Overcoming amygdala hijack
Have you ever experienced an amygdala hijack? Chances are you have, and you didn’t know how to identify what was happening to you. If you’ve ever been called out by a colleague or put on the spot by your boss and all of the sudden felt your hands start to sweat — didn’t know what to say, or suddenly became overly emotional, you’ve experienced an amygdala hijack. The same negative emotional response is common for anyone on the receiving end of a performance conversation. As a manager, being able to identify the signs will help you and your team maintain a safe environment and have a more productive conversation. The SCARF acronym will help you unlock all your leadership potential.
Now that you know what an amygdala hijack is, you can start to combat the symptoms with the SCARF model, created by David Rock. We’ve put together some examples of triggers and solutions that will get you thinking in the right direction.
**Spoiler Alert: Performance reviews are always on the list of threats!
Status: Our sense of importance and relationship to others
A trigger: The word feedback. It causes our brain to respond in the same way it would if we heard footsteps approaching from behind in a dark alley. The person you’re offering feedback to will immediately feel hijacked. Any feedback you give at that point will be perceived as a threat and go unheard in the heat of the moment.
A solution: Frame your feedback in a positive form with direct examples and alternative solutions. Help your team member move around the mental block of hearing the word feedback and begin to problem solve along with you, this will encourage not only you to unlock your own leadership potential, but your team’s as well. In short, always frame a negative situation from a constructive point of view while providing recognition to eliminate feelings of self-doubt.
Certainty: Our need for clarity and ability to make accurate predictions about the future
A trigger: Not providing agendas, lack of transparency, or failing to set expectations can send the brain into an amygdala hijack. In an already stressful situation, it’s easy to panic when we feel unprepared.
A solution: Set the expectation early and often, provide context, and be forthcoming. Just because you know you’ve scheduled Wednesday’s meeting to talk about the company vending machine supply doesn’t mean the people attending the meeting aren’t worrying that it’s a meeting to lay them off. Whatever you can do to make your team members feel as prepared as you are for the meeting will reduce their anxiety and make them available for a more productive conversation with you. Email agendas before all meetings and be as transparent as possible so people know what to expect and can react accordingly.
Autonomy: Our sense of control over events in life and our perception of influence over others
The trigger: Feeling micromanaged or being at the mercy of a command-and-control leadership style threatens someone’s sense of autonomy. Not having a sense of mutual trust and respect is a sure way to send the people in your organization into an amygdala hijack.
The solution: Be flexible! Allow your team members to own tasks in a way that is most productive for them. Or, offer a looser schedule, like flex time, and you may be granting team members the autonomy they need to feel good and be successful.
Relatedness: Our sense of connection and security with others
The trigger: Feeling disconnected from each other or having disingenuous conversations with others can leave your workplace culture feeling lonely and cold. You’re sure to send someone into an amygdala hijack when they feel they aren’t getting the real version of you, or don’t feel connected to you in some personal way.
The solution: Take the time to get to know people. Offer up information about your life when spending time with them in the office. While you don’t have to share more than you’re comfortable with, step out of your comfort zone. Mastering this will spill over into other interactions you have, such as taking some of the anxiety out of performance conversations.
Other ways to avoid threatening Relatedness: Take the time to do team lunches or team exercises that get people talking. Or, start affinity groups in the office that helps people come together over common interests. Connecting people to each other will help connect them to your organization.
Fairness: Just and unbiased exchange between people
The trigger: Not setting expectations or ground rules around responsibilities within a role. Providing constructive feedback over a project that was never clearly defined in the first place is upsetting for the person who put the work into a project they thought they were doing well.
The solution: Do your best to apply a growth mindset to a discussion revolving around a project or role with someone. How did they interpret the rules of the project? Maybe what you thought was crystal clear turned out to have several different meanings for your team member. Consider the possibilities before you offer up criticism about a task, especially during a performance review. The answer may not be as black and white as you originally thought.
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