Fear can be useful - it keeps us safe when there is real physical danger, but it can also be very detrimental because it can steal our resourcefulness just when we need it most. How is your behaviour as a leader and manager impacting on the resourcefulness your people?
A metaphor for life
My wife Pam and I love skiing because it is a magnificent metaphor for life. For the first five years we spent every morning of our holiday in ski school with only the afternoons for playing and practicing what we learned. The skills required for skiing are like no other. You need to make totally counter intuitive movements that make it feel like you will be totally off-balance and fall and yet they make you safer. This means your mind is constantly screaming at you not to do the very things that will make you a better skier. There were a lot of falls in the early days and a lot of bruised egos too. But the anticipation of being free to ski on all types of slopes and the excitement of going downhill with the fresh crisp cold air in your face kept us going.
There is an interesting paradox in skiing. You need to be very conscious of how dangerous it is and have a healthy fear of being injured or injuring someone else. Every year many skiers are hurt and sadly some die. Given this fact you need to learn how to be safe and only go at a speed that you can fully control and only go out in conditions you are competent enough to manage. However, if your fear becomes inhibiting and prevents you from stepping out of your Comfort Zone you will never learn the skills you need to really enjoy the exhilaration of elegantly navigating some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring landscapes on the planet.
On the other hand if you are completely fearless and addicted to the adrenalin rush of speed rather than the discipline of practicing key exercises and techniques, you can quickly find yourself in a perilous situation that could end up with a helicopter ride to the local hospital or worse.
The Learning Zone
One of the Ski Instructors who Pam and I still regularly work with showed me the illustration below (Fig.1) and explained to us that developing any new skill requires the ability to step out of your ‘Comfort Zone’ while remaining mindful and respectful of the ‘Fear Zone’. The Fear Zone can be a dangerous place and it sometimes keeps us stuck in our Comfort Zone. However, if we stray too far into it we could get out of our depth, lose control and be harmed.
There is in fact another zone in between these two zones – the Learning Zone (Fig.2). It is often initially an uncomfortable place and requires courage, determination and discipline. It also requires a clear sense of purpose: To reap the rewards of developing the new skills. To succeed at the next level. To do what all humans are wired to do from birth – grow. However, the more we go into the Learning Zone the bigger our Comfort Zone becomes.
Sameness and Difference
Every year Pam and I go to Meribel in early January to start the year in the glorious fresh mountain air and magnificent vista of the French Alps. Every year it is the same and yet very different. The mountains and valleys are the same, the accommodation is the same but while the pistes are all in the same place with the same names, the conditions on them are radically different. This year we knew there was no snow below 2000m and very little above that. The snow machines produced enough cover for the main pistes but it was very hard-packed and icy. Many of the pistes that we were used to playing on in previous years were just grassy slopes strewn with stones.
We had never skied on very thin hard-pack snow before. It was very fast and every movement was accentuated. This massively reduced the margin for error and required intense concentration and a totally focused mind. When skiing there is a lot to take in, you need keen attention on your body and how your skis are in contact with the show while being mindful of all the other skiers who are weaving in and out at a variety of speeds with a broad range of competence. So we were both thankful that we were already more experienced skiers with lots of techniques and skills for a variety of conditions.
On the fourth day of our trip we were skiing down from the top of Saulire on a steep Red Piste which in previous years had been one of our favourites. However, this year it was very icy and more difficult to traverse. When we came to the steepest section Pam managed to take a leap of faith and trust her skills. She skidded across the ice and managed to maintain a fluid posture and good balance as she made a very rapid 40-50 meter drop through the icy patch to the snowy area just beyond it.
I was still above the ice (or so I thought) and made a tentative manoeuvre but started skidding across the Piste. My speed was increasing very rapidly and I didn’t feel any grip with my skis. Within milliseconds I could feel a surge of Adrenalin and my body tensed up, my muscles froze and my mind went blank. I knew what was happening but was helpless to do anything about it – Amygdala Hijack! I felt my heart racing my breathing faltering and a sick sensation in my stomach. My mind gave me an intense rapid-fire video of all the falls I’d ever had, all the sprains and pulled tendons, all the pain! It didn’t look good and felt terrible. I was relieved that there was no one else around because I was in no state to change direction. It was as if all my skills and all the techniques I’d learned vanished. I felt totally incompetent!
Fortunately I came to a stop on an area of snow just off the edge of the Piste and caught my breath. It was weird to feel that I no longer had the skill or flexibility to turn and maintain the right posture and balance on a steep slope. It was very debilitating because my mind was telling me that I would lose control and be a serious danger to myself and others.
