At 8:00 am you check your inbox and it has 50 new messages that arrived overnight. Diligently you prioritize and respond accordingly, but you get an unexpected call from an upset client asking for your time. Your attention shifts to the client issue and interprets the situation as a threat to the financial health of your business. You gasp for air and react by hastily replying to the client issue with a quick solution. Throughout the day, ‘fires’ continue to ignite. Suddenly, you wonder how you became a firefighter and what you can do to regain control. Let’s take a look at the science behind your reactions and how you can shift back into neutral.
From Manager to Firefighter: The Three Phases of Pattern Development
In your first few years on the job, your approach was to be open-minded and learn about the business and people you were managing. You took the time to understand people’s strengths, design a vision and implement strategies that validated your values and supported the business vision. To make sound business decisions, your brain masterfully balanced its limbic system function (fight/flight/freeze response) with your pre-frontal cortex functions (logical reasoning, inhibition-control, working memory and cognitive flexibility). This coordinated dance allowed you to show up as a thoughtful and caring manager who listens to clients and employees.
As you gained greater understanding of the business, the brain began using less prefrontal cortex to process new information. Everyday business decisions became easier and were delegated to your mirror neuron and mentalizing system making them automatic functions. You felt great and work became easier to manage.
You worked crazy hours without break and bought into the illusion that your brain can multi-task. This continuous rhythm led you to become exhausted and less productive. Your brain power got allocated to the amygdala and your responses became automatic reactions and emotional impulses that manifested as abrupt communications or lack of communication with your staff. This is known as burn-out.
As the amygdala got control, you developed thought patterns/habits that lead you to unconsciously treat every situation as a threat. Your brain does not differentiate between a real or imaginary threat, so your body reacted by releasing high levels of cortisol killing new neurons and leading you to feel high levels of stress.
Create a Neural Shift – From Firefighter to CEO
Move from seeing threats to imagining possibilities, follow these five steps:
1.The Art of Breathing
The most powerful action is to consciously take a few deep breaths. Inhale deeply and feel how your chest has expanded and release the air slowly and under complete control. It sounds too easy but the brain is not asking for rocket science; it’s asking for survival. If a few deep breaths are not enough, take a walk. The brain uses 25% of the oxygen required by your body and managing your breathing can help you regulate emotional states.
2. Get Focused
To clear the clutter in your mind describe in one word how you feel. This forces your brain to sift through the clutter and get focused. It allows you to raise awareness to the type of thoughts your mind wanders about. As you get clear, consider if your mind is dominated by fear. If the answer is yes, think of what fear means to you. Then, visualize what it means to be fearless. Observe any passing negative thoughts without fighting them. Simply recognize the thoughts as fear-based and let them go.
3. Put your Pre-Frontal Cortex to Work
After reading an email or interacting with someone that pushes a button, check what you are feeling: frustration, anger? Say it out loud and draft a quick response that you won’t send. Research has shown that when you label emotions, you recruit your pre-frontal cortex and lower the activity of your amygdala.
4.Take a Systemic View
Move from the dance floor to the balcony and see all the players involved: clients, employees, suppliers, etc. What is the end goal? What are you assigning urgency to? Then, prioritize and set the right level of response.
5. New Pattern/Habit
Create a positive mindset. Set the intention to see problems as opportunities to be creative and pro-active. For every problem you see, come up with five to ten possible solutions. Design a social system that will support your change by identifying key people that will hold you accountable and cheer you on for creating thoughtful and long-term solutions.
After you implement these changes, take a look at the whole organization to detect old patterns. Are people in your organization reactive instead of proactive or constantly frantic as if there is a fire? If yes, then be courageous and question the status quo, encourage and reward pro-active behaviors and support the creation of new habits. As you manage organizational change, don’t fight fire with fire, but with service.