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How many of you have been here: you’ve started a new position, you have the skills and experience needed to succeed…but it goes sideways?

A few years ago, I was exactly in that situation and realized that I was the problem — not the difficult company environment and not the budget or staff cuts. As someone who values empowered and high-performing teams, how had things gone so wrong?

Even conscious leaders‘ brains get triggered

I realized that, in this hyper-stressed environment, I had fallen into command-and-control ways with everyone. People felt unheard and even disrespected because I was acting as though they had little to contribute. What’s worse is that my behavior was completely inconsistent with my values and capabilities.

While it seems illogical, this kind of behavior is entirely normal and human for all of us. Our brains were hard-wired in prehistoric times to generate automatic responses for survival. In modern times, neuroscience research has shown that even minor social and work stresses can activate these same pathways resulting in leaping to conclusions and, outside of full awareness, thinking we have the “right answers.”

Research from other fields has also confirmed that, at times of stress and pressure, we all can act in ways counter to our best judgment no matter how experienced we are or how strongly we are committed to our values. As organizational researcher Chris Argyris stated “Put simply, people consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between the way they think they are acting and the way they really act.” 

In that new position, with stress activating my ancient brain pathways, I wanted to get things done. My focus was on taking action, not on asking questions and listening — fundamental elements for an empowered team. Until I stopped to understand on what was happening, I remained in my “blind spot” and missed seeing my reactivity.

How return to conscious leadership

Countering these reactive tendencies takes effort because the survival pathways act so quickly, are stronger, and last longer than activity from other parts of our brain. But it can be done with these two principles:

1. “Pump the brakes” when you’re convinced you’re right

Over time, I’ve noticed that when I am convinced of my ideas and have a sense of urgency to win over others, I better slow down. When this happens, I remember to pause for a few seconds before I meet with an individual or team to do a fast check on my mental and emotional state.

2. Be the tortoise and listen to others’ ideas

Under pressure, I want to get to the answer — fast. But this tendency makes it hard to hear others’, often important and better, ideas.  I remind myself that the best solutions tend to emerge from others’ participation in the conversation. The aim is not to argue or debate but to assure everyone involved understands each other even if they disagree. This sets the ground for creative AND collaborative action.

Our ancient brains are powerful in overriding our highest skills and values — so it’s important for the solution to be simple. It takes awareness and steady practice to manage our survival reactions in the moment.
Using these two principles with those angry and unhappy employees, I was able to listen and engage others more often. While I was not perfect — at times I still became directive — my genuine efforts to change were noticed by everyone. We were gradually able to build a strong, empowered team.

Acting in ways counter to our own values is painful to recognize. But, with a heavy dose of self-compassion, such “mistakes” are an opportunity to be transparent, apologize, and change behavior. Paradoxically, by accepting that we all can become unconscious leaders under stress, we increase the odds of being the best conscious leaders we can be in trying times.