Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Leadership when people are scared

Leading when things are good is an art. Leading when things are difficult and people are frightened is a whole different matter. When people are scared a number of physical attributes occur which leaders need to be cognisant of as it will affect the way people receive and process information and make decisions.

1. The first thing that most people become aware of is that their heart rate increases significantly. In extreme cases people report the feeling that their hearts were going to pound its way out of their rib cage.

2. The next sensation is that their eyes are wide and that their pupils are dilated. The effect of this paradoxically is that too much light enters the eye and they lose peripheral vision, having to actually stare directly at things to see them with any clarity. This is in acute cases becomes tunnel vision and people find it hard to fix on any one thing with their eyes having to flit between things, often not long enough to take in any detailed information.

3. Their hearing becomes more acute, hearing things in greater clarity. However like the vision there is a paradox here in that whilst the hearing becomes sharper it also becomes more selective, taking in only certain information it deems to be part of the threat, excluding other sounds. People are often unaware that their auditory faculty has changed.

4. Physically people frequently report a range of affects including inability to walk properly, sick / knotted feeling in the stomach, tense muscles. In extreme cases the individual may find that they have lost the ability to talk.

Given these responses it is not difficult to see why leading people in this state takes something very different to normal situations, especially when you add the fact that the reason people are in a heightened emotional state is because either things are uncertain or difficult in some other way. However I have to say it is usually copious amounts of ambiguity coupled with some form of threat that flips people into negative emotional states. So is it is an uncertain situation that has risk associated with it, the leader is also likely (depends on the individual) to be under stress and not performing at their best which compounds the issue, which is why we tend to develop the emotional resilience of the leader(s) first before getting the team into a more resilient place.

The next blog will look at some things a leader should and shouldn't do in these situations.

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