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Staying cool under pressure



Karen entered the work day with the intention of reviewing her presentation before the meeting. She’s holding some anger that there were many distractions last week, and she wasn’t given much notice to create this presentation. She wants to be collaborative and helpful but this threatens her ability to produce quality work in other ways. She feels pressured to make a good impression with her new

leadership team to earn their respect. If only others would respect her time when she is working on her laptop.


Such a familiar story, and it seems there is nothing she can do. The director isn’t going to take anything off her plate, and she is responsible for her department to stay on track. This is the reality of so many leaders.


Neuroscientists have been sharing discoveries about our brain and how it effects our ability to find

solutions under duress. David Rock at the NeuroLeadership Institute shares there are five primary ways we get triggered into a threat response. SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness to Others, and Fairness.


Karen has not established her role and how she fits in with the team, this creates uncertainty. Her status may be threatened if the other leaders in the room have better quality presentations that she does. Will the director question if she’s the right person for the job? She loses a sense of autonomy when her time is not her own and there are distractions. Finally, it doesn’t seem fair that she wasn’t given more notice to create a quality presentation.


There are many triggering possibilities here. All of which can cause her brain to activate the threat response, which takes energy away from the manager part of our brain that could reappraise each item and find solutions. The first step is to calm her threat response by doing what she has control over.


While she is on her way to the meeting, she can narrate, “heel, toe, lift, heel, toe, lift” or look out the window and notice something beautiful. Giving her brain a healthy distraction using focused attention helps regulate her system and keep her brain manager engaged. She can continue to reappraise the situation, reminding herself that it is normal that she isn’t comfortable with so many unknowns and as

she learns the nuances of the job, she can continue to modify her routines, including the ways she communicates her availability or need to be left alone, and demonstrate her competency with the team.


Walking into a room and making eye contact with a trusted person can be soothing. However, since she’s new to the team there isn’t anyone she trusts yet. In threat response, blood flow is draining from her brain manager and putting resources toward her nervous system to fight, flight, or freeze. Continuing to do what she can control (even if it doesn’t change the external circumstances) calms her threat response and helps her restore the manager to take charge.


Here’s something you can try


Very intentionally begin to follow your breath. Even if you have to outwardly look like you are paying attention in this meeting, listen to the subtle sound of your breath.


Increase the intake slightly so you feel the air pass through your nose, then the back of your throat, then your chest, then see if you can expand your belly. You are controlling your attention.


At the same time, 5 cycles of counting with the breath (in “1, 2, 3, 4 Pause”, out “1, 2, 3, 4 Pause” is proven to soothe your nervous system).


You could also use a bathroom break as an opportunity to shake off or silent scream to release some pressure which helps many people feel more present.


None of this is a magic wand, but we can use what we know about the brain to keep our most resourceful parts of the brain activated instead of those primitive fight, flight or freeze responses running the show.


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Deanne Carter - Evolving Leaders

Based in Tacoma WA

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