Leadership Coaching: Insights from Neuroscience Part 1

How can we cope with stress and build resilience in the workplace?

By Dr Patricia Bossons, Director of the Henley Centre for Coaching and Behavioural Change

In this series of articles, I will be taking some of the fascinating insights we now have about activity in our brains and relating it to practical experiences from the coaching and leadership development field. This time, we’re looking at how we cope with stress and can learn to develop a greater resilience at work.

Leadership coaching needs to be well equipped in the area of stress, as it is one of the most common drivers for which people seek out – or are sent for – coaching.

At various times, we’ve probably all felt some of the following at work: that our emotional responses to things that happen to us are out of control; unable to focus or concentrate on the task in hand because we are preoccupied with something that is causing us anxiety; the sensation of being overwhelmed; an inability to perform at our usual level; that we have made a bad decision; a temptation to fantasise about certain people ceasing to exist, and what part we might play in that… Even reading this might cause your stress levels to go up, as I invite you to relive these experiences just by bringing your attention to them!

And it’s true; one really interesting finding from neuroscience is that either remembering or imagining an event creates the same biological responses in us as actually experiencing the event first-hand.

Hormonal responses

Our brain does not differentiate completely between felt, imagined or remembered emotions. This is why positive daydreams can have such an uplifting effect on us, while being fixated on something that troubles us can drive up our biological stress responses. These biological responses include raised levels of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, and increased activity in our amygdala (the part of our brain that controls emotions, emotional behaviour and motivation) – all connected with our ‘fight or flight’ responses, and the shutting down of parts of our brain that enable us to intellectually analyse situations with care and detachment, or to be creative and innovative.

Our responses to stress were developed in our brains at a time when there were very real threats to life out in our everyday environment. We needed to be able to react quickly, and automatically, in the face of wild animals, attacks from neighbouring tribes and so on. Our brains remain much the same today as they were then.

Now, however, the stimuli that create the same stress responses in us are the things people bring to executive coaching – a bad relationship with the boss (triggering ‘is he going to kill me? Or possibly eat me?’), or being furious with the marketing department (marauding hordes from the next valley attacking after dark). Actually, these do resonate as responses, don’t they?!

So what can be done to help us manage these sometimes unhelpful reactions, and how can coaching contribute to this?

Changing perceptions

We have already seen that we are having the same stress responses to much smaller events in the workplace today as we had to major life-threatening events in the distant past. This suggests that we have changed the way we perceive what is stressful – in other words, we get stressed by our perception of an event, rather than the intrinsic danger of the event itself. So, if we can change our perception of the event, we can change the level of our stress response to it – and as part of this increase our emotional resilience.

There are a number of ways coaches can work with their coachees to manage and reduce their stress responses, and to increase their emotional resilience.

Firstly, we know that the principle of extinction of responses – a psychological phenomenon – means that if we can experience an event a couple of times without getting stressed by it, we will break the link that triggers a stress response in us when confronted by that particular event. So, if we go back to the idea that remembering or imagining something happening has the same biological effect on us as actually experiencing it, then with the help of a coach (or even self-coaching), we can use various techniques to have the experience of the event, without the stress response. This means that we will then have built up emotional resilience to the event, and when we actually do experience it, our stress response will be much reduced.

Examples of this would be rehearsing a presentation a number of times, in a ‘safe’ environment, before delivering it to a real audience. Coaching could support this by helping the individual notice the positive aspects of each rehearsal, the growing feelings of confidence and the appreciation from the audience. This could be followed by some visualisation of the actual presentation, where the individual was feeling the same levels of confidence and excitement in presenting as they were feeling in their practice sessions, seeing the positive reactions in the faces of the audience, the congratulations from people afterwards and so on.

Successfully completing tasks that have been considered stressful provide us with new memories which reinforce our resilience to new instances of the same task. Knowing that we have successfully delivered a presentation several times in the past can be used in a coaching session to make sure that we can do the next one with a much lower stress response. We have disconnected the link between ‘giving a presentation’ and ‘biological stress responses’. There are a number of coaching tools and techniques that can reinforce this progress and make sure it becomes part of our brain’s new neural make-up.

Developing resilience

Responding appropriately to challenging situations seems to be part of the process of building resilience. Outdoor ‘team development’ challenges have been popular for a long time, giving people the chance to take on a challenge that they find stressful, even fear-inducing (‘now Jenny, just kick off from the cliff-face, release the rope with your right hand and lean back… don’t look down...’), which then results in a successful outcome (I’m still alive!), and a reinforcing response of ‘If I can do that, I can do anything – come on, marketing department, do your worst...’. Neuroscience now allows us to accept that this kind of thing, done properly, does actually work!

Depending upon our upbringing, some people are naturally more resilient to stress than others. The difference between resilient and non-resilient people is that while both have experienced stressful situations, the more resilient among us will, most likely, have had experiences where they had the resources to overcome short, sharp episodes of stress, and have had this happen a number of times.

The less resilient are more likely to have faced long periods of stress that were outside their control, where they couldn’t respond positively to the challenge. Again, coaching can explore a person’s natural resilience to stress, focusing on personal experiences. For the less naturally resilient, it can be very useful to have time to explore challenges that have been overcome but forgotten, achievements that have been discounted, or activities outside work that demonstrate great resourcefulness but which have been considered irrelevant to the workplace until brought up in coaching. Again, there are various coaching tools that can be used in this space. Once someone become more practised in this way of thinking, their brain will also become much quicker at making these kind of resourcing connections for itself, without the person needing to consciously work through the issue.

Coaching can then be used to increase the levels of positivity someone feels towards various challenges and build resilience even further.

Watch this space for more insights!

 The Neuroscience of Leadership Coaching (Bossons, Riddell and Sartain, 2015) was published in August 2015, by Bloomsbury.