The New Leader - Insights from Neuroscience 2 - Handling an Aggressive Boss
Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 3:20PM
Jon Pratlett

Let’s take the example of Steven, now in his mid 30’s, and in a fairly senior leadership role. He has two goals; firstly he needs to improve his ability to relate to others in the workplace, some of who perceive him as cold and hard as evidenced by 360 degree feedback and some personal feedback; and second he wants to improve his ability to handle an overbearing and threatening boss, Tom. In regard to the latter, Steven describes how he feels goaded into an un-resourceful state on many occasions when he meets with Tom.

He describes to you, his reaction to his boss’s manner as often freezing and feeling threatened, leaving him unable to think clearly or speak coherently—not the most productive of states for a high potential leader.

Would developing a palette of emotional regulation strategies help Steven? You bet!

You talk to him about the fight, flight, freeze response and introduce him to Dr Evian Gordon’s Brain 1-2-4 model (Gordon et al., 2008) to provide a broader context.

So how does the brain work?

Neuroscientist Dr Gordon, one of the wise elders of neuroscience, distilled hundreds of theories of brain operation into this one model, that he termed “Brain 1-2-4” (Gordon et al., 2008).

Dr Gordon explains this in terms of the brain working off one key principle: it wants to minimize danger and maximize reward.

It has two modes of operation, Non-Conscious and Conscious, with most of its operations occurring at the non-conscious level, which is far quicker and more energy efficient than its conscious mode.

It involves four methods of processing: “Emotion, Thinking, Feeling and Self Regulation”.  You can view Dr Gordon explaining the model in his own words at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYU1WgteWKU. It runs for 8 minutes.

In this model, emotion occurs automatically (non-consciously), by basic signals of danger and reward (feedforward), e.g. a car backfires and you jump.  At around 200 milliseconds (1/5th second) thinking and feeling emerge in conscious awareness providing “feedback” from the body and brain. You might notice your heart thumping or your palms sweating. Thinking allows for the initiation of voluntary actions and selective attention to significant input, which can then be communicated to longer-term memory. Long-term memory confirms “It’s OK. It was just a car backfiring!”

The new-generation leaders will have learned explicit emotional regulation strategies that enable them to have effective control over their emotions.

Back to Steven and as you explore the circumstances leading up to his freezing, he says he became aware of experiencing a dry throat initially and of feeling his heart pounding in his chest.

Although quite experienced and in a relatively senior role, Steven describes becoming incapable of thinking clearly and feeling threatened, embarrassed and inadequate when in this state. As empathy and trust built between you through careful listening, gentle probing and acknowledging, he reveals that as a young boy, he had been sent to a strict boarding school where the teachers were very aggressive, as were some of the prefects.

He describes how he learned to cow-tow to those in power to survive and to try and ignore the taunts of the other boys. He did his best to hide any outward signs of his inner feelings.   

As Steven talks it through, he has an “Aha” moment. He realises that since that time whenever someone (particularly his boss) becomes aggressive and loud, he freezes. He acknowledges that this response might have also contributed to his being perceived as cold and hard. His face now softens, his eyes fill with tears and a smile emerges.

You mention to Steven that empirical research is showing that the capacity to make decisions, solve problems and collaborate with others is generally reduced by a threat response and increased under a reward response (Elliot, 2008, Fredrickson and Losada, 2005, Fredrickson, 2001).

The brain treats many social threats and rewards with the same intensity as physical threats and rewards (Lieberman and Eisenberger, 2009, Eisenberger and Lieberman, 2004, Eisenberger and Lieberman, 2005).

Steven acknowledges that Tom’s manner often evokes a stress response in him where he finds himself unable to think or speak coherently.

Professor James Gross at Stanford University’s Psychophysiology Laboratory is a leading researcher in the field of emotion and emotion-regulation. He has proposed a model that provides a framework within which to appreciate emotional regulation strategies and you bring this to Steven’s attention. It may help in meeting both of Steven’s goals.

Emotion regulation, is the process by which people influence their emotional experience and expression (Gross, 1998).

The Emotional Regulation model is a way of examining a range of strategies, in time sequence, that you can adopt where you are anticipating or find yourself being emotional challenged, for example, a performance appraisal or conflict situation.

Emotion may be regulated at five points in the emotion generative process. The strategy of reappraisal, (also known as reframing) comes in at point four, and is about changing the meaning of the perceived threat. In the case of a performance review, as the leader, you may have wanted to avoid having one with a particularly difficult individual, and utilizing the model, you reframed at as a great opportunity to clear the air.

