A Leader’s Guide to Overcoming Obstacles
By Bright Dickson, MAPP
How can a motivated leader increase his or her ability to understand the obstacles in the path ahead? The answer lies in understanding how the human brain works when facing challenges and pondering opportunities.
BRAINS ARE WIRED TO SURVIVE, NOT THRIVE
We have the brains of survivors. We have the brains of wily and resourceful people who were good at perceiving, escaping and learning from danger. The people who faced challenging circumstances and survived were able to reproduce and pass along their traits to further generations.
Our ancestors were so good at avoiding danger the skill of looking for and reacting to threats literally became wired into our brains. This is called the negativity bias – our brain’s tendency to notice, remember, value and act upon information about threats more than information about opportunities.
Negativity bias is just one in an ever-growing family of “cognitive biases,” ways our brains are wired to pay attention to some information and ignore other information. Cognitive biases are not opinions – they are better thought of as errors or mistakes in perception. They are unconscious and unintentional, but they still affect our problem-solving and decision-making in critical ways.
In our minds, neutral information is more often interpreted as of a problem than a harbinger of possibility.
FIGHT, FLIGHT, FREEZE
When our minds decide a threat is imminent, our emotions and bodies respond to our thoughts. Usually the emotions that come up are some version of fear or anxiety and our bodies tend to react in one of three ways:
- Fight: yelling, passive aggression, sarcasm, violence
- Flight: physical withdrawal, checking out, silence
- Freeze: avoidance, silence
Such negative emotions and reactions limit our ability to see clearly and complicate problem-solving. To become more accurate, we need positive emotions to provide balance.
THE POWER OF POSITIVE EMOTIONS
Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., a positive psychology researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill, asked the question “what good are positive emotions?”
Her “broaden and build” theory suggests the value of positive emotions is two-fold. First, positive emotions broaden the brain’s perspective. When we have a broader perspective, we are more likely to identify opportunities as they present themselves. Second, positive emotions spur us to build physical, emotional and social resources for use in the future.
Additionally, positive emotions can “undo” the counterproductive physiological effects of negative emotions, like when someone makes a joke in a tense meeting. It’s called the “undoing effect,” and it’s a powerful tool if used consciously. It’s the secret of turning a problem into a possibility.
FOUR STEPS TO TURN OBSTACLES INTO OPPORTUNITIES
Frequent and complex obstacles can make big demands on a leader’s ability to slow down and make a careful analysis. Keep in mind while it may seem overly complicated at first glance, this is a skill like any other. The more you use it, the faster and more effective you will become.
THE FOUR STEPS:
1. Understand the obstacle
2. Check for cognitive biases
3. Reframe the obstacle as an opportunity
4. Act purposefully on what you can control
About the Author
Bright Dickson, MAPP
Vice President, Senior Consultant