The de-skilling nature of fear
In last week’s blog post, we challenged the use of the word ‘fear’ because many people do not label their experience of the brain’s fear-responses as fear or being afraid. They might experience anger, frustration, desire for revenge or even more subtle forms such as disliking, annoyance, avoidance, apathy. Let’s just remember that responses from the fear network in the brain cover such a wide variety of emotions and experiences.
I love Yann Martel’s description of fear from his book, Life of Pi, Chapter 56 (which is a fantastic one-page description of how fear completely debilitates us).
Here is an excerpt:
“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins in your mind, always. One moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy. Then fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind like a spy.”
One great thing about fear is that it focuses our attention, quite acutely. The purpose is survival. Fear, i.e., the brain’s threat response, is a sign that the brain is interpreting that we are in danger, so it takes control of our attention, directing us to focusing on problems and righting wrongs. Whether that interpretation is realistic or not, our attention is on survival: we look for the source of problems and focus on how to demolish or be rid of them. We might try to get even and do whatever is necessary to make it right.
In this brain-mode, the priority is survival. We may feel panic, anger, grit, anxiety and even power. But will we have access to our eloquence? No. To our finesse? Probably not.
In survival mode, the brain de-prioritises our skills and abilities. If those abilities are not going to get us out of a threatening situation, they are not needed. And with our skills locked away and out of reach, we may feel confused, hazy, distracted.
On a small-scale version, we may only feel irritated or that something is not right, but the brain is still a bit on high alert, focusing attention and de-prioritising some of our essential skills.
Then, we are less productive, we are less efficient, we are prone to mistakes, and we are easily distracted. We become tight and inflexible, our views are myopic and we make poor decisions. Our work is sub-standard and our business solutions are simplistic.
Keeping in mind that emotions are highly contagious, our own fear-based reactions will also affect our colleagues: when one team member is in survival mode, others will feel it and their brains will also respond with threat-reactions, creating emotions and behaviours that drive down trust and good teamwork.
What can you do?
- Create psychological safety. Create agreements so that people can address issues, rather than suffer with them.
- Set expectations with each other (psychological contracts), so there is less room for perceived unfairness.
- Help team members learn to manage their own reactions, notice when emotions start to ricochet around a team and address them before it destroys team.
- Support well-being because tiredness removes people’s ability to manage their own threat reactions. In other words, stress invites out people’s survival mode.
- Help team members recognise threat reactions and fear-based behaviours in others. Not to judge, but to have a bit of compassion and be aware that something might need to be addressed.