How to create the behaviors that unlock performance excellenceA neuroscience expert offers four simple steps for facing your triggers, shifting your mindset, and rewriting the script for a dreaded event.
Chicago, IL (February 2023)—From time to time, we all face situations we fear and dread. A Zoom call with an unreasonable client. A team meeting with a coworker who likes to complain or argue. A performance review after a dismal quarter. Even a family dinner where a contentious relative will likely be present.
You know from experience two things will happen. One, the encounter won’t go well. Two, you’ll leave in a state of stress, anxiety, and ill temper. For the rest of the day, you’ll brood in your office, speak curtly to employees, and go home to snap at your kid or jerk the dog’s leash.
Michael E. Frisina says this happens when a situation puts you in lower brain, a fear-driven state of mind where you’re hyper-focused on keeping yourself safe. (It’s the “fight, flight, freeze” thing.) The solution? Get yourself into upper brain mode—a state of positivity, openness, engagement, and creativity—before the event.
“We know ahead of time when something is going to trigger our lower brain,” says Frisina, who, along with Robert Frisina, wrote Leading With Your Upper Brain: How to Create the Behaviors That Unlock Performance Excellence (Health Administration Press, February 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6405532-7-9, $29.95). “Don’t we? It just makes sense to learn how to prepare for it. When we do, we can rewrite the entire story, for us and for the other people involved.”
Typically, Frisina teaches leaders to shift their behavior so they don’t scare, shut down, and stress out their employees. But since we don’t all work for bosses who understand or care about neuroscience—and most of us deal with unenlightened clients, coworkers, and family members—it pays to know how to stay in upper brain ourselves.
He says it’s mostly a matter of stepping out of our shoes and into someone else’s. This shift allows us to stop building that protective wall and open up to a more productive way of thinking.
“Stephen Covey said it best with, ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood,’” notes Frisina. “When you can get into a seeking frame of mind before you pick up the phone or walk into the meeting, it will dramatically change how you experience the encounter. It puts you and the other person in a different place. And you’ll be more likely to get a more effective outcome. The key is always to get the best outcome you can in the midst of the event.”
Four tips that may help you shift into (and stay in) upper brain mode when you’re in (or just anticipating) tough circumstances:
1. Accept that your lower brain is going to get triggered
Knowledge is power. “If you can tell yourself, I am human, and part of my brain has some primitive wiring, you’re ahead of the game,” says Frisina. “You’ll know what’s happening and be able to put things in perspective. The saber-toothed tiger isn’t going to crash through the wall and devour you. You’re safe. You’re free to work with the other person to come up with a solution.”
2. Know when your lower brain is triggered
Self-awareness is key. You’ll start to feel anxious, edgy, defensive, and just want to get away from the situation. Realizing you are there and naming it is the first step to getting control of the situation. Often we don’t realize it’s been triggered and we let things escalate or spiral. While we are often justified in being in this state, we have to remember that it’s not where we do our best work and try to move ourselves back to our upper brains.
“It’s usually a good idea to pause when we know we’ve been triggered,” says Frisina. “Just taking a moment to breathe, calm down, and regroup can prevent us from reacting in a way that shuts down dialogue or even damages relationships.”
3. Take a walk in the other person’s shoes
Try to understand them. What is driving their behavior? What pressures do they face? What do they need to get out of this partnership? How might they be perceiving you? “There’s a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln that goes, ‘I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better,’” notes Frisina. “It is so true. The more we know most people, the more we come to like them, and the more open we are to working with them.”
4. Start asking questions. (It can help to prepare some thoughtful ones ahead of time.)
“Being inquisitive is powerful,” says Frisina. “First of all, it leads to learning, and learning is always a good thing. Too often we go into situations thinking we already know the answer. But this kind of self-righteousness makes us rigid, which sets us up for conflict and failure. We should really approach conversations with a what can I learn from you? attitude.
“But also, asking questions opens minds, hearts, and doors,” he adds. “It shows people you care about them. They are far more likely to settle down, open up, and be more willing to cooperate and collaborate with you.”
We all must work with people who may not have been our first choice. But when we master the art of shifting out of lower brain mode, we can end up having a great experience.
“We may be able to reach consensus, or find our own perspective has changed, or even discover that someone we thought we didn’t like is a great partner,” says Frisina. “The more we practice putting ourselves into upper brain, the more of a habit it becomes—and the more it benefits not only ourselves but everyone around us.”
About the Authors:
Michael E. Frisina, PhD, has authored more than 50 papers and published articles on leadership and organizational effectiveness. He is a contributing author to the Borden Institute’s highly acclaimed textbook series on military medicine. He is a visiting scholar at the Hastings Center in New York, a visiting fellow in medical humanities at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, and a John C. Maxwell Top 100 Transformational Leader.
Robert W. Frisina, MA, is a principal in the Frisina Group and executive director at the Center for Influential Leadership, with primary responsibility for program development and research in leadership effectiveness and organizational development. He is a member of the U.S. Army Reserve and served as a civil affairs specialist with the Second Brigade Combat Team in the 101st Airborne Division in southern Afghanistan.
About the Book:
Leading With Your Upper Brain: How to Create the Behaviors That Unlock Performance Excellence (Health Administration Press, February 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6405532-7-9, $29.95) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.