Originally published by Vistage Bill Crawford.
During this time of great uncertainty and pressure on businesses around the globe, many CEOs are experiencing a lot of stress.
The challenge of being a CEO is that you wear many hats. You’ve got to be a visionary, a problem solver, and you deal with a variety of people and must adapt to changing situations.
I think most CEOs are great at doing that when things are fine.
But when things aren’t fine — when someone isn’t listening, or the stock market is down, or there’s some real trigger going on, that’s when things get difficult.
Start with awareness: Notice what your triggers are during times of stress
I like to show CEOs that there’s more going on behind their responses to external factors than they may be aware. When I ask them, “What are your triggers?” I often hear, “The stock market’s down,” or, “People are not listening.”
And then I ask, “So that triggers stress, and what else?”
Often, CEOs say they feel frustration, anger and resentment — the negative reactions that get in the way of their clarity, confidence and creativity.
Once we notice our triggers and our old reactions, CEOs tell me that it helps to understand that the lower 20% of the brain is responsible for our negative reactions to unfavorable events. In other words, our stress, frustration, anger, or anxiety is simply data being sent to the wrong part of the brain.
The role of your brain in how you react to unfolding events
There are three parts to the brain you should be aware of because they each do different things.
The brain stem: Fight or flight
The lower part of the brain is called the brain stem — it’s the part that goes down the back of the neck and is where our fight-or-flight responses are located. It regulates our muscle tension, heart rate, blood pressure and breathing, among other things.
The neocortex: Top of the mind
The upper 80% of the brain is the neocortex. I call it the “top of the mind.” This is where we have access to our interpersonal skills, our problem-solving skills, clarity, confidence, creativity and compassion.
The limbic system: The negative alert
The middle part of the brain is the limbic system. Its mission is to keep us alive and safe as a species. Unfortunately, this part of the brain is working with “old software” and it’s not very smart.
In other words, this middle brain has a tendency to interpret almost anything negative as dangerous and throws us in to the part of the brain designed to deal with immediate danger. This is perfect when we need to react without thinking in order to stay safe (fight or flight). When this part of the brain triggers reactions such as anger, stress, frustration and anxiety, it blocks our ability to respond effectively and access our best.
“In other words, external factors aren’t the cause of a CEO’s negative reactions. Our brains are wired to respond to a perceived threat by engaging the brainstem, but this is an old response that isn’t serving us in today’s world.”
To overcome this reactive tendency, here are the 5 steps I share with CEOs to help them shift from the reactive brain to the purposeful brain.
5 steps to reduce stress and access your more purposeful brain
Stress, frustration or annoyance are understandable reactions, but what we don’t want to do is look externally for the cause of those emotions. Because, if we can’t change outside circumstances, we often feel more powerless and we can become trapped in an ever-escalating cycle of stress and frustration.
Remember that those negative reactions are originating from the lower reactive brain. Therefore, we want the upper 80% of the brain, the “top of the mind,” to regain control. We accomplish this by following what I call the BRAIN model: Breathe, Relax, Ask, Imagine and Notice.
I ask CEOs to use the Four, Four, Four Method: Inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four. Say the word “relax” aloud on the exhale.
These two steps help you regain control by allowing the upper 80% of the brain to take over the physical functions of breathing and muscle tension that are normally controlled by the lower brain. Once you’ve used breathing to become centered, it’s time to ask more purposeful questions.
3. Ask 4 “top of the mind” questions to shift from a focus on the problem to a focus on the solution.
Questions are the search engine for the brain. The kind of questions we ask determine what part of the brain we activate.
When dealing with negative situations, it’s typical for people to ask what I call “B.S.” questions — or brain stem questions such as:
“What’s wrong with this person?”
“Why won’t people listen to me?”
“Who taught this idiot to drive?”
These questions are unproductive because they throw us into the brain stem — the lower, unproductive part of the brain.
Here are four “top of the mind” questions CEOs can ask in order to allow the upper 80% of the brain to take charge.
- Am I reacting in a negative manner on purpose?
- Is this way of responding helping me create the life I want and/or produce the results I want?
- Is this the way I want to be defined?
- Would I teach or recommend this way of reacting to my children or to someone I love?
These four questions help push the lower brain’s thoughts aside and spark the top of the mind to provide clarity. Most CEOs realize that no, they’re not reacting on purpose, no, it’s not working for them, it’s not how they want to be defined, and they wouldn’t teach it to someone they love.
Next, I suggest that they use these same questions to generate a more productive response. In other words,
- If I were responding to this situation more purposefully…
- In a way that is more effective…
- In a way that makes a statement about who I am, and…
- In a way I would teach or recommend to someone I love…
What would that look like?
4. Imagine what your leadership would look like if you changed your approach
When I ask CEOs to make a list of the qualities and characteristics that they would choose to be more effective, purposeful, and that would define them in a way they would recommend to those they love, they say they want to be more:
Once we know what qualities we would like to strive for as a leader, the next step is to imagine being this way while dealing with the situation at hand. Who am I when I am being confident and kind? Who am I when I am being influential and compassionate? What is my tone of voice like? What is my body language like?
5. Notice the change
Finally, I encourage CEOs to notice a change. After steps 1 – 4, we will likely feel more calm, confident, and in control, because we’ve begun to activate the upper 80% of the brain that helps us overcome the old wiring and access clarity, confidence and creativity, even during trying circumstances.
I then teach CEOs how to stay in this more effective part of the brain and even how to get others to shift from their resistant brain to their receptive brain. These last two components are critical for effective leadership because so much of a CEO’s job is being influential with others.
Now is the time for CEOs to access the best version of their leadership
It is possible to practice this approach every day until we have rewired the brain, and these more purposeful responses become habitual. Now, instead of allowing ourselves to become triggered by external events and circumstances that we can’t control, we can use neuroscience to respond with clarity, confidence, and creativity and bring our best to life.
“As leaders, we represent how powerful people get things done. It’s up to us to set an example for people to emulate. By following the BRAIN Model and learning to live life from the “top of the mind,” we can activate the best of who we are and bring these more purposeful, positive skills to our roles as leaders. And soon enough, the people in our lives will take notice.”
Now more than ever we need to understand the neuroscience of effective leadership and access the clear, confident, creative part of the brain. Our organizations, our families, and our communities are looking to us for guidance. Let’s make sure we are giving them our best.