Derailing Team Drama; Neuroscience-backed Tips for Optimizing Performance

How do the most promising projects suddenly careen into chaos, leaving you wondering what the #&% just happened!?

New insights in behavioral neuroscience show us how team dynamics are highly vulnerable to threats of misunderstanding, miscommunication and downright conflict, leaving leaders too distracted by drama to focus on successful implementation.

Consider this short scenario:

Andrea has 3 years under her belt as a corporate product manager, and has now been promoted to team lead on a high profile project.  She’s enthused about working with new colleagues, some she’s meeting for the first time, and excited by the chance to make her mark in the organization.

She was heading to work for her first all hands meeting after dropping her 12 year old off at school.  It just happened to be science fair day, which in Andrea’s life translated to chaos on overdrive.  Despite all efforts to the contrary, panic ensued, daughter was late, and Andrea could feel her stress level rising as she crawled through traffic to make her meeting.

She managed to arrive at the office barely on time and fully flustered when her new admin arrived at the door to her cubicle.  “Good morning Andrea” she greeted, voice wary.  “I’ll be there in a sec” Andrea curtly responded, sounding harsher than she’d intended.  With no time to check her assistant’s reaction, Andrea turned back to her work as her colleague, feeling dismissed, walked away in silence.

In a world where opportunities to communicate have never been more abundant, an ironic phenomenon has taken place.  The ability to communicate effectively has become more challenging than ever, resulting in lack of trust, disconnection and an inability to successfully collaborate.

Because it’s not the modes of communication, it’s the methods that need improvement.  Andrea didn’t recognize that her heightened levels of a hormone called cortisol had been triggered by a region of the brain known as the amygdala, resulting in an overall feeling of stress. This effectively diminished her ability to access her higher executive functions, which reside in a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, as this 2 minute video clip explains:

Watch the video

Had she learned to recognize how her brain and body were responding to stress, Andrea could have worked in an intervention.

Instead, this happened; Andrea’s assistant, who had already suspected Andrea didn’t like her, now felt it confirmed.  And what happens when we’re working for someone we don’t trust?  We tend to look for signals that validate our beliefs, and often the relationship spirals down the low trust ladder from there.

Granted, we’re not at work to find new BFFs, but since we’re far more productive when we work in a high-trust, collaborative environment, neither does it serve us to make enemies. At the origin, challenging interpersonal dynamics all stem at some level from a lack of trust.

So as a leader, how can you stop this dynamic in its tracks? By understanding how to harness simple, neuroscience-backed principles, you can influence more positive communications, greater collaboration and increased productivity, as key among the long list of benefits topping the High-Trust Workplace checklist.

What Andrea didn’t recognize was that by understanding how her brain responds to stressors, and how to downregulate the rise of stress hormones, she could have stopped the negative chain of events before it started.

Unfortunately, many of these behaviors go unrecognized by the people who are enacting them, not because these people are intentionally being difficult, they simply don’t have the tools or the awareness to choose another response.

For Psychology Geeks 

It starts with being aware of our stressors and the long-term impact we have on others.  Sharing these basic principles of neuroscience enables your team to effectively use them.  Teaching techniques of mindful pauses, deep breathing techniques and cognitive reframing produce better options.

Does downregulating your cortisol levels sound arbitrary, or worse, hard?

It doesn’t have to be time consuming or complicated.  One of Prevention Magazine’s top 8 tips for lowering cortisol is this:

To Cut Cortisol Elevation 66%…Make a great iPod mix
Music can have a calming effect on the brain, especially while you’re facing down a major stressor. When doctors at Japan’s Osaka Medical Center played tunes for a group of patients undergoing colonoscopies, the patients’ cortisol levels rose less than those of others who underwent the same procedure in a quiet room.

Had Andrea just taken the time to crank up the tunes after the science fair debacle, she could have calmed down enough on the drive to work, she could have problem-solved by calling in to let her team know she was running late. By doing so she would have taken that weight off of her shoulders and arrived in a calmer, more present state.  Chances are she would be more present and productive in her meeting too.

There are several great options for downregulating cortisol levels, from deep breathing techniques to more long-term habits.  The important thing is to cultivate a culture where knowledge is shared and relationship prioritized.  It all starts with understanding how your brain works!

Ready to catalyze a shift from contentious to connected in your organization? Contact me today for a free 30-minute introductory session.

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