At each of the five points there are strategies you can adopt to decrease  the emotional impact and regain your brain’s executive functions. Another strategy, suppressing emotion, comes later in the emotion generative process. It consists of inhibiting the outward signs of inner feelings to hide, for example, embarrassment. Some strategies will be more effective than others. I will simplify the model to suit our purposes.

A Process Model of Emotional Regulation (Gross, 2002)

Wow! What is all this. Well, let’s first divide the model in two, based on emotional response –

Emotional Regulation Strategies - Proactive and Reactive

For ease of recall I am going to call Antecedent-focused Emotional Regulation strategies, Proactive strategies - ways to regulate emotions before you experience a full blown emotional response, such as anger or frustration e.g. you begin to experience the emotion building steam and have strategies available to adapt appropriately. These strategies are potentially available to you at about half a second after the initial stimulus and you have a window of around 0.2 of a second to veto your habitual emotional response. Given the brain is driven by evolution to conserve energy, anything that is done repetitively, will become a habit.

Response-Focused Emotional Regulation Strategies I will call Reactive Strategies and these come into play once an emotional response is fully underway inside you, from around an 1/8 of second following the initial stimulus.

Proactive strategies come under each of the following headings and the time progression is from left to right with Situation Selection, happening at the planning stage of a facing a challenging situation.  Situation Selection   S1 - S2       

Working from left to right, you begin to explain Situation Selection.

Situation selection refers to approaching or avoiding certain people, places, or things so as to regulate emotion. Steven acknowledges that there are some occasions when it is easier to talk to Tom than others, and that he could actively choose to create more of these opportunities. He identifies three, such as “Friday afternoon around 4pm”, and makes a note for himself of this and other times.

Situation Selection  Situation Modification  (S1x, S1y, S1z)

You next look at Situation Modification; this involves strategies to change the situation. Steven comes up with some ideas, e.g. meeting in a café, rather than Tom’s office. The public environment might stunt any overtly aggressive behaviour by his boss and allow him to speak up.

Situation Selection Situation Modification Attentional Deployment A1 - A5

Attentional Deployment

Steven hears next how choosing where to place his attention during a conservation with his boss can alter how he responds emotionally. Steven suggests he could try to distract himself immediately when he got a hint of trouble. How you ask? Pinching himself, he replies.

Distraction gives some distance from threatening social cues such as an angry facial expression, as it helps modulate amygdala activity through engaging other brain networks. The amygdala plays a key role in the processing of emotions and forms part of the limbic system. In humans and other animals, this subcortical brain structure is linked to both fear responses and pleasure, and might be termed the “Uh Oh!” centre.

Another useful strategy, in terms of redirecting your attention, is known as position shifting.  You tell Steven that he probably already uses this strategy at times, unconsciously. The strategy involves taking perspectives other than your own by imagining, for example, the other person’s point of view (second-person), or that of a neutral observer (third-position), a fly on the wall or video camera. 

Both strategies—distraction and position shifting—have been shown, in experiments and in practice, to reduce activation of the amygdala and, in the process, calm one’s emotions.

You suggest to Steven that he could, if necessary, use another strategy of physically distancing himself from his boss: this would allow any “Uh Oh! Response (limbic response) to ease and his executive brain functions to regroup to inhibit self-perspective (thinking about self). Self-perspective creates that internal chatter about how well you are going, or not. This chatter is more often than not negative, further stimulating the Uh Oh! response and further clouding thinking.

Another handy strategy that helps any Uh Oh! Response and calm down and allow your executive functions to regroup is to physically distance yourself from the individual or situation – the “back-off strategy”

Another emotional regulation strategy that fits here in Attentional Deployment is known as affect labeling.

You explain to Steven that affect labeling simply involves putting feelings into words. Labeling or naming the emotion that you are feeling appears to also assist in calming the amygdala, allowing you to move out of the fight/flight/freeze mode, and thereby free up energy, helping your prefrontal cortex (PFC), your executive functions for thinking, deciding, planning, a high energy user with very limited capacity, to regain its strength.

As a result, you will be able to think more clearly about the issue at hand. When used regularly, this strategy also appears to lead to long term improvements in mental and physical health, in part due to increased conscious awareness of what you are feeling, giving you a short opportunity to choose your response instead of merely reacting.  

Steven has a go at labeling how he is feeling in the here and now. “Optimistic,” he says. You then speak of emotional distancing and, from the look on his face, this resonates.  

Further strategies for Attentional Deployment.  

This next one concerns taking conscious control of your emotional state through being aware of your breathing. The first step in this strategy is to check in with your breathing. e.g. “Am holding my breath -  breathe” To test this out, breathe fast and shallow and notice how you feel; now breathe deeply and slowly and notice how you feel. Start to become aware of when you are holding your breath, most often than not it is when you are under some form of threat.

