Difficult conversations about ‘behaviour’ seem to be a recurring theme in the work place.
Humans are masters at rationalisation. Good reasons are often given for behaviours even when they become destructive.
Imagine you are in a tense team meeting trying to defend your position on a big project and start to feel yourself losing ground. What might you notice about yourself? You find your voice getting louder. You talk over one of your colleagues and correct their point of view. They push back, that is where you go into overdrive trying hard to convince everyone you’re right. In neurochemical terms, your brain has been hijacked!
In situations of high stress, fear or distrust, the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods the brain. Executive functions that help us with advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building, and compassion shut down and the amygdala, our instinctive brain, takes over.
The body makes a chemical choice about how best to protect itself — in this case from the shame and loss of power associated with being wrong — and as a result is unable to regulate its emotions or handle the gaps between expectations and reality. So we default to one of four responses: fight (keep arguing the point), flight (revert to, and hide behind, group consensus), freeze (disengage from the argument by shutting up) or appease (make nice with your adversary by simply agreeing with him).
The late Judith E Glaser, CEO of Benchmark Communications and the chairman of The Creating WE Institute spoke about the danger of becoming someone hooked into ‘an addiction to being right’.
In the example above, when you argue and win, your brain floods with different hormones: adrenaline and dopamine, which makes you feel good, dominant, even invincible. It’s a feeling many of us would want to replicate. The next time we are in a tense situation, we fight again. We get ‘addicted to being right’.
Many leaders suffer from this addiction. They are extremely good at fighting for their point of view (which is indeed often right) yet they are completely unaware of the dampening impact that behaviour has on the people around them. If one person is getting high off his or her dominance, others at the same time are being drummed into submission.
In “Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain” (Ecco, 2011), neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga says we get stuck in our automatic thought-processing and fool ourselves into thinking we’re right. He believes a crack in the force field that protects a person’s sense of reality is needed before they will actively explore, examine, and change strongly held beliefs and behaviour.
Marcia Reynolds believes it requires the coach to reflect the holes in logic and ask questions that reveal the fears, needs, and desires that keep the client’s constructs in place. Only then in their moment of uncertainty can a breakthrough in behavioural thinking occur.
The foundation to coaching conversations leading to transformational learning is Presence.
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