February 2014
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TD Magazine

Keep Calm and Lead On

Saturday, February 8, 2014

In leadership, a little neuroscience knowledge goes a long way.

We've all seen the message "Keep Calm and Carry On" printed on everything from T-shirts to posters, to mugs. But for business leaders, that advice is easier said than done. The way our brains have evolved can make staying calm in the face of adversity extremely difficult.

Fraser Marlow, head of research at BlessingWhite, examined how our brains shape our responses to stressful situations and how leaders can deal with their own neurological impulses and those of others in the workplace. Our brains are composites of three evolutionary levels—the reptilian brain, the limbic brain, and the neocortex—which monitor our bodily functions, emotional state, and rational thinking, respectively.

"When people are using their limbic brains to respond ... they fall back on absolute statements: 'We never get projects completed on time' or 'Everybody hates me,'" Marlow explains. Letting the limbic brain guide your responses to stressful situations can lead to panic because your actions will be governed by feelings, not logic. Good leaders cannot effectively manage their teams if they fail to resist limbic behavior during a crisis.


Although emotional reactions are part of human nature, limbic thinking can be overcome through self-awareness and active listening. If, in the heat of the moment, leaders look for signs that they are reacting to problems based only on their emotions, they can avoid panic by calmly redirecting their thoughts toward rational solutions.

Effective leaders also can diffuse the limbic reactions of their teams by developing active listening skills. Marlow suggests taking the following three steps to enable rational thinking in stressed employees.

  • Give the person your full attention.
  • Paraphrase what the person said so that you are both clear about the problem.
  • Empathize. Even if you don't agree, demonstrating your ability to see the other person's point of view is a great negotiating tool that can be used to calm disagreeing parties.
About the Author

Ashley Slade is the former production and editorial specialist for ATD.

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