When I was a child, adults and teachers seemed to agree on one thing: make kids afraid and they will perform better. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Baughman, hung a two-foot long wooden paddle on a hook near the chalkboard for her own easy access, and a stern warning for the rest of us.
Humiliation, threats, embarrassment, shaming and bullying…these ‘educational’ tactics laced the locker-lined halls, silently embedded into the brightly colored construction paper façade of a public elementary school.
One day I watched—incredulous—as Mrs. Baughman, grabbed a can of Lysol from the cupboard, and began to spray around a boy named Claude, in an act of utter frustration with his perpetual dreaminess. Claude was European, and vastly misunderstood. He dressed differently; his thick German accent sounded odd to us, and his hair matted together in a tussle atop his head. The class laughed nervously. My heart felt heavy. After that day, no one played with Claude at the playground. And the boys began to tease him.
We all wanted Mrs. Baughman to love us. We enjoyed her humor, her robust passion of multiplication tables, her strident opinions about race and class, and the way her thick southern drawl would fill the room with an irresistible authority. But we were also afraid of her. We never wanted to be the one at the end of another random disinfectant assault.
I remember her well. I remember how she looked, how her stern eyes peered over her red bifocals, her matching polyester pant suits with big gold buttons. I remember mostly how she made me feel. But I don’t remember a single lesson taught by Mrs. Baughman, except for maybe that when people are afraid, they don’t learn.
Later in my early twenties working for an oil and gas company, I found the same culture of fear-based leadership still existed. People were expendable, and motivated by the fear of failure, more than any kind of intrinsic reward. Things haven’t changed much. Just look around at all the sectors, public and private.
But there’s a sea-change happening on the front lines of leadership development and education that reveals there’s a much better way of doing things, and it’s guided by the latest findings in neuroscience.
The fields of neuro-psychology, neuro-plasticity and neuro-cardiology is giving us clues into how to create the optimal conditions for people to transform into exceptional, innovative and enthusiastic contributors. Bringing out the best in people is more a matter of brain function—and deliberately creating environments that support that functioning—than pressuring individuals to tow the proverbial line.
So rather than moral ideologies of right and wrong or good and bad, these evidence-based approaches are rooted in rigorous research into our nervous system, and how we can positively (or negatively) influence one another. In effect, empowering others is a scientific endeavor, rather than a motivational or inspirational one.
Why is this important? Because even in the most benign professional and educational environments, there still lurks a subtle but powerful assumption that outstanding productivity lies solely in will power, and commitment. And when people fall short, we tend to resort to the old conventional approach of fear, intimidation, scolding and manipulation.
So what are these optimal conditions that foster creativity, innovation, motivation, collaboration, trust, adventure, and loyalty? In a word – safety.
Safety is a mild and very much overlooked little word that is in fact a lion in the leadership development realm. When we first introduce this concept to participants in our workshops, people often look at us in confusion. ‘Safety?’ they query. ‘What do you mean by that?’ Some even roll their eyes…“Safety is for wusses,” some retort. Others assume we mean mere physical safety.
But true safety means to feel safe and secure in all aspects—spiritual, emotional, physical and psychological. And why is safety so essential? I’m going to deliberately oversimplify here for the purpose of illustration:
Our brains are made up of three distinct parts: the primitive reptilian brain, the newer mammalian brain, and the newest neo-mammalian brain. The reptilian brain, also known as the amygdala, is designed to keep us alive. It’s in charge of the fight-flight-freeze-appease response when we feel under threat. The mammalian brain is in charge of our emotions and feelings. And the neo-mammalian (or neo-cortex) is our ‘wise’ brain. It is the center of empathy, reason, compassion, wisdom, learning, innovation and intuition. In other words the mammalian brain is where all of our creative genius lies.
For our purposes, I am going to focus on the two brains at either end of the spectrum—the reptilian brain, and the neo-cortex.
