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If you haven’t figured it out by now, the greatest competitive advantage your organization has is its people. And understanding what makes your people tick is the key to a successful, sustainable organization.

As part of my series of radio interviews with experts in neuroscience and leadership, I recently had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Catherine Hambley, a senior consultant and founding partner of the Academy of Brain-Based Leadership. Catherine works with leaders of organizations who are looking to ensure success by developing high-performing teams.

One of the main strategies Catherine teaches is how to identify triggers — “hot buttons,” she calls them — so people can learn to manage their emotions and become more effective leaders.

That’s not the same as saying all emotion should be avoided. “The way I look at it is, if the expression of your hot button leads to an effective, productive outcome, then it’s probably not a bad thing,” Catherine told me. “It’s all about being consciously aware of what you’re doing.

“So if I’m angry about something, and I can actually express it in a way that’s effective, then that anger isn’t a bad thing. But if I get angry and I start yelling and I’m throwing things or I’m insulting somebody, that’s not an effective expression. The anger has taken over and I’m not exerting my ability to manager it well. That’s really what emotional intelligence is all about.”

Stress: it’s not always harmful

Not only should we not be striving to free ourselves of our emotions — our emotions are absolutely necessary for our survival, Catherine said. “Whether or not we exhibit emotion is different from whether we experience emotion,” she said. “Everybody experiences emotion. We need it to help us respond. There’s been some very interesting work on how acute stress, in small doses, actually primes the brain for improved performance.

“It really has to do with how much of it we experience, how long it lasts, and how we perceive it,” Catherine said. “The good news is we can develop greater resilience to stress.”

She compared small amounts of stress to an immunization. “We can inoculate ourselves a little bit for stress. There are a lot of strategies to do that. For example, if I know I’m going into a stressful situation, research shows if I imagine myself coping with it well, kind of walk through it in my imagination, that is actually helping my brain to adapt to the situation, to develop greater resilience.”

Imagining your success

Here’s an example of how people can build strength to thrive in a stressful situation. “I’ve done a lot of work in helping leaders prepare for public speaking events, the fear of which some people believe to be greater than the fear of death,” Catherine said. “I tell them to listen to what they’re saying to themselves. Often they’re rehearsing to get anxious, instead of rehearsing to succeed.

“So I walk them through the speech. We imagine they’re walking up to the stage. I encourage them to know what the room looks like, so they can picture what they’ll actually see. I help them think through what they’re going to say to themselves. It’s visual imagination, but it’s also self-talk. What am I saying to myself to help manage this situation more effectively?”

In the same way, Catherine told me, people can also work against themselves. “There’s a very close association among how I feel, how I think, and how I behave. Each one affects the other. If I continually think I can’t do something, I actually stop myself from doing it. I start feeling somewhat defeated, and then that just bolsters my belief that I can’t do it. It becomes a really vicious cycle.”

The good news is, we can turn that cycle around. “That’s where some of that imagery can come in really useful. You see yourself start being successful and then start practicing it in reality.”

Ways to manage your emotions

Catherine talked about recent research that shows that the simple act of labeling an emotion — being able to recognize that you’re angry or scared, for instance — actually has the effect of reducing threat emotion.

“I tell people to act like you’re an observer of your emotions. Don’t judge the emotion, just notice it,” she said. “It’s interesting how, when people get themselves into that observing state, it just tends to calm the emotion down so it’s not quite as intense.”

Catherine also coaches clients on how to use breathing as a tool for managing emotions. “When you get yourself to breathe slowly and calmly, you’re actually turning on your parasympathetic nervous system, which shuts down that fight-or-flight response,” she said. “I’ve often encouraged people to practice that type of breathing several times a day, so they can train their bodies to go into a more relaxed state fairly quickly.”

Another approach she uses is something called cognitive reappraisal. “That’s that self-talk I mentioned before, where we get people to look at whether things are really as bad as they’re making them out to be. Are they overgeneralizing? Are they defining a catastrophy or making assumptions? I get people to take a step back and look at what is the reality vs. how they’re seeing it, which might be colored by this strong emotion they’re experiencing.”

How one leader changed how his brain works

Catherine shared a story about one of her clients, an executive who had a reputation in his organization for being hot-headed, resentful, and defensive.

“We worked on self-regulation, on becoming aware of things that triggered him so we could develop some strategies,” she said. “A lot of it was just getting him to notice patterns and trends. For him, it had to do with whenever he thought someone was questioning his competency. Of course, when you start thinking people are questioning your competency, you start seeing it in places where it doesn’t exist.

“A lot of the work was around helping him realize, for example, that when someone asked him a question about why he did something, to explain his strategy, not to see it as challenging him or telling him he wasn’t doing it right. They were really interested in hearing why he was doing something a certain way.

“What was really neat was that the chairman of the board of directors of this company came up to me and said, ‘Wow! He’s really changed. What happened?’ It was wonderful to see how much more effective he became. People are listening to him now.”

Half the battle, Catherine told me, is persuading people they really can change their habits and the way they respond to their triggers. “I find when people get into a fixed mindset, when they start seeing themselves as ‘this is the way I am, this is the way I’ll always be,’ it gets a lot harder to coach. You’ve got to make the person see that they can make changes — and then the coaching goes a whole lot better.

The next wave of neuroscience and leadership

Catherine predicted brain-based business strategies will become even more popular than they already are, but she cautioned buyers to beware. “Nowadays, if it has the word ‘brain’ in it, it’s selling better and people are more interested in it,” she said. “I think it’s so critical that we keep the science in it. This is not a fad. It’s not a trend. I think we need to really try to keep the whole field credible by not losing sight of the neuroscience behind this.”

She envisioned more people using brain training to develop leadership capabilities, just as physical exercise develops the body. “Another area that will grow is learning how the language we use affects the way things are perceived by the brain,” she said. “For example, talking more about solutions than problems, asking questions that invite people to explore and share their perspectives. I think how we speak to people is going to continue to develop.”

That’s why the safety model, developed by the Academy of Brain-based Leadership, is so important, she said. “We need to keep in mind, not only when we’re talking to people, but also when we’re designing processes and systems and organizations, that keeping safety in mind is critical. Because it’s all about our social needs.”

I have to agree with Catherine: be careful when you hear “brain” used as a catchphrase to sell a new program or intervention. There’s so much we don’t know about the brain, and so much we’re learning every day.

The more we understand about the brain, about how we interact with others, about how we exhibit bias and fear, the more we’ll understand about how to work better together. At the end of the day, we’re never going to be totally run by technology. It’s all about our relationships, the connectivity of people.

Don’t miss our next post, when we’ll wrap up our neuroscience series with a talk with Tony Pottle, chief business development officer and another founding partner of the Academy of Brain-based Leadership.