On my second day as technology team leader, my manager sat me down and explained that my first duty would be to discipline one of my colleagues (and, until that moment, my friend).
Doug had welcomed me into the company on my first day, and spent time over the first few weeks making sure I was settling in. We had shared many wise tips and tricks for getting our work done. We had worked closely together on several projects.
It was bad enough that I had been promoted above him a couple of days previously; now I was supposed to give him a formal warning?
It was agony. I was a sweaty bag of nerves, my voice failing as my throat dried and I tripped over my words, completely undermining my pretence of authority.
The meeting was a failure. Under pressure, I got angry with him. Our friendship didn’t survive the conversation.
Doug didn’t comprehend just how serious the situation was, ignored my warning, and soon found himself looking for a new job.
The problem with technology
It is often the best developers who get promoted. Their attention to detail, blistering speed of thought, and encyclopaedic knowledge of all things tech mean they are the best in the team.
However, such positive attributes within the team can really get in the way of leading the team.
Attention to detail often comes at the cost of viewing the bigger picture and can lead to micro-management. Fast thinkers often leave their teams way behind, confusing and demoralising them.
Being the IT expert means others will continue to rely on them to help out on technology matters, which prevents them tackling their new responsibilities.
And, let’s face it, it’s rare that coding skills prepare you to deal with people.
The first 100 days in a senior IT role are crucial. Relationships change, responsibilities change. Our focus shifts from technical problem-solving to people-guiding.
We become visible beyond just the tech team, and find ourselves in meetings with those who just don’t understand our technical language (or we theirs).
All this change is stressful, and stress makes us stupid.
Stress makes you stupid
The human brain has three main parts:
- The reptilian region – the oldest part, sitting atop the spinal cord, manages the fight, flight and freeze responses. These behaviours are designed to remove you from harm as efficiently as possible; any collateral damage can be dealt with later.
- The limbic system – common across all mammals, this part attunes us emotionally to those around us.
- The neocortex – home to communication, intuition and strategic thought, this part is integral to memorising, remembering and generating new insight.
Within the reptilian brain, the amygdala is gatekeeper to the higher-functioning parts of the brain. If the perceived level of threat reaches a certain threshold, the amygdala will close the gate to the limbic and neocortex regions and enact fight, flight or freeze reactions.
Thus, anything that overwhelms us (too much pressure, or too sudden) triggers a shutdown of the parts of the brain concerned with human connection and creative thought, and we find ourselves acting purely from our reactive habits.
Stress truly does make us stupid, so here are my six tips for dealing with it:
1. Get comfortable with uncertainty
This art, originating in Japan, offers a way to develop a deeper awareness of our behaviour under pressure using the martial context of physical interpersonal conflict.
It trains practitioners in self-defence in a way that also avoids injuring attackers.
At a deeper level, it answers the question "how?" – how do we move from stuck to free, from opposition to union, from conflict to alignment, in a way that ensures the safety of all involved?
There’s a lot to learn before we find our feet – and that’s an uncomfortable feeling. In the long term, we will build up enough experience to become more certain about what we should be doing when, but in the short term, we need to become comfortable with uncertainty.
The martial art of Aikido includes the practice of dealing with multiple attackers, known as randori. People lunge at us from all sides. We learn to expand our awareness of all the incoming, without getting so involved with one person that we can’t maintain awareness of the others, and without becoming aggressive.
As a new leader, your head has risen above the parapet, and everyone wants a bit of you. You may find yourself pulled in all directions, addressing multiple people and topics. Preparing yourself for randori will help you.
2. Be prepared
We can’t change our mind with our minds alone. The body is a short cut to the mind. This four-part process (from the recently published book Leadership Embodiment) lengthens, expands and settles you. Use it regularly to avoid contracting under pressure.
- Breathe up from the floor, allowing it to inflate your back and lengthen your neck. As you exhale, let your chest open and settle without collapsing your spine.
- Feel out into the space around you, one side at a time. Aim to balance your awareness equally all around.
- Allow gravity to hold you – let your feet rest squarely on the floor, let your arms hang from your shoulders. See which muscles you can relax even further.
- Wonder: “What would it be like with a bit more ease in my body?”
3. You’re always practising something
Your body is not just a vehicle for your wonderful brain. Nor is it an engine that just needs regular tuning in the gym. It supports you.
It reveals to others what you are feeling. When you are not paying attention to how you’re doing something (for example, when under pressure), what message are you giving out?
You are always practising something. Others are always reading the message. So, what are you practising? What is your message?
4. Know yourself (and pass the grenade)
I worked with a highly intelligent manager for a couple of years. Every morning started with a stand-up meeting when we would take turns to relate the previous day's progress.
Over the course of the meeting, we could see him standing comfortably, then shifting his weight onto one foot, then crossing his arms, and finally dropping his forehead onto one hand.
As he shifted, our reports became like passing a grenade – say as little as possible and move on. Someone always caught the explosion.
He was oblivious of his physical descent into fury. We weren’t. As he got closer to meltdown, we said less and less, knowing that revealing less to him was likely to save us from the blast.
It became a standing joke. His lack of awareness not only gave him less control over his behaviour, it actually meant he was deliberately kept less informed about the project.
Don’t be that manager – learn what happens to you in the build-up. Notice what happens to your body under pressure.
Contrast these changes with how you are when you are confident and relaxed. In time, when you can see your body starting to change, you can adjust it to tolerate the discomfort.
5. Own the space
A key Aikido practice is to "own the mat". This maintains equanimity when others are pulling you in different directions or vying for control – just like many meetings. It creates an inclusive atmosphere, even when those around you are not behaving in ways you want – a small child misbehaving, or a colleague being antsy.
Increase your personal space. Reach out intentionally to the corners of the room every time you enter. Your presence fills the space, and you allow others into it. Open up your vision to include the rest of the room – not just the person you’re looking at. You will capture more data, and they will feel under less intense scrutiny.
Skilful leaders exude a subtle, calm, authority. This isn’t luck – it comes from the body and can be learned. It starts with being centred amid the chaos. Practise centring, know your tendencies under pressure, and you’re halfway to brilliance: the half where your colleagues respect you for who you are and how you respond to them, not just what you do.
6. Leadership posture
The way we sit and stand can change the way we think and speak. What does your posture reveal about you?
"Humans and other animals express power through open, expansive postures, and powerlessness through closed, constrictive postures. But can these postures actually cause power?"
Colombia and Harvard University researchers asked this question in a recent article, Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. The answer was yes, "…a person can, via a simple two-minute pose, embody power and instantly become more powerful".
Influential people stand upright, not slumped. Their presence extends into the space around them and they usually have the look of someone who is resilient, confident and willing to engage with challenges and risk-taking.
So, use your body to access your mind, and build your leadership skills – especially during those critical first 100 days.
James Knight (pictured) is a 5th-dan Aikido teacher. After spending more than a decade in the UK tech sector – as a developer, team leader and manager on multi-million-dollar projects – he now works full time with IT leaders to help them "get their job done, brilliantly and humanely". The leadership embodiment training he offers has been taken up in the US by Oracle, Genentech, Twitter, Hewlett-Packard, Daimler Chrysler, Pfizer and Nasa. He recently co-founded the Centre for Embodied Wisdom to bring embodied leadership skills into education, business and families.
This was first published in April 2014