On July 6, 2014, I sat in a plane parked off a runway at the San Francisco airport, our flight delayed after it was ready to take off. The pilot announced we would need to be patient as engineers worked on the air conditioning system. So, we sat patiently awaiting our departure at 11 a.m.
After about 10 minutes, the captain gave another announcement: “We are seeing some problems on the tarmac, very serious problems. We are not sure if we can take off at this moment. Please take a look out the left windows of the plane. A large plane has crashed—the tail is missing, and it’s on fire.”
We were on the tarmac right next to Flight 214. My husband and I had a view from the window. We also turned on our cells phones, went right to Google, and could see close-up photos of the smoke billowing out of the top of the plane.
From the reports, we learned that South Korean Asiana Flight 214 crashed because the pilots relied on automatic equipment to maintain airspeed and did not realize the plane was flying too slowly until it was just 200 feet above the ground.
The crash killed two passengers instantly—one later died in the hosptial—and injured about 180 other people. Four flight attendants were ejected from the plane after its tail hit a seawall in front of the runway. They were found injured but alive on the side of the runway.
The buzz in our plane was rising as people sat glued to their windows, asking questions: Was it terrorists? Who was hurt? Would the plane explode? Would we die?
View From the Window
We each have our personal views from the window—profoundly emotional events that we either experience or observe firsthand. These moments become the movies of our mind that we visit, re-experience and re-interpret over and over again. Some are painfully horrible to remember as this one was, and we can’t let go of them. We become voyeurs of our own minds, trying to make sense of what we’ve seen.
Our movies become our reality. They become the foundation upon which we base our interpretations. From these remembered experiences, we harvest new realities that we share with others. Powerful experiences do not lie dormant in our minds—they stir us to think more, interpret more, and pass along our thoughts to others—thus influencing their view from the window.
Neuroscience of Conversations
When we have frightening experiences, our fear network located in the primitive part of the brain, is activated, as cortisol and adrenalin bathe the brain, chemically alerting us to move cautiously through a possibly hazardous environment.
Once this fear pattern is initiated, we draw on stored memories located in the primitive brain and the hippocampus to help us interpret what is happening in front of our eyes. Our memories of fearful experiences and the reality we are currently experiencing become connected and entwined. While this mechanism helps us make meaning of what is going on in the present, it also causes us to make up stuff or embellish the observable, objective story.
Emotional Events at Work
We also experience emotionally charged events at work: conflicts, financial losses, team disagreements, failures, two division leaders having a fall-out. These are the fires we see out of our view from the window at work. We recall other memories of such clashes and crashes to help us understand what we are currently experiencing, and as we talk through our feelings with colleagues, our interpretations may ignite a fire of fear and distrust that can explode through entire departments.
Conversational Intelligence Tips
Here are some Conversational Intelligence neuro-tips for leaders to help you when fires and crashes occur at your workplace. The key is to step into a leadership role that reduces fear to contain the fires before they spread.
1. Be present and available.
Your people spend an inordinate amount of time watching everything you do, especially during conflicts. Negativity and fear are contagious, and you set and carry the tone. If you often hide behind closed doors, don’t seem to be listening during conversations, spend a lot of time reminiscing about the past, or talk about a future that seems unconnected to the present, people will read things into your actions and words and start imagining negative stuff. So, be present, available and open to talk about the truth of what is actually happening so that others do not interpret incorrectly.
2. Tell people where they stand.
When disagreements and conflict fill your organizational terrain, remember that fear sends our thoughts to the worst-case scenario movies of our minds. We obsess: What will happen to me? Leaders need to tell people where they stand; yet many leaders resist doing so because they fear it will lead to unmet expectations or broken promises. When leaders speak truth, their employees often discover that their imagined fears were much worse than reality.
3. Provide context in every communication.
A picture with a frame becomes a different picture. Without a framework of understanding, fear can be elevated by confusion and uncertainty. For example, I work with a technology company that is growing rapidly. The chief financial officer, who came from a large company, told his staff when he first arrived: “Go out and hire your replacement.”
He thought his message was clear: “I want you to hire someone capable of filling your shoes because given all this growth and how wonderful you all are, I anticipate promoting each and every one of you.”
His staff heard: “Hire your replacement because none of you are good enough and you all will be fired soon.”
Not surprisingly, his employees grew anxious. A fire erupted in this workplace. Morale and performance suffered. When I explained to the CFO what his people had heard, he instantly understood what he had done. He called a meeting to explain that he wanted his people to go out and search for their own replacements as part of planning for the future and to make it easier for him to promote them when the time was right.
Context is critical. In this case, adding proper context to the conversation made people feel good about themselves and the company—their fear receded and performance improved.
Putting Out Fires
After my brush with Asiana Flight 214, I found myself haunted by images of the burning plane. This may happen with fires at work. Indeed, it is hard for us to let go of fear when we’ve been burned in the past. However, by practicing these three powerful Conversational Intelligence Neuro-tips, you can extinguish potential office conflagrations and keep fear out of the pilot’s seat and passengers’ minds.