Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How Managers Sabotage Performance by Triggering the Threat Response

A recent article called "Managing with Brain in Mind" in the Autumn 2009 edition of Strategy+Business provides interesting insight into the social nature of performance. We researched the threat response for our book Axis of Influence and found that the first stop on the road to credibility and likeability is trust, which means dealing with the automatic "am I in danger?" threat response.

Research available since that time shows us that our friends in the fight or flight department of the brain are alive and well and influenced or triggered by more than just safety. Recent research by UCLA's Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman suggests that the same neural responses that drive us toward food or away from predators are triggered by the way we are treated by other people.

Apparently Maslow had it wrong. Maslow in his "hierarchy of needs" suggested that humans satisfy their needs in sequence, starting with physical survival and moving up the ladder toward self-actualization at the top. In this hierarchy, social needs sit in the middle. But many studies now show that the brain equates social needs with survival; for example, being hungry and being ostracized activate similar neural responses.

Being in this threat response state for any length of time is damaging to both individual productivity and organizational performance. It uses up vital oxygen and glucose from the blood making it no longer available to other functions of the brain such as working memory which processes new information and ideas. This impairs analytical thinking, creative insight and problem solving.

The impact of this dynamic is often visible in organizations. For example, an autocratic manager operating in a carrot and stick mentality triggers a threat response in employees and reduces efficiency, creativity and innovation.

So what can managers do to minimize the threat response and enable the reward response? Here are 3 of the 5 things mentioned in the article:

1. Understand "status" stress and look for creative ways to enable status boosts.
As humans, we are constantly assessing how our status compares to others around us. Research by Hidehiko Takahashi in 2009 shows that when people realize that they might compare unfavourably to someone else, the threat response kicks in releasing cortisol and other stress-related hormones.

As a manager, limit stressful comparisons like forced ranking and 360 degree reviews as well as negative "feedback." Provide praise and opportunities to learn new skills, two critically important status boosters.

2. Be transparent, open and clear about what's going on.
When a person encounters a familiar situation, his or her brain conserves it's own energy by shifting into a kind of automatic pilot. The pattern has been established and minimal energy is taken up. The opposite is true when the brain registers ambiguity or confusion. Uncertainty registers as an error, gap or tension and draws energy away from other functions.

Not knowing what will happen next can be debilitating because it requires extra neural energy. This diminishes memory, undermines performance and disengages people from the present.
Leaders and managers can help create a perception of certainty by sharing business plans, rationale for changes, and by breaking large projects into smaller more manageable chunks.

3. Stop micro managing and let people make their own decisions
A perception of reduced autonomy - for example of being micromanaged - can easily generate a threat response. Presenting people with options, or allowing them to organize their own work and set their own hours, provokes a much less stressed response.

Full article here -

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