A recent survey revealed 84% of people blame work for stress.* This is not really surprising, given the explicit pressures in the workplace that cause employee stress; higher expected outcomes with fewer resources and in less time. However, organisations and leaders can be inadvertently creating additional pressure on employees by implicitly creating an environment that the human brain interprets as a threat. The brain responds to this by triggering the body’s stress response.
The brain’s primary job is to protect us and ensure our survival. This means it’s on the lookout for potential threats. The brain’s stress response has been widely discussed in literature, usually in the context of the limbic system which is designed to enable us to “fight or flee” potentially threatening situations. To do this, cortisol and adrenaline are released in the body, which in the long term can be both physically and mentally damaging for us. However, as well as the physiological impact on us, when the limbic system is activated, other non-essential brain functions are deprioritised to enable us to focus on survival. One such function is the brains’ ability for “smart” thinking: problem solving, innovation, creativity and future planning. So it’s in the leaders and organisation’s interest to minimise employee stress.
By understanding what the brain is hardwired to perceive as a threat, leaders and organisations can manage in a way that minimises any potential threat response. There are five conditions that when absent may trigger a threat response.
Very few people like being told what to do. After all, being controlled by someone else could be a threat to our survival. So leaders and organisations who adopt a “command and control” leadership style in their day to day interactions, will trigger a threat response.
Leadership theories have long advocated for employee empowerment, collaboration, and delegation. Using leadership styles such as coaching allows leaders to empower and enable: thereby giving employees a sense of control and reduce the threat response.
From a survival perspective, if something is out of the ordinary or doesn’t follow the usual pattern, brain will err on the side of caution and assume it is a potential threat. The brain has a strong “error detection” capability. Conflicting messages, incongruency between word and deed, constant direction changes all result in the brain recognising the inconsistency. And the brain assumes it’s a threat. So be consistent and clear about what is expected in terms of communication, deliverables and behaviour.
For most of us, there is some negative feeling that comes with feedback: it’s normal because our brain will respond to any perceived threat to our competence. Competence was (and still is!) key to our survival. People will go to great lengths to disguise a perceived threat to their competence, especially in organisations in which failure is penalised. So create an environment that supports and encourages learning and growth. Set people up for success. Of course, we can’t get it right all the time. Ensure that “failure” is not punished, rather reframe as learning. Again, coaching is a great tool here.
We are herd animals. There is safety in numbers. This plays out in organisations in the form of cliques, “in groups” and “out groups” and even between functions or departments. We have a hardwired drive to be connected to a group or person. Without connection, we feel isolated and threatened. Leadership needs to create connections with their employees and even between employees and the organisation. Know your people, what drives and motivates them.
We have finite physical, emotional and cognitive resources. If you want your employees to invest them in something, then there needs to be a good reason. Otherwise, valuable resources needed to survive may be wasted. Understand your people, what’s important to them. Provide meaning and purpose: for the employee (not the organisation!). Make them feel part of something worthwhile.
Overall, lead and manage in a way that enables employees to stay both physically and mentally well. A brain needs to be “fit” to be able to manage pressure effectively, maintain productivity and “smart thinking”. Support growth and wellness, both within and outside the organisation. Well-being programs are a start, but rather treat employees in such a way that they don’t need a program to tell them how to stay well. Ensure employees are empowered, learning and growing, connecting with others and have a sense of meaning. Make “downtime” (uninterrupted by work) a core value in order for people to rest, sleep and exercise. Give people what they need to be able to succeed physically, mentally and professionally. In return you will have smart thinking, engaged and less stressed employees!
Dr Sam Mather is a Neuro-practitioner, Leadership Consultant and author of Rise Together: A leaders guide to the science behind creating innovative, engaged and resilient employees.