Don't Panic!

Why leaders stay calm – and keep others calm – under pressure.

by Fraser Marlow, Head of Research at BlessingWhite

Good leaders keep a cool head even when the situation provokes an emotional reaction. Great leaders also help everybody else stay calm and contribute to the team with rational and objective input rather than emotionally laden statements. They achieve this through self-awareness and active listening skills, both of which can be developed though practice.

Every manager knows that drama in the workplace is the enemy of productivity. From hushed rumors that build anxiety to emotional outbursts that arise from fear or frustration, our work environment suffers when people lose their cool. And when the overall system is stressed as a result of bad news or a sudden change in working conditions, drama can flare up out of nowhere.

One of the characteristics of a strong leader is grace under pressure. It's the ability to control one's own emotions, and the ability to help others remain level-headed when emotions are at a risk of rising.

Anthropologists would tie this characteristic back to the alpha-male or alpha-female trait: when the group is in danger, it helps to have a strong leader who can think clearly even under extreme pressure, knowing when to stand and fight or when to flee.

Advances in Physiological analysis and Neuroscience have allowed us to understand this human characteristic in more detail – namely, how we respond to external pressure and burn-out, and how we respond to the influence of others in times of stress.

All in the brain

Take neurological anatomy. It teaches us that the brain is not one homogeneous organ – it is composed of several sub-structures. In very simple terms, from the time periods of reptiles to Homo Sapiens, our brains became a composite of 3 levels of evolution. While far from independent, in any given situation one of these three will take a dominant role in controlling our behaviors.

The most basic of these is the reptilian brain, which manages immediate body functions (heart rate, breathing, balance, etc.).

At the top level is the neocortex, which we think of most traditionally as "human" functions: rational thinking, language, imagination, and consciousness.

Sandwiched in between is the limbic brain; these sub-structures first evolved in early mammals and are the center of our emotional being. The limbic brain is believed to be the seat of the value judgments we make, often unconsciously, that exert such a strong influence on our behavior1.

The limbic brain is generally believed to be mostly binary: it answers yes or no. It has little capacity for ambiguity. It is a reactive part of the brain and not a learning center. When people are using their limbic brain to respond – in arguments for example – they fall back on absolute statements: "We never get projects completed on time" or "Everybody here hates me." Whenever logic or reason is called for, a limbic response is a poor guide.

So how does an effective leader manage drama in the workplace and steer people away from an emotional response back to a rational and objective response? There are two main steps to this.

The first is to identify limbic behavior. When it comes to one's own behavior, this is easier said than done: as the limbic part of the brain flares up and takes over, it dampens the ability of the higher-order thinking to process an event. Within your own train of thought, these extreme and volatile statements will make perfect sense. The limbic part of the brain does this very well. After all, that is what it was evolved to achieve. But to people listening to you, the statements will sound grossly overstated and polarized, and making such arguments will undermine your credibility as a leader. It will also convince others that you can't be trusted to stay objective under pressure.

"Operating eighty-thousand times faster than the thinking part of the brain, the emotional limbic lobe (through its messenger-switch the amygdala) pushes us to react to emotional stimuli, much of the time before we know what we are doing. Hence in situations that may be tense, we retort rather than respond, often with consequences we would not have chosen. […] Leaders are rarely made aware of their knee-jerk reactions. Instead, they are often left wondering about the lack of response or are surprised to receive adverse reactions to their spontaneous retorts."

Terry Pearce – Leading Out Loud 3rd edition (Josey Bass 2013), p25-26.
Hear Terry talk about the teachings of Neuroscience in Leadership

Leading self

Once a leader has an understanding of the mechanisms of limbic responses, he or she can start to recognize the signs in themselves and work to mitigate the impact of poor reactions. This generally involves developing a stronger sense of self-awareness and the capacity for building a pause into one's reactions. Dr. Srini Pillay, CEO of NeuroBusiness Group (NBG), points out that "We are learning more and more about thought control. For instance, in order to control your emotions effectively, your brain needs to be fairly relaxed." Dr. Pillay references recent research (see Raio, et al. (2013)), which indicates that "stress is an added load – it makes emotional control more difficult. For this reason, leaders would be well advised to look more closely at their stress or burnout levels."

