Forget Everything And Run

Lance Leadership, People Leave a Comment

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As a motivator, Fear is a powerful thing.

FOCUSING — in a world of a million distractions, nothing captures our attention like the one thing we’re afraid of. For me as a young child, it was the ants on the sidewalk — despite my distinct size advantage, my big-wheel was abandoned on the sidewalk and I was inside because I could only see the ants in my way. If you’re coulrophobic, try concentrating on the happy couple at the center of this photo:

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Yeah …

Likewise, when failing is the fear, it is the chances to fail (no matter how unlikely), and not all the opportunities to succeed, that capture our mind’s focus.

EASY — enforcing obedience through the creation of fear is the tool most naturally within our psychological reach. Whether it’s a parent screaming to get compliance from a child, a boss threatening to get production from his employees, or a politician demagoguing to get support from her audience, the dynamic is the same … and the skill needed to work it is pretty low indeed.

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AUTOMATIC — people’s fearful response to stimuli, and their responses to that fear, are largely beyond their conscious control. The brain’s survival wiring is so exquisitely designed, the system has already recognized danger and set off the chemical release to prepare the body to deal with it before the brain has even fully processed the visual images that triggered the response in the first place.

After the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream. As epinephrine circulates through the body, it brings on a number of physiological changes. The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up. The person undergoing these changes also starts to breathe more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wide. This way, the lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Meanwhile, epinephrine triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body. These nutrients flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body.

All of these changes happen so quickly that people aren’t aware of them. In fact, the wiring is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus start this cascade even before the brain’s visual centers have had a chance to fully process what is happening. That’s why people are able to jump out of the path of an oncoming car even before they think about what they are doing. [Harvard Medical School’s Mental Health Letter, Mar. 1, 2011]

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RESTRICTIVE — While fear focuses the attention, it also restricts the mind’s ability to problem solve. When the amygdala and hypothalamus are in high gear, blood and neural activity is focused on fueling the body’s “fight or flight” requirements. Systems not required to support that activity are shut down or reduced, making the resources needed for creative thought largely unavailable. Resources like:

Converging research findings do suggest that creative cognition recruits brain regions that are critical for daydreaming, imagining the future, remembering deeply personal memories, constructive internal reflection, meaning making, and social cognition. [Scientific American, Aug. 19, 2013]

Those just aren’t the kinds of mental activities available to a person who is in the throws of fear. This is why panic is a veritable death sentence in a crisis, and why taking deep breaths, calming down, and using force of will to focus not on the source of the fear but on the problem to be fixed are mission critical steps to crisis management.

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As a leader, if you are ok with your people being focused on what they are afraid of — you — and involuntarily being less creative in solving the problems before them and the challenges facing your organization, by all means use Fear to motivate them. It’s easy to use, natural to work with, and will accomplish all of those things.

On the other hand, if you want your people focused on opportunities instead of dangers, to approach their jobs with intention and mindfulness, and to think laterally in the search for creative and innovative solutions, then ignore the easy and reach for the much more difficult leadership tool instead: seek to inspire instead of motivate. Leave the generation of fear to the rest of Life — it’s scary enough.