The Amygdala Hijack is bad for business

We are all susceptible to the amygdala hijack. It happened to me the other day when my husband accused me of being overly sensitive.   I have heard that before.  As a child I was overly sensitive, and then I became sensitive about being sensitive.  It wasn’t helpful behaviour for building self-confidence.

I learned the other day from Dr. Donald Mihaloew, a speaker at the ADR conference in Red Deer, that memory (in my case, all those childhood insecurities) is stored in your hippocampus.  Your amygdale (there are 2 of them, one for each side of the brain) decide what to do with the signals that arrive, after some short consultation with the hippocampus. It might look like this:

In conflict it helps to learn to divert your thinking to more positive and future focused ideas.

Your emotions can run away with you.


If there is poor information in your hippocampus, you might receive some poor feedback, and do something impulsive you regret.

But you can do something about it.

        • Suspend your judgment.
        • Normalize the amygdale hijiack – yes, this happens to everyone.
        • Focus on the future and the positive.  Interrupt your train of thought, and change the direction.

I am working on it.

FYI Here is your code of conduct

This was the title of an email sent out recently to a surprised worker whose job involves Diversity and Inclusion. It was a story told during a discussion of the 3 tenets of Workplace Fairness: Proactivity, Communication and Collaboration.


An effective code of conduct results from a collaborative process and will reflect the personality and culture of your workforce.

An effective code of conduct results from a collaborative process and will reflect the personality and culture of your workforce.

When we are busy, it is easy to take shortcuts in consultation with potentially dire results. We invented the word proactivity to describe the ongoing, preventative, and proactive process which engages employees within all levels and departments of an organization to consult. The Code of Conduct is a great example; let’s take two scenarios.

Manager A, cognizant of the pressures on her staff’s time and resources, takes on the grunt work of developing the code of conduct. Her thinking is that since most of it is common sense, people will be relieved because everyone is pushed for time. She does recognize that participation is the key to engagement. So, once she has done most of the legwork, she asks volunteers to review, discuss and fine-tune the final document. She is happy to note that there are very few changes proposed to the original document, and she emails it out “FYI” to the full group and staples it to the bulletin board of the lunchroom.

Manager B is not particularly fond of policy and conduct discussions, but recognizes their importance. So, partly out of a desire to offload the task, and partly out of a desire to engage people in the process, he allocates the first 10 minutes of every staff meeting to a Code of Conduct discussion. It takes a few months, but eventually they finalize a document and ceremoniously hang it in the lunchroom during their monthly potluck.

People take ownership of language. Manager A’s language may be clear and sensical, but it is not her staff’s language. When there are bumps in the road, she will be held to a high standard for owning, acting and leading with her code of conduct. Conflict seeks somewhere to lay blame. Manager A and her code of conduct become easy targets.

Manager B involves everyone from the beginning, and as a group, they stand a better chance of holding each other to account for their Code of Conduct. Though he risks Code-of-Conduct-saturation and boredom by drawing it out, there are high rewards for keeping the discussion front and centre, and ensuring there is group buy-in.

Consultation and collaboration require being open to new information and a commitment through all stages of a discussion, not just the final review.

Is the decision maker in the rooom?

Someone came to me today with a conflict and I think as we talked about it, I learned as much or possibly more than she did.  I learned about the importance of the decision–maker.

It seemed straightforward at first. This is the kind of conflict which you hear about often in the workplace.  “I am concerned about the tone and the language in the emails I am receiving from this person and I am honestly wondering if she is deliberately trying to undermine me.”  That sense of paranoia about the motivations of another, the suspicion about language and tone, these are very familiar concerns in conflict world.

Here's lookin' at YOU, sweet-stuff!

In this classic scenario, I normally advocate a direct conversation with the individual involved to start with. After all, that individual is the one who has the ultimate authority to change their own behaviour.  It is usually best to approach the most direct source you have access to for all kind of reasons – it will prevent the situation from escalating; it will eliminate the sense of possible blind-siding or circumventing which will harm the relationship further; and very importantly, it provides a critical opportunity to learn more about the other side of the story and gain a deeper understanding that will help build a stronger relationship.

But a more important point came up as we began to debrief and explore the situation.  I began with some questions:

  • What is the ultimate and ideal change you would like to see?
  • What evidence will you have when it has occurred?

Well, these questions broadened the scope significantly.  In fact, the concern was not about the emails at all, but about the changing nature of the relationship between the two organizations each of these people work for.

More questions followed:

  • Who has the authority to influence these changes that you have identified?
  • How do you believe your previous relationship with this person has influenced your perspective of this situation?

This is always a tightrope walk. It is almost never a bad idea in a gentle, honest, open and specific way to address your concerns directly with an individual.  But it is a very good idea to examine what the nature is of you relationship with that person, and the bigger picture.