Leading others

The second step is diffusing drama in others. Here, a manager's best tool is listening and responding with empathy. Developing purposeful active listening skills will do more than improve two-way communication or make a colleague feel valued: it can ease the person being listened to out of limbic mode and back to rational thinking.

Here's how it works:

Often when we are in these types of situations, we try to calm others down with logic. However, due to the person's decrease in capacity for logic due to increased emotion, this oftentimes causes the person's emotions to increase even more.

For this reason it's important that, when faced with an emotional situation, we listen actively and show empathy for the other person, reflecting his/ her emotion and thus validating it. Only after doing that will the individual be able to engage in more logical, rational conversation and focus on problem solving.

By listening you learn what motivates others, what concerns them, and how they view themselves, their work, and the organization. Listening actively builds trust, which leads to increased confidence, satisfaction, productivity, collaboration, and ultimately engagement.

– Leading Technical People+

This can feel counter-intuitive, especially if we disagree with the other's emotion or see a logical resolution clearly in our own minds. It's important to realize that all others are not like us; not everyone responds in the same way to stimuli, so we must be respectful and allow others to react in their own way.

We distinguish three levels of active listening, each progressively more complicated to develop as a skill:

The easiest form of active listening is acknowledgement. It is used to convey to the other person that you are paying attention to what they are saying. In a world full of distractions and short-term attention spans, this in itself can mean a lot.

Used to convey that you are correctly understanding what the other person is saying. It provides opportunity for clarification and keeps both parties engaged in the dialogue. An easy enough skill to develop, but some managers struggle to make this feel natural and authentic.

The harder skill for managers to develop: empathizing helps develop a communication environment in which the other party feels safe and where stress is reduced. According to Dr. Pillay, there are two kinds of empathy: cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view. Emotional empathy refers to feeling what other people feel. In fair negotiations, effective leaders know that cognitive empathy can be much more effective than emotional empathy. Use empathy statements to diffuse emotional situations before getting into analysis and problem solving.

Keep the following actions in mind to help you be an active listener:

  • Don't interrupt or complete other's sentences.
  • Don't rush to fill in pauses or silences.
  • Use appropriate body language to show you're engaged in the conversation.
  • Ask follow-up questions to signal you're listening and absorbing what's being said.
  • Offer insights and perspective without judging.
  • Wait to be asked for advice. (In fact, Dr. Pillay points out that advice often prevents people from figuring things out themselves. The advice-giver takes on the brain activation while the listener's brain is relatively dormant.)
  • Paraphrase to ensure understanding.
  • Don't develop a bad habit of overusing the same response – you'll become predictable and unauthentic.

"One of my team members came to me with a frustration about something that was going on at a client site. I immediately jumped into problem-solving mode, trying to brainstorm solutions. Every one of my ideas was shot down immediately. After a few hours, the team member came back to me and decided that one of the ideas would work. Looking back on the situation, I realized that his emotions were too high for me to be bringing up logical solutions. I could have empathized with his feelings of stress and frustration, which may have led us to a solution more quickly."

– Project Manager, Large Financial Services firm

The next time you find yourself responding harshly, abruptly or in statements you know are sweeping generalizations, ask yourself: is it your "rational self" talking or simply an emotional response? As you develop this skill as a leader you will find your awareness of responses/reactions increasing. You will be able to better analyze and understand your own behaviors and better manage the emotional reactions of those around you. Assuming, that is, that your limbic brain doesn't take over.

1"Caution should be exercised when attempting to discuss other aspects of emotion in animals, namely subjective feelings, since there are no scientific ways of verifying and measuring such states except in humans." See

Fraser Marlow is the head of research at BlessingWhite and can be contacted at

We thank Dr. Srini Pillay, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group (NBG) for his contributions. Burnout Mate, a tool developed by NBG, allows leaders to take a "stress test" and track this over time as well.

Lessons from Neuroscience research are built into many BlessingWhite programs, most recently Leading Out Loud, Emotional Intelligence, and Leading Technical Professionals+

For more information on how BlessingWhite can help your organization reach the next level, call 1.800.222.1349 or email

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Volume 13, Issue 10
October 2013



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