Creative leadership: beware of the cowardly brain

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The brain has a “fear centre” in a part of the brain called the amygdala. This centre is not only activated in emergency situations, but whenever we face something we find uncomfortable. Activation of amygdala can give us a deep feeling of discomfort, which is so negative that we go very far to avoid it.

Fear is a survival mechanism, and potentially dangerous situations affect us much more than positive signals that say that everything is OK and that we can safely continue with what we are doing. This is not strange if you think about it. During the course of evolution, it has naturally been more important that we sometimes mistakenly see an enemy in the bush, rather than making the mistake of thinking that everything is calm, while in fact we are walking straight into an ambush. Thus, we are genetically hardcoded to overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities.

Since our short-term endeavor to avoid the unpleasantness is greater than our willingness to have it over with, we tend to avoid or at least postpone tasks that are unpleasant. You may even have noticed how in such situations, your are drawn like by a magnet to alternative tasks that come with greater ease. When you get closer to the deadline when you really need to complete the unpleasant task, an acute feeling of anxiety may arise in your body.

Uncomfortable situations often concern conflicts with other people, which means that we are biologically prone to overlook such problems, and if we do see them, we would in the longest hope that the situation will resolve by itself. However, this is almost never the case. Instead, conflicts tend to become worse over time. What might start as a trifle dispute can develop into deep hostility.

As the human survival has been dependent on being in control of situations and the environment in which we have been living (which was easier when we lived in small groups on the savannah), it may create anxiety to relinquish control: but what was rational in that early evolutionary situation, does not necessarily have to be so in the much more complex modern context.

This can for example apply to such a basic thing as the ability to delegate responsibility to other persons with confidence. It may be good for you to be aware of this basic gentically driven instinct if you belong to those with strong control needs who are having difficulty delegating responsibility to others.

As a leader for yourself and others, it is important that you are aware of your basic biological functions in this respect, allowing your conscious actions to overcome your fear of discomfort. Small efforts in conflict management at an early stage can save you a lot more trouble later

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Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

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