By Sophia Kristjansson
A few weeks ago, I was sitting on hard bleachers in a basketball arena listening to my favorite podcast while my nephew practiced basketball with his elite team. All seemed to be going well until the team moved into position to sprint the lines. It’s a familiar sight to anyone who has played competitive sports. The exercise builds speed and stamina, but it’s also a way to punish the players when they’re not following the coach’s lead. This scenario is played out for us in the movie Miracle, when Coach Brooks forces the players to sprint the lines because they were treating the exhibition game against Norway as a joke. They skated back and forth across the ice late into the night until one team member, exhausted, self-identified as being part of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, rather than the name on the back of his jersey. The point: Their sum was greater than their parts.
Though my nephew’s coach had similar intentions, he lacked Herb Brooks’ finesse. The players weren’t running drills correctly to build their speed, agility, and "teammanship." For some reason, coach and team weren’t connecting and the anger became personal. After running the lines, the coach called the players “worthless,” told them they weren’t worth developing, yelled that they were wasting his time, dared them to take a step, and threatened their advancement by telling them they’d never achieve the next level of basketball. I could go on.
Although the players said nothing, I could see the impact of the coach’s words their faces and in their body language. These young men stopped moving their feet, looked visibly stressed, and stopped communicating with one another while performing the drills. What I saw in these young players’ nonverbal cues was similar to what I witness in organizations when a leader grossly misbehaves: a loss of trust, rapport and faith.
As the rant continued, I reflected on leadership. The truth is that my nephew’s coach is frustrated because he doesn’t know how to get more out of his players. He’s tried everything, but they still don’t perform to his expectations. Because he’s lost his ability to lead, the players won’t try to improve under his direction. They don’t understand what they need to do differently because he’s not reaching them, and as their leader this is his primary responsibility. Everyone loses in this scenario—coach, player, basketball club, and school, and the rotten sentiment that follows this coach won’t go away. The impact of his actions is definitive, forever seared into the players’ psyche. All they know is that they don’t want to perform for someone who treats them like that.
This can happen in any organization. Once a leader has a reputation, it’s almost impossible to shake.
In these kinds of tension-filled situations—when we lose our trust and faith in a leader we previously respected—what’s happening behind the scenes that creates such an indelible experience for us? Our inner reptile holds one key. When we experience a situation that makes us feel unsafe, our reptilian brain (limbic system) takes over and we go into survival mode —we no longer employ higher level thought processes like clear decision-making, complex problem solving or creativity. Instead, we react to our environment to determine whether we need to fight, take flight, or freeze.
Moreover, we’re all naturally predisposed to focus on negative events rather than positive ones, which leave a more enduring imprint. After all, by doing this we kept ourselves alive throughout the millennia. According to Dr. Evian Gordon, the brain scans the environment every one-fifth of one second to pick up important cues. This non-conscious process feeds a sensation in our body that in turn creates awareness. From that point we decide what we’re going to do with it. In organizations we listen for the ways we’re spoken to and the slightest hint of judgment raises our negative awareness. We subconsciously know the difference between, “What did you think would happen?” and “Share your thinking. It’s an interesting take on the situation.” The first is judgmental and the other is inquiry.
The neuroscience behind memory holds another key to our retention of emotional information, thus impacting our perception of leaders. The way someone behaves creates an enduring impression in our minds. The impressions create stories that we remember with emotional clarity, some more clearly than others. In a 2004 study, Kensinger and Corkin wanted to uncover the neural circuits responsible for emotional memory, like an experience that makes us feel good or bad; i.e., news that we’ve been promoted or a mediocre biannual job review that doesn’t accurately reflect our perception of performance. (I personally like this study because they performed both fMRI scans and an accompanying behavioral study, thus connecting wiring to behavior.)
Kensinger and Corkin found that the amygdalar-hippocampal network of the brain is stimulated by emotionally arousing information (that was either positive or negative in nature), which could have an automatic effect on memory. In other words, this network is specifically engaged when we believe we’re encountering an emotionally induced situation. Remember that inner reptile, our limbic system? The amygdalar-hippocampal network is part of the ancient limbic system in our brain that assesses threat level. We have a reaction (non-conscious or conscious) to emotionally inducing information that creates an effect on our memory. The memories we create teach us an ongoing lesson about how to approach situations. Therefore, if a leader is abusive, chances are we will not perform well in the presence of this person. It doesn’t mean we don’t want to do well; it just means we’re not thinking as clearly as we could. We’re naturally more nervous, and this affects our higher cognitive levels.
Think back to a challenging professional situation or even the basketball team. When someone with more status or perceived power treats us poorly, we generally try to please or avoid the person so the emotionally charged experience doesn’t repeat. If that person behaves the same way again, we start to create a story that tells us to steer clear of the person or to keep our heads down to avoid conflict. We might get mad and want to retaliate, or even start gossiping. In any case, it’s probable that the brain isn’t evaluating information with the prefrontal cortex to determine how to handle complex problems at that moment in time. Our reptiles have taken over, and the focus is on survival.
Can someone who has been leading poorly and squandering trust overcome the memories others have of him or her and achieve success? Yes and no. I’ve seen people change, and I’ve also seen those around that person adapt to their change, but they don’t forget. When they see the slightest hint that harks back to the original bad behavior, they can easily interpret that the individual hasn’t committed to the change. I’m hard-pressed to find proof that abusive behavior entices more resolve and better team playing or even business innovation. If you see bad behavior in your organization, look at its impact and find a way to address it quickly. If you don’t, the cleanup will be costly on both human and financial levels.
Stay tuned! Next month’s I'll talk about how to create more rapport on teams.
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Sophia Kristjansson is founder and CEO of Lexicon Leadership Group. She is a thought leader and executive coach in the exciting field of the neuroscience of leadership. Her passion is to help people and their organizations better navigate change and influence innovation. She has 15 years of coaching and training experience balanced by more than 12 years in international business, management, and marketing. She regularly writes, speaks, and teaches for a number of organizations and academic institutions. (Her upcoming book on leadership will be published in 2016.) Sophia founded Lexicon Leadership Group in 2011. LLG’s work is guided by a deep understanding of neuroscience and its relationship to human development and communication. LLG specializes in executive coaching, leadership development training and team facilitation, as well as implementation of the Emergenetics™ suite of tools and solutions for clients across the globe. Sophia’s serves on the Board of HR People and Strategy.