You’re Stressing People Out. Learn To Lead Your Nervous System

When a boss is tense and upset, employees sense your stress even before you utter a word. Their bodies respond automatically, ratcheting up their heart rate and tensing their muscles. GETTY

For too long, high-octane leadership has been the norm – the “crushing it” founder who sleeps under his desk or the partner on track for promotion who pulls all-nighters and expects her team to do the same. This style of leadership has an expiration date that is fast approaching.

The life-work revolution sparked by the Great Resignation redefined our priorities. We were sick of pushing our relationships, our learning, and even our sleep to the side to meet unreasonable and unhealthy expectations at work. We realized another factor that made work unpleasant and unsatisfying: the incredible amount of stress that trickled down from leadership to us. We were done with that, too.

Most leaders have no idea how their frayed nerves communicate — nervous system to nervous system — with the people around them. They know how pressured they feel. But they miss the connection between the stress they feel within and the tension they radiate out. In the new world of work, executives and managers will learn to lead their nervous systems because they’ll recognize how their stress taxes everyone else.

Winning From Within Includes Directing Your Brain

Connecting your nervous system and your leadership is a science-based way to think about ‘winning from within.’ Brain experts use different language but affirm the importance – if you want to lead – of knowing who you are, what makes you tick, where you tend to stumble and how to find your center to stand back up. Putting these dimensions together is what brain researcher David Rock calls neuroleadership.

Leading your nervous system is a science-based way to describe what I mean when I say leaders need to connect to their center. This is particularly true because the brain-based view reinforces the risks and costs of falling off-center.

When the relaxation and balance within you give way to tension, anger or fear, your brain automatically kicks into high gear. Your adrenals pump out cortisol and adrenaline. Your heart rate speeds up and your vision narrows. The strength of your social brain goes down as the power of your survival brain goes up. As a human being off-center, your heart, mind, body and brain are ill-equipped to help you lead well.

To make the corollary concrete you can think of it this way. Our nervous system has two settings: one for danger and one for safety, much like feeling centered or off-center. What I describe as the experience of inner contraction, a brain scientist might record as a tightening of the muscles. Where I see a client in a state of inner expansiveness, a neuroscientist might note rhythmical breathing and good heart rate variability. I tune into the inner state – be it one of inner turbulence or inner wellbeing. A scientist might observe the same person to determine whether the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system was in charge.

The point is this: anchoring in your center of wellbeing has a spiritual dimension and a neurological one as well.

Start Watching How Your Stress Impacts Colleagues

Developing this skill-set begins with the crucial insight that you’re not the only one who feels it when you go off-kilter. Your colleagues sense it too.

Imagine this typical scenario.

You rush in late to a meeting irritated and restless. Your last Zoom call went off the rails. Or you realize you can’t avoid reducing headcount. You’re worried about the state of the world. Or anxious about the state of your family. For whatever reason, your nerves are fried.

With your stomach doing somersaults you sit down with the team. You think no one notices your agitation. But you’re wrong. Everyone knows you’re off-center before you utter a word.

Without realizing it, you’re creating a tense work environment. This happens through a biological mechanism called neuroception. Neuroception was coined by psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Porges to describe the way our bodies send and receive signals to each other all the time, from one nervous system to another.

Through this invisible yet constant process of exchange, the work environment can become uncomfortable because the neural circuitry of your colleagues detects the friction and unease in yours. If your autonomic nervous system is chronically overwhelmed, your employees will sense it via neuroception and might reach harsh conclusions. This place is too stressful. Its leaders are toxic. This much strain isn’t worth it.

In the end, you can leave your colleagues at the mercy of your leadership when your neural circuitry is overloaded with fear, aggression or insecurity. Or you can learn to recognize when your system is overstimulated and use your skills to restore inner calm, security and stability. That’s taking accountability for leading your people, your business, and your company culture by leading your nervous system.

Posted on December 13, 2022 on

This entry was posted in Blog, Press on .