After taking a few deep breaths I made a point of labelling the sensations in my body and recognising what the irrational fear was doing to my thinking. I took a moment to observe the magnificent view, feel the cold air flowing deep into my lungs and adjusted my posture to a more relaxed stance. I sensed the pressure of my shins against the front of my boots and pushed down with my big toe on the downhill ski so I could feel the edge of my skis biting into the surface of the Piste. It felt good. It felt like regaining control. Within about a minute I could feel the adrenalin subside and my thinking calm down so I was remembering how to do fast turns by leaning forward and curving my body into a crescent shape to keep my centre of gravity over my skis while keeping my upper chest facing straight downhill and ensuring I had both skis edged against the Piste at a keen angle. I also took a few moments to watch as more experienced skiers gracefully side-slipped over the ice patch, confident that they would regain full control as they reached the snow below it which they inevitably did – as Pam had done.
Once I regained a sense of calm resourcefulness I was able to face my fear and skid over and past the ice. It was amazing how that increased my confidence over the next couple of days. When I could see icy patches ahead I just made sure there was plenty of space to shoot over them and remain fluid and flexible. We also both found some nice pistes to practice a number of exercises that would help us on the steeper and icier slopes. Pam is very good at reminding me to have the discipline to step into the Learning Zone and practice in good conditions so we have the skills to deal with more challenging situations when they arise . . . because they will!
It’s just our brain
That evening we had a great chat over a glass of Vin Chaud about how my moment of fear-induced incompetence was a great example of how unhelpful fear can be. My Amygdala – that part of the brain that alerts us to danger – went into overdrive. It hijacked my thinking, filling me with an overwhelming amount of neurochemicals like Adrenalin which shut down my Prefrontal Cortex so I couldn’t put the situation into perspective. All my emotions were stirred up, so instead of remembering all my skills and reminding myself that I had coped with similar situations before, my brain was remembering all the falls I’d ever had, especially the most painful ones! These memories then created and projected the possibility of a very serious, potentially life threatening, accident occurring at any moment. This instigated a positive feedback loop of even more adrenalin being produced, which further affected my body; my heart started racing and muscles tensed up and froze. It all made me feel as if I couldn’t move let alone have the flexibility to make agile turns while maintaining a fluid, flexible and balanced posture. It was only by being mindful and observing the direct sensations in my body that I managed to regain some influence over my thinking, normalise it and regain my confidence enough to descend.
We also chatted about how this sense of debilitating overwhelm can affect us in our work and how being more mindful can help calm down an excited Amygdala.
A duty to help
Our conversation reminded me that managers and leaders have a duty to help their people manage their stress levels. There is constant pressure at work and sometimes a little thing can be the trigger that creates an Amygdala Hijack, stripping your people of their resourcefulness and causing silly or avoidable mistakes.
Managers and leaders also need to be mindful of their own thinking and ensure that they are willing and able to step out of their own Comfort Zones into the discomfort of the Learning Zone while being mindful of the Fear Zone.
Healthy fear has an important role to play in keeping us safe. Unhealthy fear can strip us of our competence. How are you managing you people with this in mind?
What are the dangers to your business or organisation that you need have a healthy fear of and to be mindful of? Are your people clear about these dangers? What is their level of accountability – are they clear about the consequences of their actions or lack of action? Do they need to be reminded so they are alert to the danger of not doing what is required?
In what ways are unhealthy fears preventing your people from utilising their current skills and creativity? What may be preventing them from learning from mistakes or near-misses? Perhaps there is a blame culture or there may be a lack of constructive feedback, direction, vision or purpose. This allows people to make up their own (often misguided) stories or gossip about what is happening or not happening. Perhaps ideas and suggestions are not being actioned by management so people believe it’s not worth contributing. Perhaps new managers are not being trained properly and workloads are not being managed fairly so people lose trust in management.
A combination of the above often creates a subtle but chronic state of fear that no one mentions because it is not just one thing, it is the complex combination of things which are difficult to articulate. The end result is that your peoples’ brains are producing an unhealthy level of Adrenalin making them pessimistic and far less resourceful than they could be.
As the New Year gets underway, how can you consistently step into the Learning Zone? What are the behaviours and skills you need to practice to ensure that you are effectively leading, managing and developing your people to fully access their creativity resourcefulness?
If you would like to start the year with a more mindful approach you can download our complimentary Mindfulness Programme with audio relaxation exercises to help you have a greater awareness of what is really going on, rather than getting stuck in what you are making it mean.
If you have any questions about the above please contact Gloria at admin@InspiredWorking.comand request a call with me.
With best regards
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