In this case, because of the previous history of the two involved, because of their roles, and the nature of the relationship of the two organizations they work for, it became clear through questioning and exploring that the best move would be to turn concerns over to another who has the authority to address the bigger picture. The dialogue would not be about the behaviour of one individual, but rather about the changing roles of the two organizations in their working relationship.

Take the time to prepare before entering into a difficult conversation. Examine your own assumptions, and critically look at your role and your authority. Ensure that the decision-maker who has the authority to induce change is in the room from the beginning.

When does it pay to be indirect?

Consider this list of words: prevaricate, pussyfoot, quibble, shirk, sneak. They resonate with negative connotations. They also all describe what you might call idiomatically “beating about the bush”, another phrase with a negative connotation.  We are acculturated in the western world to believe that the more assertive and direct we are the more effective and business-like we are. We are often rewarded for directness, sometimes indirectly by way of compliance.

When does it pay to be indirect?

We are culturally loaded. Our communication and conflict styles are influenced by our world view, or factors such as:

  • The environment (public/private and intimacy or familiarity)
  • The topic and our commitment to it
  • Our culture (upbringing, religion, sex, age, language, job, community, family environment)
  • Our speaking code
  • Our listening code

Our world view also wires how we speak and listen to each other, and dictates or influences our assumptions.  In our western world view we value the individual, and we value directness.

Indirect communication has a higher value in cultures which also place a higher value on community than the individual. As our communities become more diverse it is becoming increasingly important to question our assumptions and reactions to certain communication styles.

Your EQ will help you respond more effectively.  Consider yourself, the other, and the situation.  Emotional intelligence and self-awareness opens our eyes to how our cultural loading influences how we hear and respond. We can learn to adjust, though at times that adjustment will feel quite counterintuitive. For example it is difficult to practice an indirect gaze when speaking or listening, when we are used to a direct one. Change starts with questioning our assumptions about another’s speaking and listening habits.

Let’s talk about face-saving. In a culture which values direct communication, face-saving may be perceived as negative behaviour. What is it? When we recognize it is happening, how do we respond appropriately and effectively? For a start, let’s recognize that it is not necessarily a negative behaviour.

Face-saving may reveal itself in many different forms. Here is some typical behaviour, what might be behind it, and some tactics which will help to improve communication:

What you notice: quiet, withdrawn behaviour.
What might be behind it: A desire to preserve privacy and reputation, and secure approval from you or from others.
What to do:

  • Offer your ideas.  “I am wondering if you have ever considered…”
  • Define the topic in neutral, business like terms, and maintain focus in the conversation on the topic.
  • Use positive language.

What you notice: defensive, protective behaviour.
What might be behind it: A desire to protect others in their community and their and the community’s reputation.
What to do:

  • Be inclusive of others.
  • Provide space and time to allow check-ins with other stakeholders.
  • Be patient.

What you notice: openly agreeable behaviour, compliance.
What might be behind it: A desire to preserve peace, and maintain community.
What to do:

  • Build relationships. Take the time to get to know each other in relationship over meals, coffee.
  • Reinforce the value of open communication and transparency.
  • Gently confront discrepancies and apparent discontinuities. “I am confused. Can you help me understand…”

For further reading, check out this article by John Ng on mediation, and articles/interviews by Stella Ting-Toomey

Deliberate Skills: Assertive Communication

I have been teaching a model for assertive communication for a few years from a book by Marshall Rosenberg entitled Nonviolent Communication, a Language of Life. I like this book because it is accessible and practical.

Rosenberg offers us nonviolent communication in four easy steps:

I notice (provide specific, objective, verifiable data)

I need (identify the underlying motivation, that positive reframe which fulfills your expectations, beliefs or concerns about a situation)

I feel (identify your emotion, knowing that you own your emotions, and they are valid, in fact another piece of data)

I request (a specific, doable feasible request for action which is offered without blame or potential repercussions)

Rosenberg’s model is powerful. It does take some thinking or planning, however. I coach my students to spend quiet time considering the answer to each of these phrases, and anticipating or hunching what might be important to the other party. What are their needs? What are they feeling? What might they request of you?

This works if you have time to plan it, think about it, and if you have the all important safe space for a collaborative dialogue. But what if you don’t? What if the situation is urgent? What is the best way to be heard without raising defenses in the midst of the action?

Let’s take an example of a nurse’s aide and a nurse. The nurse has the medical knowledge, authority, and the responsibility of administering certain medical procedures, but is new on shift and new to the patient. The aide has the benefit of working a 12 hour shift with a particular patient, and knowledge of individual patient needs. In the heat of the moment the aide demands “Turn the patient onto their right side!” The nurse, knowing the procedure is more effective on the left, lashes back and refuses. The aide is frustrated, because her patient knowledge is not recognized, and the nurse is frustrated because her authority and medical knowledge are questioned.

We will rewind the tape. “He has staples in his left hip and is in pain.” The aide focuses on the verifiable data and empowers the nurse to make the best decision for the patient. The opportunity arises for the aide to be recognized for her knowledge.

