Lead Through Change and Crisis with Neuroscience
- Why does the brain overreact to fear?
- How do changes and crisis affect leadership?
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought a daunting health crisis. Every business and every life were affected. The stormy national election and social unrest forced many leaders into crisis management mode. Neuroscientists have studied how the brain responds to stress and challenging situations. What they have learned can help leaders adapt to uncertainties.
Imagine yourself walking in a forest and running into a large bear. What do you do? What does the bear do? Both humans and bears share some parts of their brains. When faced with danger, the brain’s amygdala reacts by firing up a powerful fear response. That can lead to three actions: freeze, flee, or attack. In most cases, the bear will react by running away. People think, and sometimes act in all three ways. Most experts recommend that people shout and wave their arms to reinforce the bear’s flight response. That works most of the time.
Fear and Safety Are Primary Neuroscience Study Topics
Deep in our brains, the emotional system we share with all other mammals is involved primarily with pain and pleasure. It is one of the most active areas of the brain. In crisis situations, our emotional responses are strongly biased to seek safety and avoid pain. As a result, we often overreact to fear. Changes lead to uncertainty, which activates similar fear responses.
How do we evaluate risks? Not very well, it turns out. Much depends on how the risks are presented or framed. A study done in 1997 at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation makes that clear. The subjects were patients considering a treatment that would relieve cardiac chest pain. Subjects were shown one of two videos. One video stressed that the procedure was 99% safe. The other video explained that 1 in 100 patients had side effects. Significantly more people who saw the first video said they would agree to the treatment than those who saw the second video. The described risks were identical. Framing the risk in terms of 1% complications lowered the acceptance considerably. The fear emotion was the reason.
Understanding Leaders and Followers’ Emotional States
In the current economic, health, and political environment, changes and potentially bad outcomes are on everyone’s minds. Stress makes both you and your followers overreact to negative information. When you present planned changes, it is crucial to recognize that how you frame those changes will affect the emotional state of those who follow you.
Stressful situations trigger a fear response for everyone, from children to adults. A 2020 fMRI study at Stanford on children measured their responses to two types of images. One type of image was upsetting, while the other was neutral. The children were asked to think about the upsetting images and try to tell themselves a story that made it less upsetting. The brain scan looked at activity in the amygdala, which responds to fear, and in the parts of the brain involved in reasoning. What was found was that the anxiety and fear response overrode the ability to mitigate the fear through internal story telling. We can take from this that anxiety and fear make it far more difficult to recognize the “silver lining in a cloud.”
How Leaders Cope with Anxiety from Crisis and Change
Changes almost always cause fear and anxiety in all of us. During crisis situations or in trying times, leadership becomes even more difficult. Neuroscience research can help us understand how the brain reacts to stress, anxiety, and fear. With that knowledge, leadership challenges can be met more effectively in any situation. Understanding the impact of strong emotions on human thinking processes can also help leaders project a well-framed approach to those they lead. That can help achieve the desired results. Dr. Terry Wu is a highly sought-after public speaker and consultant on leadership. He is dedicated to helping leaders understand the complexities of Neuroscience research and empower their teams.