Our reptilian brain is constantly scanning for, and activated by, four specific things:
- the unknown
- physical or emotional threat
- ‘shoulding’ on ourselves
- incongruence in our surroundings (things not really lining up or making sense)
As soon as that reptilian brain picks up any of these signals, it goes straight to work. The first thing it does is shut down most of the neo-cortex, so that all hands can be on deck for rapid-fire reaction. Unfortunately, the reptilian brain shoots first and asks questions later. Formed during our most primitive stage of evolution, its purpose was to keep us from being eaten by a pterodactyl, not to provide us with nuanced response to a grumpy salesperson. But to the reptilian brain, there is no difference. At all.
So, regardless of the signal—whether it be a stressful deadline, or a real tiger in your driveway— your reptilian brain for all practical purposes shuts down your other, more resourced, more creative brain. This is called an amygdala hijack. It literally hijacks your ability to respond mindfully.
Enter politics, the medical industrial complex, the 24-hour news cycle, social media, the military industrial complex, religion, environmental and economic stress, and corporate life in general, and now you have a recipe for chronic fear, anxiety and panic—a veritable reptilian totalitarian state. Yep, we are basically living in a wisdom-bereft environment every day of our lives. And frankly, as a result, we are collectively about to hurl ourselves over a cliff.
This begs the question—with so much anxiety in the air, does this create conditions that facilitate real change, innovation, and creativity? Hardly. Curiously though, the response to this reptilian mindset is more reptilian responses—create more rules, threaten with more bombs, tighten our belts, finger wag the poor productivity, and call out all the bad behavior.
Neuroscience says there is a better way. Create safety. When people feel safe the outcomes are many—collaboration, learning, excelling, inspiration, connection, peace, maturity, openness, responsiveness, ingenuity…just to name a few.
In our work at EQUUS, we talk about ‘connection before task’, in other words, there is no sense in trying to push towards a task or outcome, until an authentic connection between people is made first. When connection is primary, the tasks automatically transform into optimal actions and outcomes. So how do we create connection? By providing and creating safety.
When we look around at the carnage that is mounting in the name of right and wrong, and good and bad, holy and unholy, it becomes apparent that what we are confronting is not a political party, or another country, or that people are just selfish and ignorant. What we are confronting is a mindset. Fear, shame, mistrust…signaling a reptile is at work.
Given the challenges we are all facing, whether it is as global as climate change, or shifting to a more conscious culture at work, or something as personal as having a deeper and more meaningful connection to a partner, the invitation is the same: create safety first, and everything else will line up.
How to create safety for others? It’s nuanced, and so putting it in bullet point form feels a bit stilted, however our reptilian brains relax when things are simpler and more succinct, so here goes:
- Be succinct and clear in your communication – short, brief and to the point.
- Use a warm, calm and open tone of voice
- Listen, with openness and genuine curiosity
- Be curious
- Be present (and don’t multitask while engaging with someone)
- Use eye contact
- Use an open style of body language (no arms crossed, etc)
- When possible, meet in person (rather than engaging on the phone or email) so that you can practice the above when communicating.
- Be accountable – own your stuff, without excuses
- Be transparent
- Be vulnerable
- Stay away from good / bad, right / wrong mind states
- Share your feelings and thoughts with ‘I’ statements
- Be congruent – in other words, stop wearing a mask and be yourself
- Do not ‘should’ on others (or yourself)
- Work towards what you and others can do, rather than emphasizing what you and they cannot (or should not) do.
- Use levity
- Be kind
- Spend time in nature, or with animals
- Validate the other’s feelings
- Walk your talk
- Be appreciative
- Stay away from gossip and triangulation
- Allow for people to be themselves, respecting their values, opinions and beliefs
If you work towards cultivating the above skills and practices, you’ll start to notice something wonderful happen. Things will become easier, and events will begin to turn in the direction you’ve hoped for. Situations previously mired in the logjam of opinions and inertia will begin to clear.
When you create safety as a leader, you bring those around you to wisdom and collaboration, and you become the kind of 21st century leader this world could use.