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Stop Threatening Your Team!

02 Nov 16
Aaron Wallace
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Take a look at the following two scenarios, and ask yourself, “Which is worse for a new employee?”

A recent graduate and new hire, Matthieu, comes into the office after doing some field research off-site. At 15:00, just minutes after he walks in, his four team members stand up and walk off to the conference room to meet you. He might not have been aware, but the meeting had nothing to do with his assignment, and being the absolutely amazing and highly empathic manager that you are, you didn’t want to waste his time.  Nice.

Having worked double time since entering the firm, Matthieu thought he had finally entered your good graces, and would later describe this particular event as, “a punch in the gut.” Compare that experience, with calling Matthieu into your office and literally punching him in the gut. Which is more painful?

The absurdity of the illustration has probably alerted you to the fact that this must be a trick question, and it is. Social Neuroscientist Naomi I. Eisenberger’s studies have shown that although the circuits in the brain processing rejection and physical pain are not wholly identical, the neurochemical reaction to the stimulus is the same. So if those two events actually had occurred, in a very real sense, this poor fellow is likely not to be able to judge much difference between the two.

But Why Should You Care as a Leader?

Rejection like this, doesn’t just make us feel bad, it makes us quantifiably more stupi—less productive. Research coming from Case Western Reserve University shows that an instance of social rejection, not only caused people to become more violent and aggressive, but it also caused IQ to drop by 25% and analytical reasoning skills to decrease by 30% in test subjects. This finding is not alone; many other studies have shown that we do our worst thinking when under emotional duress.

A relatively recent finding in neuroscience that has massive implications in the workplace is that social phenomena are processed using threat and reward circuits in the brain. That means from an fMRI’s perspective, there is little difference between a dictatorial boss and a bear grunting into the room. In the comfort of our plush office chairs, we experience fight or flight; our muscles tighten, breathing heightens, vision tunnels, and critical thinking all but goes dead.

Interestingly, it also means on an occasion of receiving public praise from your boss, you feel a very primitive reward kick in, like returning to your tribe with a stag after a successful hunt—and as a young boy growing up “in the south,” though I never went hunting myself, on many occasions one a close friend would return to school on a Monday morning withdeer jerky, and BIG SMILES on their face as they mentioned slaying a “12 point buck.”

David Rock, best-selling author and Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, has combed through the extensive research emerging on social threats and the mind, and has created the SCARF Model to help leaders recognize and prevent these adverse effects. As the direct reports of the readers of German Chamber Ticker, aren’t likely to be sweating in blue suits making widgets, applying this model can be crucial to enhancing your success as a leader in a knowledge-based economy.


In his book The Status Syndrome, Michael Mormot shows that status is positively correlated with overall health and longevity. Cortisol levels can be measured, and they do indeed shift when a person of higher status walks into a room. Cortisol is the hormone associated with stress, and on the whole, consistent, excess amounts of stress have deleterious effects on the body; thus the correlation between status and health.

You may choose to note, that status is not purely awarded based on position. Status is gained and lost in any formal and informal competition, no matter how in consequential. If you win a friendly tennis match, a board game, and even a game of Solitaire—a card game one plays against oneself—the scales of status readjust to encapsulate that boost. In the office this tends to play out in the form of giving unsolicited feedback to others, attempting to ask the smartest questions, or having a more perfect answer than your colleague or boss.

Tips from a NLPer

1. Imagine you are about to have a meeting with a colleague or some other relevant stakeholder.  Set up two chairs.  While standing, imagine yourself sitting in one chair and your colleague in the other.  In what ways are these two figures distorted from reality?  Is the projection of your colleague significantly shorter or taller than he/she actually is in real life?  Notice differences in posture and gestures.  Is your boss taking up lots of space, while you’re collapsing inward?  These are representations of how you really feel subconsciously.

If you recognize these distortions, or any additional others, level the playing field!  Use the power of your right brain and make things more even, by shrinking/growing your partner so that it seems like there’s a conversation between two equals happening.  Follow your gut, and when you get to the point where you feel comfortable with having that conversation in real life, you can put your chairs back where they were and walk confidently into the meeting room.  You’ll be surprised by the subtle internal shift that occurs…

2. If you are a leader in your organization and you’d like to put your team at ease so that you can get their best ideas, you also have several options available to you. But I’ll warn you, as you’ll soon see, these tricks are much easier when you are assured of your own self-worth.

Expose a personal weakness of yours to the group.  Periodically surprise them with self-deprecating humor.  Actively inquire about their perspective on various issues.  Apologize. Concede to their judgement when the stakes are low, and occasionally when the stakes are a bit higher.  Change your opinion when presented with compelling new data. Regularly remind them how specifically their expertise has been valuable to you.

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