How Understanding Stress Through the Neuro Lens Creates More Trusting Teams

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Over the last couple of decades, the business world has changed dramatically.

Work expectations used to be more traditional, focusing on stability, long-term employment, and a predictable career trajectory. It was common for employees to work in a more formal environment with limited flexibility and people often prioritize work over personal time. 

Today, we live in a hyper-connected society where change is fast-paced. Advances in technology created a landscape where the internet, smartphones, and social media are ubiquitous, and global events like the financial crisis of 2008, the COVID pandemic, and the Ukraine conflict have only increased the sense of unpredictability. This additional stress manifests in the workforce as job uncertainty, 

This type of environment is referred to as the “VUCA” world, an acronym that stands for “Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.”

“The rate of complexity and change isn’t slowing down, in fact, if anything I think it’s speeding up. And it’s not so much about trying to change the world around us, it’s changing our relationship to the world. When you learn to see these things from a different perspective, and you know how to control yourself in relation to your engagement with that complex (or “VUCA”) world that can be very helpful in terms of helping others respond to stress.”

Stress isn't always bad!

In fact, it can be a natural response to certain situations that can enhance performance and productivity. It’s the stress that creates a “threat” response that’s the real challenge. Leaders aiming to create a work environment that promotes trust, collaboration, and well-being, while enhancing employee performance can benefit from adopting a neurological perspective, or “neuro lens.”

To better understand stress from a neurochemical perspective, let’s take a closer look at some key neurochemicals involved. 

One such neurochemical is cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone.” Cortisol is released in response to perceived threats or stressors, and it can help prepare the body for action. Oxytocin, often known as the “trust hormone,” is associated with feelings of trust, social bonding, and relaxation.

What causes the triggering and release of these neurochemicals? Fear and trust play a significant role. When employees experience fear or perceive a threat in the work environment, it can trigger the release of cortisol, leading to a stress response. On the other hand, when employees feel trusted, supported, and valued, it can promote the release of oxytocin, fostering a positive work environment. One key aspect of using this “neuro lens” approach is knowing which types of conversations will spark creativity through trust, and which may trigger reactivity due to mistrust.

Let’s consider two workplace examples of conversations between a supervisor (named Sarah) and her direct report (named James) that can either spark creativity through trust or trigger reactivity due to mistrust.

Example 1: Sparking Creativity through Trust

Sarah: “James, I wanted to talk to you about the new project we’re working on. Your input and expertise are highly valued, and I would like to hear your ideas and suggestions on how we can approach it. Let’s brainstorm together and come up with innovative solutions as a team.”

James: “Thank you, Sarah. I appreciate your trust in my abilities. I have a few ideas in mind that I’d like to share with you. I believe we can leverage our existing resources and collaborate with other teams to come up with a unique approach that will drive success for the project.”

In this example, Sarah creates a trusting environment by acknowledging James’ expertise, valuing his input, and encouraging collaboration. James feels empowered to share his ideas and suggestions, leading to a creative and collaborative discussion that can generate innovative solutions for the project.

Example 2: Triggering Reactivity due to Mistrust

Sarah: “James, we need to talk about your performance on the last project. I found some mistakes in your report, and I’m disappointed with the quality of your work. We can’t afford these errors, and I expect you to improve your performance going forward.”

James: “But, Sarah, I did my best on that project, and I had a lot of other tasks to handle at the same time. I feel like I’m being micromanaged and not given enough autonomy to do my job.”

Sarah: “Well, if you can’t handle the workload, maybe we need to reconsider your role here. I can’t tolerate mistakes like this. You need to step up your game.”

In this example, Sarah’s conversation with James triggers reactivity due to mistrust. Sarah focuses on James’ mistakes and criticizes his performance, creating a defensive response from James. He perceives Sarah’s approach as micromanaging and lacking trust in his abilities, leading to a negative exchange that can further erode trust and damage the supervisor-direct report relationship.

The SCARF Method of Threat and Reward

Another tool for adopting the “neuro lens” approach is learning the SCARF Model of Social Threats and Reward. SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness – five social domains that can impact an employee’s perception of threat or reward in the workplace. For example, when employees feel a sense of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness in their roles and interactions, it can foster trust and collaboration, leading to increased creativity and innovation.

Organizational leaders can initiate a reward response in employees using practical strategies based on the SCARF method. For instance, providing clear communication about team members’ roles and responsibilities (certainty), recognizing and valuing their contributions (status), empowering them with autonomy and decision-making authority (autonomy), fostering positive relationships and team cohesion (relatedness), and ensuring fairness in policies, procedures, and performance evaluations (fairness) can all contribute to a positive work environment that promotes trust and creativity.

A helpful starting point to managing workplace stress is to become aware of where the stress is originating within your organization or team. Is it stemming from a particular manager, is there widespread uncertainty that needs to be addressed, or are roles and responsibilities unclear?

By identifying the root causes of stress you can better understand the underlying issues and take targeted actions to address them.

This could involve clarifying expectations, improving communication, providing additional training or resources, or addressing leadership and management practices. The next step after awareness is accepting the existence of workplace stressors. Normalize conversations around stress, this in itself will reduce the amount of stress by making it acceptable to share – especially if leadership makes the first move. By proactively addressing the sources of stress, you can create a healthier and more productive work environment for your team or organization.

ORCA HR has multiple offerings to help address stress in your organization. We are offering a free mini-course on organizational stress with a complimentary  stress assessment tool that can be beneficial for individuals, teams, and organizations. Our goal is to help bring clarity to the often ambiguous challenge of managing stress in the workplace. 

Additionally, ORCA’s Conscious Manager Academy© to help develop front-line managers so they can better manage stress for themselves and their team. Email or call 1-425-260-8603 if you’d like to learn more.

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