We live in a world and an environment that is diverse, disruptive, and constantly changing. This creates a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity for people to deal with. Sometimes those changes are local – within our families or our workplace – and sometimes, they happen on a global scale.

How our brain confronts change and uncertainty

First, it’s important to understand what’s happening in our brain when confronted with change. In the face of uncertainty and not-knowing, the brain goes into overdrive trying to explain events in a way that makes sense and fits our experience. Unfortunately, our brain is also driven by the amygdala, the part of our limbic system that primes our flight or fight response. This was useful to keep our ancestors safe when they were facing tigers, lions, and other life-or-death situations, but it’s not as helpful in our day-to-day modern world.

What this means for us is that our brain is constantly looking for threat, even where none (certainly not life-threatening anyway) exists. What has been particularly fascinating in neuroscience advances in the last several years is the revelation that the same neural responses that might drive us toward a reward (like food) or away from a threat (a lion), are activated when humans socially interact with each other. We react to our social environment exactly the same way we react to our physical one.

Our brain’s automatic response is often not helpful

In its attempt to be helpful and keep us safe, our limbic brain goes into an automated response, but this response actually hijacks the prefrontal cortex – the frontal lobe of our brains where rational and conscious thought takes place.

This means that in the face of a perceived threat, our ability to process or recall information, make decisions, plan, think creatively, communicate effectively, and inhibit reactive impulses are all restricted. We lose the ability to see the big picture and can get stuck in negative made-up scenarios and interpretations, especially about other people: “others” are mean, rude, insensitive, incompetent, and so on. The problem is that this sort of reactive response, left unchecked, creates nothing but fear, animosity, superiority, and separation from others.

A better way to engage the brain’s higher level thinking

Consider the stressors in a typical day at work – a difficult manager, an insensitive co-worker, a disagreement, changes that need to happen in the business. Knowing what we now know about the brain, ask yourself: how productive and engaged am I really? How much am I stuck in a reactive mode or have I fully engaged my higher brain to consciously become more aware of my triggers and my behaviour?

Most people have no awareness of how much they’re being run by their reactive amygdala and thus are incapable of achieving not only peak performance and focus, but also the ability to build and strengthen connections with others.

It’s no secret that leaders are continually concerned about workplace engagement in their organizations. It’s perhaps the greatest challenge facing leaders today. Leaders need to facilitate engagement in the workplace while understanding that the brain is a social organ organized around threat and reward. They also need to develop the skills for people to not only become more aware of this, but also enable people to develop higher level thinking in the prefrontal cortex to manage their reactions (big or small) throughout the day.

The vertical leader’s mindset

This is one of the reasons why at Dynamic Achievement, we focus so intently on the leader’s Mindset as the core piece of all our programs. Our world needs us to become more conscious and mindfully engaged in higher level thinking – what we call Vertical Leadership. It starts by understanding how our brains work and how to create a mindful shift. In our workshops, we explore questions such as what’s most important in my life and who do I want to be in this situation?

I’ve never heard anyone say they wanted more fear, anxiety, or anger, yet we often behave in ways that end up creating this, for others and for ourselves. Becoming more vertical changes this so that our thinking and actions start aligning themselves more with what we actually want. I have long been convinced of the importance of this alignment, and in today’s volatile and uncertain times, we need vertical leaders more than ever.

Contact us to learn more.