I met a woman on the train yesterday. I felt she wanted to talk. We started talking about the weather at first, then she shared what had happened to her that day: she had woken up to find angry emails from her boss. She expanded that her boss is intelligent and delivers but that she’s rude to everyone in the office and is very hard to work with. Many of her colleagues fear her and do not want to be there, but simply cannot afford to lose their job; “We all have families to look after”. She was stressed and anxious and said she needed a glass of wine when she got home.
I felt for this lady, who was going to have to do the same thing all over again tomorrow, the day after and the day after that!
I asked myself; “if every person in the train carriage decided to share their thoughts, how many would share a similar story?”
Then I looked at people’s faces. Many had frowns: appearing either worried or angry. Some had deep stress lines and bit their nails. Others were distracting themselves on their mobile phones. Amongst the carriage full of people, if you had a happy, relaxed look on your face, you would be the odd one out!
Whilst mental health is on everyone’s radar these days, what are the steps companies are taking to change the culture of their organisations, to lean into a more conscious and compassionate management style? After all, research after research shows that mindful management helps increase productivity and innovative thinking and improves the communication skills and mental health of both employees and business leaders. Business Leaders and employees acknowledge this. So, why are managers not embracing these recommendations and putting them into practice?
Many of us believe that attending training on mindfulness will make us more compassionate and emotionally intelligent people. However, this is not enough, we must take actions that help us connect to the origins of our behaviour.
This is where the brain comes in!
• Brain stem – (Being)
The brain stem is largely unconscious; it controls the flow of messages between the brain and the rest of the body. It is your auto-pilot; controlling basic body functions such as breathing, swallowing, digestion, heart rate, blood pressure, temperature control, consciousness and whether we are awake or sleeping. It’s highly resistant and lives in survival mode.
• Limbic – (Doing)
The limbic system is the portion of the brain that deals with three key functions: emotions, memories and stimulation. It is your subconscious; responsible for thinking, movement, feelings, memory, including long-term memory formation and the centre that controls our hormones.
• Neocortex – (Thinking)
The neocortex is involved in higher functions such as logic, planning, conscious thought, decision making, language, communication and evolving. This part of the brains stops us from screaming back at our boss!
95% of all our decision making is subconscious and only 5% is conscious. So, how can we engage with the 95% and implement change?
We absorb values and beliefs from parents, teachers, childcare and the culture we grow up around. This all happens below the age of 7. Therefore, when we are confronted with a situation, information collected by our five senses are sent to the brain stem via the spinal cord, which then sends a message to the limbic brain that searches the library of experiences, memories and events. This is why a particular scent or hearing a certain song ignites feelings of pleasure or pain. If the brain registers a certain smell as danger, it triggers an alarm that is sent to the amygdala, which sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus (are of the brain that communicates with the rest of the body). This activates the release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands and the stress hormone cortisol to prepare the body to fight, flight or freeze.
These unconscious programmes that are stored in the brain stem make sure that reactions are automatic to keep us safe. That’s why when we are faced with a stressful situation, our childhood programming kicks in. So, the boss projecting her anger on to her employees is going back to her childhood programming. She might feel that she is only heard when she gets angry.
Many of us find ourselves in these highly charged work environments where we are constantly stressed. Our bodies do not get a break from the constant release of the stress hormone cortisol. Research shows that long-term exposure to chronic stress can lead to the deterioration of our physical and psychological health. When in survival mode, blood is diverted from our decision-making centre (cortex) to prepare the body to fight or flight, causing people to miss vital cues and are more likely to make more mistakes.
I love this quote by the authors Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annir McKee in their book “Primal Leadership”:
“No creature can fly with one wing. Gifted leadership occurs where heart and head – feeling and thought – meet. These are the two wings that allow a leader to fly.”
This quote highlights the importance of acknowledging the role of feelings and not just intellect in the workplace.
Next time when you are faced with a stressful situation these simple steps might help to get in touch with your subconscious brain:
1. Take 5 deep breaths from your stomach
The sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight or freeze) response kicks in when we are faced with a stressful situation that takes us back to a time or similar childhood experiences. Breathing from the stomach helps the body to switch to the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing the blood to flow to the decision-making centre of your brain, taking you out of fight, flight or freeze mode.
Ask these questions which will allow you to connect to your subconscious. As your flight, fight or response kicks in when you do not feel safe. It is important that you let the answer come to you, rather than trying to work it out.
• Am I safe?
• Am I loved?
• Do I belong?
3. Then ask the question
“What am I learning from this situation?” Again, don’t force an answer because you want to connect to your subconscious programmes.
Be inspired to meet your subconscious. Some childhood programmes don’t work in your adult life and can work against you. I can’t promise it is going to be easy, however reprogramming these negative programmes will help you find inner peace, happiness, be more compassionate and inspiring. It’s eventually contagious!
Change starts with you!