The Culture Challenge
Strong cultures are built on trusting and respectful relationships among people at all levels of an organization. These relationships depend on how people treat each other at work, school, and in the community and, especially, how people handle themselves under pressure and stress. When relationships are good, people listen to each other, accept input, and make changes to improve working conditions, processes, and the meaning of work. When relationships are not good, people operate under high levels of stress and are more likely to protect their territory and close off information flow and innovation. When people have good relationships with others at work, they are much more likely to be committed and involved and contribute their best to each other and their organizations. The bottom line: Taking care of people is taking care of business; the two rise and fall together.
Emotional Intelligence Made Practical
We know a lot about how to create strong relationships and positive cultures. Decades of research have made it clear that satisfaction with work and the quality of work are directly linked to emotional intelligence. Yet, we still see reports that more than 80% of all employees globally are psychologically disengaged from their work and their organizations. And, this is especially true in organizations where people cope with inhumane working conditions, high work complexity, job insecurity, new technology, cross-cultural differences, and a host of other stressors that keep them off balance. If we know so much, why can’t we close this gap?
A More Accessible Solution
At Kintla, our team of psychologists and neuroscientists have spent the last few years developing and testing a simple, but practical way of understanding how emotions work and how to influence them. Our core content includes 3 knowledge chunks as described below:
1. How our brains work
We help people understand the different levels of the brain and how they work together to affect our emotions, thinking, and relationships. We use Exhibit 1 below to show the multiple layers of the brain and what happens when they are activated. The most primitive part of the brain is triggered by threat and strong emotion and reacts with fight or flight. The top and more advanced part of the brain is activated when we are calm and focused; it allows us to consider options, solve problems, ask questions and so on. Our ability to regulate stress determines which part of the brain is active. If we can detect our stress triggers and calm down, thinking stays in the green zone. If we cannot regulate stress, we go to the red zone.
2. Mapping the brain levels onto performance
Exhibit 2 below show the regulation curve. This curve maps our emotional zones onto everyday behavior at work or home. This curve shows how our effectiveness varies as the emotional zones change. Too little stress leaves us in the gray zone where we are on autopilot or checked out. Too much stress pushes us into the red zone where we are protective and territorial and react without thinking. A moderate amount of stress puts us in the green zone where our thinking is best and our ability to connect with others is high. It also shows some common triggers for these zones. For example, the gray zone is likely to happen when we are doing the same thing over and over or when we are fatigued and exhausted and can’t think clearly. The red zone triggers include things that make us anxious, nervous, or afraid. For example, when we are frustrated and can’t solve a problem or working under schedule pressure, the red zone is likely to occur. It also happens when we are operating under uncertainty; when our jobs or future are at risk or we have unpredictable health issues like Covid, people operate close to the edge of the red zone most days. We recommend that everyone become aware of their emotional triggers for the red and gray zones and regulate emotions to “move back to green” where they operate at their best. The key is noticing when you are rotating into the gray or red and relaxing or focusing to shift back to the green before the risk of missing something or the error rate goes up. In particular, we have found that safety risks increase when people are in the gray or red zones as they aren’t thinking at their best and may not notice hazards or are unable to think of ways to correct unsafe conditions quickly.
3. Regulation techniques to control our zones
The third part of our learning program focuses on methods for regulating emotions and managing movement through the zones. Exhibit 3 summarizes 3 types of regulation that can be used to get to the green zone including: bottom-up (using the body), top down (using the mind) and relational (connecting with others). A few examples of each type are included in Exhibit 3, but everyone has their own preferred regulation techniques. So, we ask people to identify what works for them to keep themselves and others in the green zone.
Once people learn how the brain works, they see that emotional reactivity comes from our biology and is part of what makes us human. This knowledge helps make it clear that people are not to blame for feeling the way they do. In fact, we all get triggered by uncertainty, stress, lack of support and so on. We then help people learn that we can use everyday regulation tools to help manage these emotions to stay in the green. We can all learn to regulate ourselves and others to move from gray to green or red to green. If we can regulate emotions, we can connect with people as people and then safely and effectively attack work problems or tasks that we need to get done.
Teaching the Concepts
Many leaders who learn this resilience building information also teach it to others. A few tips on teaching this content are summarized below:
Part 1: Start by helping others understand how the brain works under stress and what it means for us and people around us. Once people see that changes in stress and uncertainty change the part of the brain that is engaged, they can easily see how stress impacts our ability to solve problems and relate to other people.
Part 2: Once people see how the brain works under stress, it is good to help them understand how their reactivity changes as they go through a typical day when we all experience red and gray zones as we face challenges, fatigue, conflicts, etc.
Part 3: The key to building resilience is helping people know how to regulate emotions to stay in balance. Teaching them some techniques for recognizing and regulating emotions for themselves and others helps offset stress and uncertainty and get back in balance. It is good to help people identify how they regulate when under pressure and encourage them to identify (a) triggers for their own red/gray zones, and (b) as many regulation techniques as possible for their toolkit.
Part 4: Once you have worked through how to self-regulate, it is good to help people build in regulation for themselves and others into the way they work on a daily basis. For example, connecting with people first thing in the morning to get the day started off right can make the rest of the day go better. Also, checking in with people at various times during the day to see where they are and help get to the green is a good strategy.
Work relationships form the foundation of an organization’s culture and directly determine performance and the potential for success. For these relationships to be positive, leaders must
learn to treat people with respect and continue to do so even under high stress. By understanding how emotions work and how to talk about them in nonjudgmental ways, people of all levels can make relationships work and redefine their company culture. The tools are simple and easy to learn but require practice and ongoing feedback to bring them into the daily operating rhythm and make them a habit. The Kintla resilience skills workshop and coaching provide a simple but powerful approach that works at all levels.