety. Our impulse control is regulated and controlled by a refreshed, rested, and fully functioning prefrontal cortex. If we constantly saturate the prefrontal cortex by overloading it with information, demanding constant complex decisions that fatigue the most brilliant minds, create situations that lack time for decompressing after stressful interactions, and put people in position to meet unrealistic deadlines to complete assignments we are actually bombarding them with stress inducing situations that limit our ability to maintain impulse control and reduces their capacity to meet the demands of the tasks at hand.
The more people operate in a state of high stress and threat the more sensitive the limbic system becomes to threat in the workplace. This sensitivity and lowered response time to arousal can dissuade key contributors from moving forward on risky projects. The detection of threat related to a project or change initiative will more than likely be perceived as negative. People perceiving a state of threat linked to a project or activity will want to remain safe and will be less inclined to support it or demonstrate the higher level thinking required to complete their portion of the project tasks. The tendency will be to look at the downside of the project and offer less than supportive ideas or reasons why it won’t work. People feeling this state of threat will take fewer risks on projects. They’ll be less likely to have creative insights and offer innovative solutions to move the needle in a positive direction.
When the limbic system is aroused because of perceived threat in a work setting we lose the ability to draw on needed resources to think quickly and intelligently to handle hard, challenging questions from leaders, managers or key stakeholders in meetings or presentations. The perceived threat forces us to rely on deeply embedded functions or ideas housed in long term memory or more recent events that caught our attention yet may not have importance to answering the questions or relevance to furthering the project. Important details will be forgotten at the critical moment and will not be recalled until later when we are in a calm and relaxed state in a non-threatening environment. At that time the PFC is able to access the resources to recall the appropriate information through higher level thinking.
When the limbic system is aroused it limits good decision making in the work place because we are limited in our ability to focus and maintain attention. We get easily distracted as we react to salient objects (loud, shiny, and bright) or stimuli in our environment that is less detailed and more general. We are responding to them as we are influenced by emotion rather than rational thinking. We do not focus on important details and information that is required to make key decisions. Complex thinking is a challenge when the thinking region of the brain is impaired and influenced by the onset of stress (threat) in the workplace.
When in brainstorming meetings to generate new ideas and possible solutions for an important issue an aroused limbic system will influence our ability to contribute ideas. Brainstorming generally requires us to be open and creative to allow brain stimulation to access remote regions of our brains to offer ideas to the group. The aroused limbic system will impact our ability to have insights. Insights require a quiet brain to access multiple regions and tap into the network of memory and brain maps…the aroused brain doesn’t allow this process to occur as it is creating distracting emotional noise and gearing up to fight or flight or freeze. The aroused limbic system would limit the flood of insights we desire and we would likely be silent and perceived as disengaged or a non-contributor by others in the meeting. To allow the brain to fully engage in the brainstorming process we need to create an environment that restricts stress, creates calm and comfort and frees the brain up to access remote regions of the brain to recall tacit information appropriate for the purpose of the meeting.
The limbic system reacts to threat. In the workplace that threat is easily felt through stress. The onset of stress can be triggered by any number of things throughout a typical day. Think about what stresses you and how you perform after you are in this state of stress for prolonged periods of time. Are you at your peak performance level? Do you have the necessary clarity and alertness required to respond to requests or make complex decisions? The bottom line is for all of us to be aware of how we react to threat and stress and how well we engage our impulse control to regulate emotion in the workplace. An over aroused limbic system will impair our ability to fully function in the workplace.
At some point in our professional careers, we have all experienced some sort of email etiquette training–whether it be a company policy document, a just-in-time web-based tool, or an in-person training session, we’ve all been through it. And there is a lot of useful information that is shared through those various avenues because, when it comes down to it, writing an email is a distinct form of writing. There are rules to follow: be concise and to the point; do not attach unnecessary files; and (please) do not overuse the high priority feature, just to name a few.
However, there is one rule that I would like to bring more attention to: make it personal. I realize that most of us are inundated with emails throughout the day (and if you happen to decide to take a week off for a vacation, knowing that there is a stack awaiting you when you return can be enough to ruin your last day off), so this rule may be one that is followed only when it’s convenient. Nonetheless, it should be followed. Some tips to consider: when writing to only one person, consider opening your email by asking a follow-up question to a conversation you may have had last week that is non-work related. Or, if you’re writing to a group of people, and it’s a very stressful time because you’re all trying to meet an important deadline, make a reference to that deadline and acknowledge the level of stress. And my favorite, consider simply changing your closing salutation; it may seem minute, but if you’re asking someone to do something for you, wouldn’t it be more personable if you closed with “Thanks” rather than “With warm regards”? It’s little things, like personalizing your emails whenever possible, that may help you build networks in your work environment. And who knows–maybe a co-worker will consider going the extra mile for you as a result of you taking the time to personalize an email to her (and it only takes a few seconds of your time).