To review, the strategies under attentional deployment include:

Summary

So far you have you have shared with Steven the tactics involved in Situation Selection, Situation Modification and Attentional Deployment to assist him in better handling his emotions. Keeping his emotions in check will allow him to access his memory and thinking, better decision making, better planning and enable him to speak normally.

In Part 2 you will take Steven through the remainder of the model looking at cognitive change or reframing and suppression.

Best wishes in apply these strategies to your existing repetoire. Drop me an email at  success@jonpratlett.com and let me know how you go.

References 

Gordon, E., Barnett, K., Cooper, N., Tran, N. & Williams, L. 2008. AN “INTEGRATIVE NEUROSCIENCE” PLATFORM: APPLICATION TO PROFILES OF NEGATIVITY. Journal of Integrative Neuroscience,, 7, 345–366.

Gross, J. 1998. Antecedent- and Response-Focused Emotion Regulation: Divergent Consequences for Experience, Expression, and Physiology. Journal of Personality and Social ´┐╝Psychology., 74, 224-237.

Gross, J. 2002. Emotion regulation: Affective, cognitive, and social consequences. Psychophysiology, 39, 281-291.

P.S. The potential benefits of applying insights from neuroscience to leadership (Neuroleadership) include improvements in thinking; learning; making more effective decisions; overcoming negativity biases; finding more creative solutions; increasing the capacity for attention to key tasks and goals; dealing more effectively with stress; having a positive attitude, optimal motivation, engagement, teamwork and outcome focus in the workplace.

To learn more about other key competencies that form the foundations of new leadership and the new leader, invite Jon to come and speak at your organization. Call 612 93694120 or email success@jonpratlett.com

Update on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 4:48PM by Registered CommenterJon Pratlett

The New Leader - Insights from Neuroscience 2b.

Handling an Aggressive Boss

Dr James Gross's Process Model for Emotional Regulation (Gross, 2002). 

On the model we are now at Cognitive Change.

Situation Selection  Situation Modification Attentional Deployment Cognitive Change

The final proactive or antecedent-focused emotional regulation strategy, Cognitive Change, (It consists of changing the way a situation is construed so as to decrease its emotional impact and is referred to as cognitive reappraisal or reframing.

You ask Steven if he has ever fluffed part of a presentation he has given at a meeting and to recall what he might have been saying to himself as it was unfolding. Steven’s internal chatter had been less than encouraging, calling himself an idiot for not having prepared better. You challenge him to come up with a more resourceful comment and he replies;

“This will make a good story to tell to one of my kids about learning from your mistakes”.

In a different context, that of wanting to help at an accident, but having frozen at the sight of blood, you might imagine the person with a gruesome wound as an actor in a movie, covered in fake blood.

You move on to explain that neuroscience and psychology both tell you that your sensitivity to danger and threat is significantly greater than to reward, therefore, you are more likely to see the downside than the upside in any situation.

By reappraising the situation in a more positive light, you can regain motivation and move on from what appeared to be a disaster to you much more quickly. For an extreme example you refer Steven to Monty Python - Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life [HD].

For a guided, animated and interactive way to reappraise a situation quickly, you might explore the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06WICvASJ5w

Once on the page go down to the fourth box on the right entitled “Thought Challenger”.  Thought Challenger uses established techniques of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (C.B.T.) to help users identify and challenge negative thinking patterns and create more constructive and realistic thoughts.

You can use reframing to influence others too. Here’s an example. 

A school in Victoria, British Columbia was faced with a problem. A number of girls were beginning to use lipstick and would put it on in the bathroom. That was fine, but after they put on their lipstick they would press their lips to the mirror leaving dozens of little lip prints.

Finally the principal decided that something had to be done. She called all the girls to the bathroom and met them there with the maintenance man. She explained that all these lip prints were causing a major problem for the custodian who had to clean the mirrors every night.

To demonstrate how difficult it was to clean the mirrors, she asked the maintenance man to demonstrate what he had to do to clean them. He took out a long-handled squeegee, dipped it in the toilet, and cleaned the mirror with it. Since then, there have been no lip prints on the mirror!

This example covers both Attentional Deployment and Reframing:

Situation Selection   Situation Modification  Attentional Deployment  Cognitive ChangeResponse-focused Strategies.

You now turn to Reactive or Response-Focused Strategies. You recount to Steven his earlier comment about hiding any outward signs of his feelings when he was being taunted at school and how he has been percieved as cold and hard in his current role.

You explain that the latest research indicates that suppressing emotion, doesn’t decrease the internal emotional experience of it, and has been found to consume executive function resources, actually impairing memory, thinking, planning and decision-making.

