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Training the Brain

By Lac D. Su, M.S. & Tanya Goodwin-Maslach, M.S.

Consider the project manager who takes obsessive precautions to ensure her team doesn’t make any mistakes. At a meeting, she details tasks for each team member to accomplish the following week, and then decides to take care of half of them herself without telling a soul.

Why would a manager create this kind of stress for her team? The short answer is she’s wired to. Biologically speaking, we’re built to do one of two things in the face of a threat or danger: run really fast in the opposite direction, or stand our ground and fight like a champ. Deciding on a rational action during a heightened state of emotion is secondary to our survival instinct. In our scenario, the manager feels she is fighting like a champ.

Any manager is going to respond to a project deadline with at least mild anxiety. Even if she isn’t completely aware of it, she’s likely to feel that her security is threatened by the chance of failure. To make things worse, she doesn’t have control over how and when all tasks are completed.

Why does she choose to micromanage her staff? Everything we experience passes first through the emotional part of our brains, called the limbic system. A trigger event, such as a new deadline to meet, is “felt” by the limbic system before we have any rational reaction to the circumstance.

So, we fully experience the anxiety, exuberance, or irritation of a moment before the rational part of the brain gets a crack at choosing the direction to head in response to the situation. The manager reacts to her anxiety about trusting the abilities of her team members. She is likely unaware of this emotion, and doesn’t recognize the impact of her actions on those around her. She needs to build skills in understanding and managing emotions to improve her own performance, as well as the performance of her team. She needs to build emotional intelligence.

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