Organizations today face many challenges. These include an accelerating rate of change, the threat of disruption, ambitious targets and aggressive competition to name just a few. We know from our research and the brain science of pressure and emotions that individuals frequently experience these organizational challenges as pressure and distress. This results in reduced cognitive abilities, diminished performance, lower engagement, poor leadership and difficulty dealing with change.

At the Institute for Health and Human Potential we understand what’s physically happening in individuals’ brains when they are experiencing strong emotions. For over twenty years, we have studied the brain science of emotions, especially in pressure situations.

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There are two parts to the brain that need to be managed in order to skillfully manage and lead under pressure:

1) The Emotional part of our brain, which is centered in the Amygdala, a small almond sized part of our brain. The amygdala is responsible for our fight or flight responses. When we feel threatened, either physically, or more commonly in business, when we feel socially threatened (feeling disrespected, not included, not capable, overwhelmed, etc), the amygdala causes the release of chemicals – adrenaline and cortisol (our stress hormone) – into our body and brain. These chemicals put us on high alert and the outcome of being in this triggered state are:

• Loss of working memory which impairs cognitive thought, so we can’t think as clearly or be innovative

• Becoming defensive, moving to either a “fight” response where we step in unskillfully (e.g. Stamp out that e-mail and hit “reply to all” – and add a few people!) or a “flight” response where we move to avoidance behaviors.

• Feeling the need to be right and unwilling to admit that we may be wrong or not have all the information

• Increasing degrees of reactivity and a greater likelihood to to further trigger and display stronger and stronger negative emotions

2. The Cognitive part of our brain, which is where we do all our best thinking, strategizing, seeing the big picture, listening, etc. This is also where our pre-frontal cortex exists which is what allows us to calm and soothe the amygdala when it’s triggered.

One of the most critical things we need to manage in this part of the brain is our Cognitive Appraisal, which is how we interpret events and assign meaning to them. For example, if someone you have a difficult relationship with and you don’t respect gives you critical feedback, you are going to appraise that and respond differently than if a trusted friend whose opinion you value gives you the exact same feedback.

We are all wired so that our default appraisal is to first view pressure situations (like reveiving critical feedback) as a crisis. When we do that, noradrenaline is released into our blood stream which causes our blood vessels to constrict, allowing less oxygen to get to our bodies and brain. This results in:

• Increased fears of failure

• Focusing on the negative outcomes and interpretations of events

• Narrowing of our focus causing us to miss information and visual cues from others

• Mental rigidity, meaning we aren’t open to new ideas and input from others 

• If prolonged, physical symptoms such as fatigue, tension headaches, stomach problems and others will occur.

Working with individuals under the most intense pressure (Navy Seals, NASA, Olympic athletes, NBA and NFL teams, Goldman Sachs and IBM to name a few) we have developed a set of tools that can be applied to help people perform at their best in difficult circumstances and manage these brain responses to pressure. We provide a of assessment, training (classroom and virtual) and coaching solutions for learning and applying these tools.

Applying our tools results in your being able to manage your emotions and thinking, allowing you to access your full cognitive abilities, increase performance and engagement from your team and lead others through change by demonstrating exceptional leadership. This results in your organization being able to meet the most difficult challenges they face and to do so more consistently.

If you would like to be certified in our Science of Emotional Intelligence and Performing Under Pressure programs, you can attend our train-the-trainer program. To learn more, click here Train The Trainer Course.

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