Becoming More Responsive at Work
Routine is a daily part of our working lives. For most people, the tasks they complete at work are ones they complete on a regular basis. This encourages a kind of automation, as people let their minds wander.
In their paper, 'Mindfulness and the Quality of Organizational Attention', Weick and Sutcliffe examine the connection between mindfulness and the quality of attention. They note that mindfulness allows us to complete tasks to a higher standard, as well as more efficiently. That’s good news. Being more responsive at work also helps us prevent something else that can undermine our effectiveness - “amygdala hijack”.
What is amygdala hijack?
The amygdala hijack is a term that that has been coined to describe the biological and behavioural process that follow when our brains misinterpret a stressful event and read it as “danger”. When that happens, our fight-or-flight responses automatically kick in – and that leads us to make poor decisions.
Amygdala hijacks can become common in workplaces when we commit to our working routines to the detriment of our health. When faced with something unexpected, outside of routine, those of us who are liable to amygdala hijacks react instead of responding.
Mindfulness can help
Daniel Goleman was the first to use the term “amygdala hijack” in 1996 and was writing about the amygdala and hippocampus as far back as 1989. In an article for the New York Times, Goleman wrote about the architecture of the brain. Citing research by Joseph LeDoux, he argued that distance plays a factor in our decision-making – particularly the relative closeness of the amygdala to the thalamus as opposed to the hippocampus.
In essence, he argued, our brain uses the amygdala to make decisions because it is closer, and our brains can become accustomed to using it rather than the hippocampus. To prevent this, Goleman pointed to a quote from LeDoux:
''Once your emotional system learns something, it seems you never let it go. What therapy does is teach you to control it. It teaches your cortex how to inhibit your amygdala. The propensity to act is suppressed, while your basic emotions about it may remain in a subdued form.''
Mindfulness training allows us to separate a reaction to stimulus from our response, and use our hippocampus instead of our amygdala. It means we can recognise an emotional trigger instead of being controlled by it. The key difference between reacting and responding is that the latter is done for a reason. A response is an action that requires some (often very small) degree of forethought, whereas a reaction is emotional and offers poor outcomes – particularly when working with others.
A sudden change to work schedules can be deeply unnerving to someone who is locked into a routine, letting their mind wander. Their reaction might be to panic at the thought of a new task you don't know how to complete. But mindfulness training can make us become better able to respond instead.
We don’t tend to notice two different emotions at the same time. When the hijack kicks in and you begin to react to a situation, try to appreciate the source of the hijack. At work, the source is often someone disturbing your routine. By attempting to understand their motives, you can short-circuit the hijack and begin responding to a situation instead of reacting to it.
To find out more about what mindfulness can offer you, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone +44 (0)1223 750430.