Reduce Distracting Worries in Your Team

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WorryTom’s got a full agenda to cover so he gets to the conference room a few minutes early to make sure the powerpoint is ready. Joe and Bill are already there, and they’re obviously grumbling and moaning about something. He hears “they are idiots” and “how can they be so stupid”, while they snarl and shake their heads. Tom’s going to need to get them focused on the meeting agenda, so he avoids getting into their conversation. But just as the meeting is ready to start, a few more people show up and ask Joe and Bill why they are so riled up. Joe retorts that there’s a management meeting down the hall and he thinks they’re talking about shifting the data center to the cloud. That would have a huge impact to many of the team members, and some of them may even lose their jobs. Now Tom sees even more snarling and hears even more derogatory remarks about the managers.

Tom’s responsible for getting the current project done with the existing data center, and he doesn’t have time to worry about it moving in the future. He knows there’s absolutely nothing he or the team can do to influence what’s happening down the hall, and spending time discussing it will just put his project behind. However, he also knows the team is emotionally panicked by this threat, and he needs to do something to get them to refocus on the project. So he tells them they’ve got fifteen minutes to discuss it, and he starts the discussion by saying he has no idea what’s being discussed down the hall, but lots of companies are moving to the cloud and it should be considered a real threat.

Why does Tom give air time to this issue and state the concern as a real threat? Spending fifteen minutes on it won’t resolve anything, and those fifteen minutes of team time are precious to his project. Plus he just turned conjecture into a real threat. Won’t that get everyone riled up even more? Tom’s not being cavalier with the team’s emotions but rather he’s skillfully helping them process their fear.

He knows that acknowledging a threat will make it less distracting than having it loom as a possibility. Our emotional system, the amygdala (section of the brain) in particular, is designed to continuously scan our surroundings for potential threats and warn our conscious mind if one arises. It’s part of our survival instinct. We’re always subconsciously looking for patterns that could warn us of danger. We may subconsciously hear someone say “cloud computing” and suddenly our amygdala sends a warning that puts our body on red alert and tells our conscious mind that our job is in danger. If our conscious mind ignores or denies it, our emotional system keeps sounding the alarm. This keeps our amygdala active and makes it difficult to concentrate on anything else. You can imagine how vital this would be if you were hiking in Alaska and a Grizzly bear were approaching.

Not only does the amygdala warn us of possible danger, it also heavily influences our thinking. If there is a looming potential threat, our amygdala becomes more active and extra vigilant to determine if the threat is real. It can shift our entire brain into a withdrawal orientation, where all of our attention is focused on the threat. This can raise mental filters that bias subsequent information processing, causing us to look at the world through a filter that interprets ambiguous events as possible dangers. We see the managers walk into a meeting and we jump to the conclusion that they’re talking about getting rid of our job.

Acknowledging a threat brings it into consciousness where it can be processed. If our conscious mind acknowledges the threat and either takes precautionary action or decides that none is needed, our amygdala can let up. It can stop scanning for the threat and the mental filters can be dropped. We can then concentrate on something else.

Tom made it clear that cloud computing is a threat. It has now become a real threat in the consciousness of each person, rather than looming as a potential threat triggering their amygdala. He also gave them some time to determine if follow-up action is needed. The team, as well as each individual, can consciously decide how they’re going to process this threat. They may decide to have a follow-up discussion to assess realistic alternatives or they may make a mental note to reconsider their personal career path. Whatever they decide in those fifteen minutes will ideally be enough to satisfy their emotional mind that the threat has been acknowledged and will be handled.

This doesn’t mean the threat is resolved in that fifteen minutes, but rather there is a plan in place to resolve it. This is one reason why solid issue and risk management in a team is so powerful. They tell our emotional systems that they don’t need to be constantly on duty scanning for the threat because we have a conscious process to deal with it.

If Tom had tried to squelch the conversation and get the team to focus on the project at hand, the team would have had difficulty moving past the fear. Their emotional systems would have kept surfacing it to get their conscious minds to pay attention. Tom shifted the fearful potential threat into a conscious thought that could be processed, which helped each person put their attention on the project at hand.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a thought leader sharing ideas on how to create a more just and peaceful world. She is also a CIO, and in this role she has led large organizations with hundreds of employees through challenging times and major transformations.
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  1. Chris Stark  April 1, 2013

    People and teams get burned out/dysfunctional/anxious not because of the size and challenge of their workload, but because of unresolved issues. That is exactly what the threat is here. Tom certainly did the right thing in allowing his team to essentially vent, thereby calming down their emotional minds. If he had not, the meeting would have most likely been “emotionally hijacked.”

    I really liked this article and I am already persuaded to buy the book

  2. Val McKie  April 4, 2013

    Thanks Jackie, a GREAT article which is helpful both personally and professionally. I have signed up for your newsletter.

  3. Peter Callender  April 11, 2013

    Thanks Jackie – when is your book coming out? I have a tough team assignment coming up in June – be good to read your book before!


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