The amygdala effect - Team Business
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The amygdala effect

The amygdala effect

Are you in your rational mind at work all the time? OK, I don’t want to be rude to my reader, so let’s assume you are. But what about the other people around you; are they? To read most management textbooks and articles, you would think so. But that is because these authors mostly ignore what I call the amygdala effect.

It seems that traditional management literature tends to be written with two underlying assumptions. Firstly, all the people working in organisations are principally rational. Secondly, they all enjoy high levels of emotional intelligence. Similarly, the assumption follows that people leading organisations are perfectly rational and emotionally literate as well. From these two misconceptions arise a huge array of management guidance and advice. Now I am sure all this guidance may work well under ideal situations with high performing people. However, let’s face the facts, not everyone we know is ‘high performing’.

So what is missing?

The more common reality of organisational life is very different. For a lot of the time, a lot of the occupants are functioning below their normal level of emotional intelligence. The reason for this ‘sub-optimum brain state’ is the ever-present stress response we experience during daily working life.

The Amygdala effect is why organisations under perform

In fact the prevalence of stress at work is often the reason why many organisations don’t work very well. Certainly, the flight or flight, or stress response is why organisations don’t work as well as management theory would predict. Likewise so many people, bogged down by stress, is why management ideas typically fail to fulfill their full potential.

We need to reinvent management thinking

The important factor to grasp is that when stressed, individuals are are very far from being either rational or productive. Under this all too common mental condition, people frequently work against organizational objectives, resist change, make mistakes, have accidents, find it difficult to learn anything new and frequently get into conflict with one another. Furthermore, stressed individuals are susceptible to pursuing a wide range of destructive or at least unhelpful thinking patterns, working relationships and behaviour. You can probably see that all these traits combine to get in the way of productive workflow and creative innovation.

The root cause is that many aspects of current management thinking trigger the stress response. The fundamental mistake we are making is to ignore how the human brain actually works. Basically by ignoring human nature we are creating work places that are inhospitable to humans. We do this at a huge cost. The resulting stressed thinking and behaviour has a powerful impact on the success of any enterprise. Stressed thinking influences how we plan and drive growth, eliminate waste, innovate, increase productivity and improve profits. This is why I believe we seriously need to reinvent management thinking.

The amygdala triggers the stress response

What managers badly need to take into account is a tiny organ in the brain known as the amygdala. You may think that this advice sounds a bit odd. But what is important to realize is that it is the amygdala that triggers the human stress response.

From the moment we become stressed, the primeval amygdala, starts to take over from the higher functioning rational brain. The more we get stressed  the more the amygdala hijacks our normal thinking and behaviour. As this takeover progresses, a number of valuable mental and emotional faculties start shutting down. Such faculties as rational thinking, balanced judgement, attentive listening, and the ability to empathize are the first to go.

The repercussion in the workplace of a high level of stress generally is demotivation, and disengagement. In particular the symptoms at management level are among others, poor decision-making and weak problem solving. At operational level floor we see heightened conflict, disinterested customer service, disrupted workflow due to mistakes and rework and so on. At its worst the working environment becomes dysfunctional and toxic for the people working in it.

It is this general malaise that I call the ‘amygdala effect’. Wherever the amygdala effect erupts, the collective consequence is low performance, low productivity and general incoherence. The impact on the bottom line is harsh and unforgiving.

Thirty organisational stressors trigger the amygdala effect

Over the last fifteen years, I have identified at least thirty common ‘organisational stressors’. (Factors in the work place that trigger the stress response.) There is not room here to name each one. But as an illustration, perhaps the most important stressors to mention are top down command and control management; imposition of arbitrary targets; an institutionalized atmosphere of mistrust; major strategic change; working in overlarge work units; and having responsibility without the authority or means to do the job.

There is one common factor with every stressor. And that is that when a stressor fires up the individual stress response, effective group functioning starts shutting down.

Another important point here is that ironically, the majority of these stressors are created by management activity and thinking. Inadvertently leaders tend to work against human nature. And this is because of a general misunderstanding as to the potency of the stress response. Most leaders are still blissfully unaware of the power of stress to break down group efficiency and effectiveness.

So, the good news is that firstly, these stressors are not inevitable. Secondly, leaders are invariably the root cause of stress arousal at work. I say this is good news because it means that, as leaders we have the power to remove or at least alleviate the problem. Usually you can introduce the remedies both quickly and relatively cost free.

Refocusing attention on how your decisions, planning and leadership may be generating stress in the working environment is the first step. Taking this step will enable you to come up with corrective stratagems and structures to improve almost any work situation. The result is a transformation in working conditions. A new and refreshing atmosphere greatly enhances productive working, sound decision-making and a harmonious collaborative effort.

Twelve key emotional needs

What you need to achieve this transformation is a working knowledge of twelve key emotional needs. Psychotherapists have known for a while now that meeting or satisfying our emotional needs is the key to reducing stress. Again there is no room to go into the emotional needs in depth other than to list them briefly:

1. Security – physical safety; 2. To give an receive attention; 3. To have some degree of autonomy and control; 4. Privacy; 5. Status and recognition; 6. A natural routine; 7. Fun, friendship and peak experiences; 8. The need for meaning or a greater purpose; 9. To be part of a wider community; 10. To have emotional connection with other people; 11. A sense of challenge; 12. A feeling of achievement or feeling of competence.

Where we see these needs are unmet, violated or unsatisfied we tend to observe stressed behaviour. On the other hand learning to satisfy these needs keeps people motivated and engaged. Critically people who have their emotional needs met have easy access to innate high functioning mental and emotional resources.

Although often taken for granted by traditional management theorists, these faculties are the building blocks of any successful organisation. They include our innate ability to collaborate together in joint enterprises, a fairly stubborn loyalty to our host group and a wonderful proclivity for group problem solving. These innate resources are easily accessible wherever you have a healthy and alert workforce free from the debilitating amygdala effect.

You can learn more about organisational stress, the twelve key emotional needs, the thirty stressors and how to remove them in ‘Reinventing management thinking‘. Now available from Amazon. Or click here to read more about how an organizational stress audit can help your enterprise lift productivity and performance.

About Jeremy Old

Jeremy Old is a business turnaround specialist and psychotherapist. He is also author of the ground breaking book ‘Reinventing management thinking’. After seven years analyzing the root cause of organisational under performance and failure, Jeremy has come up with a plain speaking practical business manual. Using this book will help leaders work with the twelve emotional drivers and design stress out of their organisation. The consistent result is transformed productivity and performance.



“This is a terrific book. It is a great business studies manual, and a superb contribution to the application of psychology in business and leadership. The book is very meticulous and thorough in spelling out precise stressors in workplaces and exactly how these stressors impact on the biological needs and resources (human givens). Reading it made me want to rush out and sort out all the ailing and dysfunctional businesses around here.” Mike Grevis, psychotherapist.


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