Afraid to try? What a toxic culture does to your brain…

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Pixabay – intographics

As a leader, you have the opportunity and responsibility to shape the culture and environment in which your team functions. From experience, I know first hand the joys of working for a leader that values your effort and encourages innovation.  It’s energizing and fun.  It’s where you want to be and you’ll give more effort toward reaching the goal than money can buy. You are a part of the story that’s making a difference for others. You are inspired to make the vision a reality because you know what you do matters and you believe in the vision.

On the other hand, when the leader changes and connections diminish.  You lose the passion for the career you chose and it simply becomes a job.  You only stay because you’re not sure what else is out there and you hope if you just keep your head down and don’t make eye contact that it will get better.  It often doesn’t and those leaders don’t tend to move on quickly. Not only does trust fail, but the damage that working environment or relationship does to your mental and physical health is disturbing.

What happens when fear becomes toxic?

As Simon Sinek (2014) discussed in “Why Leaders Eat Last, “we are hardwired to ensure our survival.  Our primitive brains haven’t caught up to cultures that we live in.  Our legacy survival systems, as Sinek, pointed out continue to ensure that whether something is life threatening or just stressful our bodies respond in the same way.   The problem is that stress at work isn’t life or death, but our body releases cortisol regardless of the difference.  So when our Circle of Safety begins to fail and we begin to fear what’s happening, our body releases more cortisol (p.55-56).  In turn, cortisol inhibits oxytocin, the trust and empathy hormone. So we devote even more energy towards being suspicious of those around us at the very time we need more support from the group.  It make us more vulnerable to outside threats, less productive and startlingly less healthy.

Sinek (2014) recounted that cortisol isn’t meant to be released on an ongoing basis.  It’s meant for a short release to help you survive a dangerous time and then the system is meant to reset.  Unfortunately, work stress continues and as a result prolonged cortisol works against us.  Sinek explained that cortisol:

  • affects glucose release
  • increases blood pressure and inflammatory response
  • impairs cognitive ability
  • increases aggression
  • suppresses sex drive
  • it prepares us for fight or flight and in doing so it shuts down digestion, growth and the immune system.  It makes sure all energy is redirected toward only essential fight or flight systems.
    (p. 56)

Guess what that does to your long term health… It’s not good.

So does the culture and environment of your workplace matter?

YES

Workplaces that foster connections and increased trust decrease cortisol release and let oxytocin and serotonin work to foster cooperation (p. 58).

It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it…

Knowing that our brain is impacted by our primal instinct for survival means that we not only pick up on what is said, we notice how the body says it.   Over the past year, I’ve attended sessions and worked 1:1 with Carla Gradin, body language trainer.  She referred to the fact that our primal brain is designed to ensure our survival.  As a result, how our brain reads body language also impacts our response. She explained that the first part of the body our brains notice is our hands.  Where you put your hands tells us if you are a friend or foe. If the palms of my hands aren’t visible during an interaction, your brain is questioning my motives.  If I reach to shake your hand palm down, your brain is considering whether or not I’m concealing a weapon.  If you want to build positive connections with people, your body language needs to say the same thing you are (Speak up and Stand Out, Carla Gradin, p. 8).

Cloud (2013) noted “research suggests, people don’t leave jobs — they leave bosses” (Boundaries for Leaders, p. 56).  He too drew the connection to our primal brain and stressed that it’s not just what a leader says, it’s how a leader communicates that causes our brains to revert back to fight or flight (p. 56).

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Pixabay – Counselling

Covey (2006) cited John Gardner, “One of the reasons people stop learning is that they become less and less willing to risk failure” (Speed of Trust, p. 178).  So what’s one reason we fear failure?  To be honest, failure – trial and error, is how we learn.  We try it one way and when it doesn’t work we learn from what we did and try again.  Why is it that some teams become stagnant and stall out rather than take a chance?

Cloud (2013) explained that it’s all about the right kind of fear.  There’s positive stress that helps you get your taxes in on time.  The stress that helps you meet the deadline, yet in the process you never lose sight of the goal.  It helps us focus on closing the gap (p. 65).  If you cross over into the realm of toxic stress as Sinek (2014) and Covey (2006) also mentioned, then your primitive brain takes over and productivity decreases (Boundaries for Leaders, p. 67).

People can’t learn from mistakes if they are too “afraid of what you might do to [them]” (Boundaries for Leaders, p. 74).  People need to know that their leader is there for them during times of success, but more importantly, a true leader stands by them and helps them learn from their mistakes (p. 71).

It’s a fine line between healthy, motivating stress and debilitating, toxic fear.  The first step as a leader is reflecting on the culture you have created and realizing that a team united on the same path with healthy brains will always out perform a team paralyzed in fear.

To fail is to begin again knowing one more way that doesn’t work.  It’s a culture shift worth pursuing because the resilience of our students and teams depends on their ability to learn from their experiences rather than being derailed by them.  And that begins with you!


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