Brain Freezes Do Happen! Why Just the Other Day…

Recently, a sudden torrent of cortisol flooded my brain. It was that surge of glucose that occurs when we come under extreme stress to prepare us to respond to–and hopefully survive–immediate threats. In the words of author Judith Glaser, “our body makes a chemical choice to protect itself.”

My problem was that this torrent of cortisol seriously impaired my ability to think logically, instead activating the more primitive part of my brain. I was ready for fight or flight. But there was no one to fight and nowhere to flee. So, essentially, I froze.

My wife, Linda, had been undergoing increasingly savage coughing spells during the day, to where by early evening she was lying on the bed writhing in pain. I called our medical service, Kaiser Permanente, and explained the situation. They said call 911 and get her to the hospital.

(NOTE–To free things up for my point in this story, let me assure you that it was not serious and Linda is fine.)

With the call to 911 made and with my ears cocked for the distant sound of sirens, I set about collecting some things that Linda might need in the hospital. This task called for quick and logical decision-making. But here’s what was actually going on in my mind: “What clothes will she need? Toothbrush? Shoes/slippers, coat, a book to read? What else? What else? Come on, Ian, get this together. The ambulance will be here any moment”

I couldn’t decide what to do first. I would take two steps toward the closet, then pivot and head toward the bathroom, then pivot again and move in the direction of her bedside table, then suddenly hang a right and head down the hall toward the kitchen (lord knows why). At the end of this erratic action sequence, all I had in-hand was a pair of slippers and a book.

You or I could sit down and, in the light of calm reason, quickly come up with a very practical list of things to go with Linda and gather them together neatly in a bag. But we wouldn’t be doing this in the midst of a threat response where precious oxygen and glucose is being diverted from the “executive” part of our brain, our frontal cortex.

This little crisis at home reminded me how important it is for managers to realize what happens when our employees face urgent deadlines and pressure or feel the sting of criticism from the boss. The threat response kicks in immediately and often dramatically, impairing their ability for analytical thinking, creative ideas, and problem solving.

What is the result of this? For Linda it was a bag full of stuff she didn’t need and short of stuff she did need. For the manager it is a major hit to quality performance.


InfluencingUp What I’m Reading

Influencing Up by Allen R. Cohen and David L. BradfordI’m always looking for ideas to tweak and enrich Managing Up, our popular workshop for Individual Contributors. While I’m just early into this book, I like the idea that the authors address, along with the task of building a strong relationship with your boss, the issue of power differentials between you and the people above you. Influencing up calls for a sales mindset, a strategy, and courage.