I’d like to know your thoughts. Do you think personalizing emails is worthwhile? If so, how do you personalize your emails?
Technology is making us more nimble, proactive, and better-suited to meet our customers’ needs. Smart phones are making us more connected, easily accessible and productive. Show of hands: at the root of those two statements, who disagrees? Remember, remove any personal biases you may have toward technology and smart phones–the question refers to the root of those two statements. I’m assuming, at this point, that there are no hands in the air. I can’t disagree either, so count me in the group not raising his or her hand.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, allow me to bring in my personal bias: I prefer face-to-face communication. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of technology and everything it offers; I challenge you to find one industry that has not been improved, in some way, directly as a result of technology. And smart phones…I have owned my iPhone for around two months and I don’t know how I survived without it: I can simultaneously find the nearest Italian restaurant, map the shortest route to that restaurant, send the address in a text message to my friend, all the while listening to You Can’t Always get What You Want by The Rolling Stones.
So, as you can clearly see, I have embraced technology and smart phones. However, I am still partial to face-to-face, in-person communication. Think about all the aspects of communication that are lost due to our increasing reliance on virtual means: body language, facial expressions, instant feedback, just to name a few. These missing pieces can lead to numerous unintended outcomes, three of which being: a longer, more drawn-out conversation; misinterpretations of meaning; and the need for clarification where it may not normally be needed.
Conference calls and WexEx’s have become the default when planning a meeting these days, and a lot of the reasoning comes from having geographically-dispersed project teams and clients in different locations and, perhaps even more so, due to restricted travel budgets. On the other hand, there are some engagements in which WebEx meetings should be the exception to the rule. Last week I was doing some research on the topic of negotiations, and came across an article that highlighted an interview conducted with an expert in the field. The interview centered around conducting negotiations via email. Upon beginning to read the article, I imagined two conference rooms separated by thousands of miles, each with a group of people huddled around a computer crafting a response to the other party: “Write this, that will show them!” “Type this, I’d like to see what they say to that!” “Are they serious? Give me that keyboard…” I could go on like this for some time, but let me state my point: in a face-to-face encounter this kind of back-and-forth is not likely to happen and, as a result, the negotiation will tend to be much more productive for both sides.
So, when planning your next meeting, examine the objectives you would like to get out of the meeting, and if it seems like those objectives can be achieved virtually, great. However, if there is the potential for unintended misinterpretations or the need for instant feedback, don’t discount the face-to-face meeting. You may be surprised at how productive your meeting becomes.
I’d like to know what your thoughts and experiences are on this topic.
Trouble Writing? Say It Out Loud!
Ever have trouble when you’re trying to compose an email to someone, and the words just won’t come? You write, you hit the backspace key about a million times, you write some more, you change your train of thought, you write some more, and then you highlight and delete the paragraph because you don’t like how it sounded?
In teaching writing skills for over 20 years, one of the key suggestions I make to my participants is to “say it out loud.” What does that mean? It means, literally, “Say it out loud” – and then write down exactly what you said.
For many people, using standard English syntax is something we do automatically in our speaking, but we have trouble when it comes to writing it down. As human beings, we learn to speak LONG before we learn to write. In fact, many people around the world are excellent communicators, but they cannot read or write. In modern society, however, basic reading and writing skills are not only necessary but mandatory to succeed in a professional environment.
I know it may sound crazy, and your cube mates may look at you funny, but the next time you’re composing an email and get stuck, just convey the message out loud (or perhaps under your breath), and then write that down.
Chances are, your message will come across much more clearly. I’d also suggest your time is better spent speaking out the message rather than staring at a blinking cursor.
Give it a shot and let me know how it goes!
Just as in Greek mythology where the sirens lured ancient mariners to their destruction upon the rocky shores, the sweet song of business wisdom lures us into thinking that we should plan for a “win-win” outcome when negotiating.
I disagree. It’s not that I think both parties should walk away from the bargaining table unhappy. No, it’s that planning for discussions using any competitive approach—using “win” or “lose” terminology—puts us in the wrong frame of mind for impactful, fruitful discussions.
Rarely does anyone “win” a negotiation. If we are even thinking about winning a negotiation, we’re starting out on the wrong path. The need for victory gives rise to hubris and the means, not the desired end state, becomes the focus of our planning.
Sadly, this compulsion for victory diverts attention from why we are in the discussion in the first place. Our focus should be on achieving our interests, not winning or losing. Look at it another way: if we get most of what we are looking for—but not all—did we win? On a competitor’s scoreboard, the answer is “No.” But did we lose? Of course not! We are well on our way toward where we want to be.
So forget “win-win.” Think results … in meaningful, measurable terms. The sirens may be disappointed, but both parties will be better off!