Posted by: knightbird | January 6, 2016

Lean Thinking and Fear in the Workplace

I have been reading Joseph LeDoux’s recent book titled “Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety.” His 1996 book titled “The Emotional Brain” introduced the role of the Amygdala in perceptions of fear. One concept he introduced was the amygdala’s role in the “nonconscious detection of threats.” When presented with a threat, the amygdala goes into action without the intervention or knowledge of the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC). In our evolutionary history, threat response had to be immediate or survival was at risk. When a threat is detected, the Amygdala presented an immediate response. Part of that response led to reducing the flow of oxygen and glucose to the PFC. In other words, your thinking brain is cut off in favor of survival. Your Amygdala prepares your body to react with 3 options: fight, flee or freeze.

This knowledge is important in social settings where fear might be present, such as schools or workplaces. In schools, students with a heightened fear response react to perceived threats in predictable ways. They fight (physically or verbally), flee (leave the scene, leave the school or drop out of school) or freeze (stand or sit and take the threat without visible reaction). Because oxygen and glucose flow to the PFC is reduced, expecting to reason with a student is not a rational expectation. Letting the student calm down in a non threatening place and by removing external threat potential is important. After removing the threat, discussion can take place. Unfortunately, most of the discussion is one way and involve additional threats such as calling and involving parents, suspension or expulsion. Finding a way to modify student behavior to reduce the threat response is important and should involve recognition of responsibility for their actions (appropriate to their age) and responsibility for those actions (without excessive threat).

I believe the same is true in the workplace.

A major difference in the workplace involves the need employees have for the income they are earning. Fear might keep them working, but it does not ordinarily lead to productivity. Employees quickly learn how to please their bosses. If initiative is punished, employees will not display initiative. If managers have a “git er done” attitude, it will get done, but the workplace will probably suffer as a consequence. Some employees learn quickly what gets rewarded, and will begin to display the behaviors that get rewarded, even if they are destructive to the business. That’s probably the main reason Dr. Deming said to eliminate reliance on quotas. If a quota is set, employees will meet the quota, defects ignored. If a particular behavior is rewarded, you will see more of it. In another example, Virginia Mason Medical Center refers to individuals who step in and fix a particular problem because they know how to achieve workarounds as “Capes.” You know, “here I come to save the day.” (Mighty Mouse) There is also a freeze response in the work place. It’s called keep your head down and don’t make waves. The fight response is usually horizontal (among peers) and not vertical (up to managers). And the flight response is to keep your mouth shut, avoid any sign of disagreement and hope to escape as soon as possible.

Deming’s 8th Principle of 14 states “Drive out fear.” He encourages effective two way communication and “other means” as ways to achieve this Principle.

I would like managers and executives to become familiar with the findings from the Adverse Childhood Experience Study, conducted in the 1990’s at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Diego, CA. What the study found is that, as I interpret it, an individuals threat response is enhanced during childhood when exposed to negative parental and authority figure behaviors. Adults with multiple negative experiences (Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACE’s) will have an activated threat response more frequently than one who does not. Managers need to understand this and have a standard workplace response to an escalating employee. A standard response can be the one introduced as a part of the Training Within Industry method. Their Job Relations (JR) program outlines and teaches how to handle a problem by (1) getting the facts; (2) weigh and decide; (3) take action; and (4) check results. JR also sets out a foundation for good relations that include: (1) let each employee know he he is getting along; (2) give credit when due; (3) tell an employee in advance about changes that will affect them; and (4) make best use of each person’s ability. Still relevant advice 80 years after it was developed.

What the ACE research adds is to be aware of each employees enhanced threat response and find a way to deal with it. I will discuss that more in a later post


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