It is far more effective to develop the self-awareness and social sensitivity that will allow you to use the proactive emotional regulation strategies, rather than a reactive one. These are the focus for the new leader.

Back to more Proactive Strategies

You then take Steven through another proactive strategy, that of a visualization, imagining himself at his next meeting with Tom.

The neuroscience tells us that when you visualise yourselves doing a task, simulating it, many of the same regions of the brain are activated as when you are actually doing the task. Visualisation then can be an effective way to prepare for a challenging situation. 

Top athletes and sports coaches have used visualisation (mental rehearsal) for decades, way ahead of science’s confirmation of it effectiveness. I would often use visualisation when I was preparing to compete in Ironman Triathlons, particularly working in my mind through the start and transition from swim to bike and bike to run. You get to work out the kinks in advance, if you have quite got it straight.

Using an If. ……. , then….….-strategy you can ready yourself for all sorts of potential situations. This preparation/practice creates neural pathways that make it easier for you to respond in real time. It may also calm your amygdala because you know you have prepared. You can think more clearly, rather than activating the fight/flight/freeze response.  

You run through a few If. …….then …… -scenarios, so Steven feels he had options available to him. His homework is to practice these various scenarios in his mind prior to his next meeting up with his boss.

You also discuss a back-up strategy for this meeting; if his emotions get the better of him, then he could excuse himself for a minute to relay a message to his personal assistant.   

On reporting back at your next session, Steven describes the latest meeting with Tom: when he had felt the precursors to freezing, he had paused, taken a deep breath and counted to ten, whilst endeavoring to label his emotion.

Later, when becoming anxious, Steven had raised index finger to indicate a pause, stood up and walked over to the whiteboard, picked up a pen, and looked back at Tom his boss just say. He then turned and wrote a couple of words that summarized Tom’s point of view on the board.

He said that the break/interruption had enabled him to calm down, and ask himself “What would my mentor do in this situation?” (a third-person perspective). He was then able to continue with a question in regard to how well he had understood his boss’s point of view (a second person perspective). This, he felt, had lead to Tom and himself gaining a shared perspective, as once his question was answered it was reciprocated by Tom. Steven felt back in control. You both agree that these strategies will improve with time and practice. 

In terms of Steven’s other goal, that of appearing less cold and hard, he reported that the emotional regulation strategies he had begun to incorporate had allowed him the confidence to gradually lower his guard to others he felt safest with. He had quickly been provided with positive feedback from these interactions and is gradually expanding that circle.

The new leader will go out of their way to develop and refine their ability to recognise and regulate their own emotions, whilst recognising and responding appropriately to those of others. Hopefully, Steven’s leader will become aware of the impact of his leadership style on team members and make appropriate changes.

In summary, you can begin using or further developing the following proactive strategies to help you and others regulate emotion and regain executive brain functions:

  1. Be responsible
  2. Modify
  3. Distract
  4. Label
  5. Reframe
  6. Distance yourself (Back Off – move away). When your change your physical position, posture and breathing rate, you can alter your thinking and feeling”.
  7. Pause while slowly taking deep breathes
  8. Prepare using “If…………………….. then………………….….    Thinking”
  9. Prepare using Visualization. In doing so ensure it is:

Best wishes in apply these strategies to your existing library. Drop me an email at success@jonpratlett.com and let me know how you go.

References

Gordon, E., Barnett, K., Cooper, N., Tran, N. & Williams, L. 2008. AN “INTEGRATIVE NEUROSCIENCE” PLATFORM: APPLICATION TO PROFILES OF NEGATIVITY. Journal of Integrative Neuroscience,, 7, 345–366.

Gross, J. 1998. Antecedent- and Response-Focused Emotion Regulation: Divergent Consequences for Experience, Expression, and Physiology. Journal of Personality and Social ´┐╝Psychology., 74, 224-237.

Gross, J. 2002. Emotion regulation: Affective, cognitive, and social consequences. Psychophysiology, 39, 281-291.

P.S. The potential benefits of applying insights from neuroscience to leadership (Neuroleadership) include improvements in thinking; learning; making more effective decisions; overcoming negativity biases; finding more creative solutions; increasing the capacity for attention to key tasks and goals; dealing more effectively with stress; having a positive attitude, optimal motivation, engagement, teamwork and outcome focus in the workplace.

To learn more about other key competencies that form the foundations of new leadership and the new leader, invite Jon to come and speak at your organization. Call 02 93694120 or email success@jonpratlett.com

Join our mailing list to receive future articles at www.jonpratlett.com  

Until next time.

Regulate well. Jon

Article originally appeared on Leading with the Brain in Mind (http://www.jonpratlett.com/).
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