Very small changes in the way we communicate have a tremendous impact and improve outcomes. Be deliberate with your speaking and listening skills, and improved working relationships will result.

Duty to Accommodate and Gentle, Honest, Open, Specific Talk

An engaged employee is held capable and trusts that you will consistently treat them with integrity, impartiality, and respect. Gentle, honest, open, specific, talk with your staff will set the ground work for a relationship that will pay dividends when the tide turns and it comes time to ask the difficult questions.

As a supervisor you have a duty to accommodate, and you have a right to know. We may feel backed into situations where we hesitate to ask the difficult questions, or we confuse a person’s right to privacy with our own right, and indeed duty, to foster an open, constructive and productive working environment.

Let’s take the example of a suspected addiction. You notice increasingly erratic behaviour with a particular employee, and their sick days are on the rise. How do you balance your need to know with their right to privacy? How do you identify when your duty to accommodate kicks in? Under Alberta Human Rights legislation addiction is considered a disability and the duty to accommodate may apply. If this is the case, you need a doctor’s note, even as you cannot inquire about a staff member’s complete medical history. How do you verify your hunch? What if, based on past experience with the employee, you are wondering if the poor behaviour is simply workplace foolishness? How can you be sure? It is also not unusual for biases to get in the way of sound decision-making. Our own view of, or experience with, addictions may be getting in the way of our approach.

In this procedural and legal minefield it is imperative to discuss your proposed actions with your HR department and/or a senior manager. Once that has been done, and you have decided on a procedural plan, the relationship you have built with your staff member will stand you in good stead. If you have consistently conducted your conversations with a gentle, honest, open, specific protocol, and if you consistently hold your staff member capable and trust that they are doing the best they can with what they know, then you have the foundation in place to conduct a conversation to learn what you need to know to move forward. You will be able to discuss a medical condition frankly, and in a safe space, and determine if it is indeed a condition which limits the staff’s ability to perform their duties.

The gentle, honest, open specific, talk (or GHOST) protocol is a protocol for speaking and listening:

  • Gentle: to say what needs to be said in a manner that does not raise defenses in the other party;
  • Honest: to be true to what is on your mind, and your emotional reaction to the situation;
  • Open: to be open to new information, and to allow it to influence your thinking;
  • Specific: to illustrate what you have to say with clarifying examples and to avoid generalizations;
  • Talk: to take the opportunity of a confidential, safe space to say what you are thinking when it is important. Thinking not Talking is TNT – dangerous!

Modeling GHOST, describing GHOST, and inviting others to use it will set the foundation for improved communication and better information. With each conversation you will build your foundation for establishing and maintaining employee engagement and a productive working environment.

The GHOST protocol is a foundation of the PULSE Conversation. To learn more about PULSE Conversations for Change, discovered and developed by Dr. Nancy Love, please visit

Managing Trust and Transparency for Engagement

It is not an unusual scenario: a new supervisor inherits a bad and undeserving reputation based on staff members’ previous experiences. Every move of a new incumbent is evaluated against the poor communication and bad decisions of a predecessor and the scene is set for “stay-but-go” or even worse, active disengagement. How do you rebuild trust? Trust is built with transparency in our actions (process), in our emotional reaction (response), and in our thinking (content).

Transparency with actions requires a clear and open management process. This may include a predictable and regular routine for employee feedback and performance reviews for example, and extends to the methods used to manage meetings, and to make complex decisions (such as setting annual budgets). A transparent process for decision making will contribute to a climate in which staff are clear on the past, present and future implications of decisions.

The supervisor who is transparent in their actions is aware of not only what they are doing or deciding, but why. When they speak to staff, they communicate clearly their decisions, and the route they used to get to there. Transparency in actions requires taking a deliberate step with each important decision to decide how to decide and then communicating that rationale.

Emotionally mature managers will have the tools to build trust through their response to any given situation. A workplace devoid of emotion is a workplace devoid of passion, and where there are people there is emotion. So trust in the response is also based on trust of the people, and an open and transparent communication about the relationships and the underlying needs and interests between the people in the work environment. A supervisor who experiences a strong reaction can choose how to relate to that emotion. Stepping back and detaching from the situation to look at the business problem will help to determine the right steps to take. Acknowledging others’ emotions without taking responsibility for them will help staff know they are heard.

Transparency with content requires a thorough awareness and sensitivity to context and subject. As with decision making, deliberately deciding what information can be shared and then sharing it in an environment that provides a safe space for discussion will build trust.

Content is also about context. For example, shared confidence in technical or knowledge expertise will provide a strong structure for building trust in actions. A common goal, such as servicing clients exceptionally, building quality widgets, or a united search for innovation for example, will provide a positive force for trust based on content.

Rebuilding trust will take time, patience and open communication. It will be necessary to be open about the management process, the emotional response, and the content. Like a three-legged stool, the process, the response and the content are all critical, and one will not be strong without the other two.