Leadership Matters: Are Your Employees Stuck in ‘Lower Brain’?

diverse team of celebrating young employees high five with manager
By Michael E. Frisina, Ph.D.

4 minutes

Try one of these eight mood shifters to boost your team’s performance.

Leaders have a huge impact on our employees’ state of mind. Virtually everything we do and say elicits a psychological reaction. We can make them feel positive, engaged and empowered, or we can strike fear in their hearts, shut them down and send them into self-protection mode. I call these two states of mind “upper brain” and “lower brain”—and they have everything to do with performance.

When people are in their upper brain, they’re more likely to do what they need to do. They’re more creative. They’re happier and more fulfilled. Their relationships are better. They trust leaders more. They do their best work.

In lower brain, they might blindly follow orders in the moment, but even if this does spur higher performance, it won’t be sustainable. They’ll be stressed, frustrated and anxious—and too focused on keeping themselves safe to do much else.

Let’s be real: Good leaders don’t want that kind of power. Unfortunately, we can’t change how the human brain is wired. What we can do is learn the triggers that provoke fear, anxiety and worry—I call these the “unholy trinity of the lower brain”—so we can avoid them.

It goes without saying that yelling at, threatening or belittling people puts them into lower brain. But there are things even the most well-intentioned leaders do that have the same effect, like overloading them with work, giving vague instructions or missing opportunities to celebrate.

The good news is there are practical, doable actions we can implement that keep employees in upper brain mode and—if we happen to trigger the lower brain—lead them back up. Here are eight examples.

1. Start and end every meeting with what’s going well.

Getting everyone into their upper brain right away (“Thanks to all your hard work, the client presentation yesterday was a huge success!”) leads to a more joyful and collaborative meeting. Ending on a positive note (“I’m so grateful to be part of such a smart, creative team!”) sends people off to do the work feeling good about themselves and excited for the next step.

2. Reframe a stressful project.

First ask employees, “What is it about this project that feels hard or stressful?” Then ask them, “Is what you are thinking about in your control or out of your control?” This shifts them away from skeptical, confusing, fear-provoking “what if” thinking and into productive, energized thinking. Rather than focusing on the negative outcome they want to avoid, they will focus on the positive outcome they will create.

3. Set clear expectations and reasonable deadlines.

Clarity inspires people and makes them feel good about working on a project. Vagueness and open-endedness are anxiety-producing. So are unrealistic time frames, which only set people up to fail and instill a sense of dread. When people know exactly what they’re supposed to do and have time to do it, they’ll excel.

4. When people ask questions, lead them to the answers. 

Don’t say, “This is why we pay you the big bucks. You figure it out.” Statements like this trigger the lower brain. Instead, describe the outcome you want and ask questions to guide your employees in a discovery exercise. Reinforce the belief that by working together, the collective intelligence of the team can achieve amazing outcomes.

5. Keep them thankful during provoking events.

We tend to get overwhelmed when we are fixated on “What’s going to happen to me?” When we’re in a state of gratitude, it gets the focus off ourselves. Help people refresh and refocus by asking your team members to make a list of three things they’re grateful for. This is a good way to start and end meetings.

6. Help employees attend to what’s important by spelling out priorities …

An out-of-control to-do list plunges people into their lower brain and confuses activity with progress. Limit the number of assigned projects outside of routine daily work to groups of three and prioritize them from “most important” to “least important.” You’ll get far better results and give people the satisfaction of completing goals that really matter.

7. … And declutter their to-do list.

Stop overworking people with non-essential objectives and crisis management events. Once you’ve magnified what’s important (previous tip), remove what’s not. Act as a shield to keep low-value objectives out of their way. The less distracting “noise” they must field, the more likely they are to be focused, engaged and productive.

8. Celebrate to create a working memory of success and achievement.

Get into a flow of recognizing wins and success stories in conversations, at every meeting, as a part of every process improvement initiative, etc. The more we emphasize what’s going well, the more likely people are to stay in their upper brain—and the more likely success is to be repeated.

Even the best leader will trigger employees’ lower brains at times. But when we consistently and proactively take steps to keep them feeling engaged, appreciated and energized, we keep the neurological bank balance in the black. The team’s frame of mind is good most of the time—and on the rare occasions that it isn’t, it’s easier for them to recover and move on.

Michael E. Frisina, Ph.D., has authored more than 50 papers and published articles on leadership and organizational effective­ness. He is a contributing author to the Borden Institute’s highly acclaimed textbook series on military medicine. He is a visiting scholar at the Hastings Center in New York, a visiting fellow in medical humanities at the Medical College of Pennsylvania and a John C. Maxwell Top 100 Transformational Leader. Recently, he co-authored Leading With Your Upper Brain: How to Create the Behaviors That Unlocked Performance Excellence with Robert W. Frisina, MA.

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