June 18, 2020

AIHce EXP 2020 Closing Session Reveals Neurological-Based Tactics for Leaders

By Abby Roberts

OHS professionals often act as leaders even in ordinary circumstances, but especially now that COVID-19 has urged the profession into the front lines working against the pandemic. But leadership itself—particularly leading people under stress—is a skill that often takes years of trial and error to develop. In his AIHce EXP 2020 closing session on June 3, keynote speaker René Rodriguez addressed a virtual audience on techniques based in neurology that leaders can use to exert influence.

“It is critical to understand the foundational elements of how influence works, the science behind it, and more importantly, the sequence of it,” said Rodriguez. To this end, Rodriguez explained how the brain responds in times of crisis, change, and stress.

Drawing on Dr. Paul MacLean’s concept of the triune brain, Rodriguez illustrated the three systems within the brain: the “reptilian” brain, or basal ganglia; the “mammalian” brain, or limbic system; and the “human” brain, or cerebral neocortex.

The reptilian brain oversees all autonomic functions, such as breathing and heartrate—in other words, survival. In times of extreme stress, this part of the brain takes control, to decide quickly between fight, flight, or freeze responses. During this time, the systems in the higher parts of the brain, including those governing memory and logic, go dormant. People under extreme stress make quick decisions to ensure their survival, not well-thought-out plans. Unfortunately, during the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people’s brains are currently operating in this state, Rodriguez said.

Next, Rodriguez described the limbic system, the seat of a person’s emotions and value system and the gateway to their long-term memory. Finally, Rodriguez addressed the neocortex, the home of learning, logic, language, and problem solving. The neocortex includes the prefrontal lobe, responsible for planning future actions and predicting outcomes. This is the part of the brain that will make the best, most informed decision possible.

These higher functions are cut off when the brain is under extreme stress. A leader’s job, Rodriguez said, is to inspire a sense of safety in people and allow them to engage the functions of their limbic system and neocortex. During the pandemic, requiring social distancing and restricting travel help meet this duty. Once a leader has assured people that their basic physical and social needs have been met, they are in a position to make logical, long-lasting decisions, Rodriguez said.

To inspire change, according to Rodriguez, leaders need to appeal to others’ values and their desire for community through effective communication. Rodriguez described a communication technique called “framing,” a way of answering questions or communicating information that encourages the listener to make a personal connection with the speaker. He cautioned that if leaders do not provide a frame for their communications, listeners will create their own, potentially distorting the message.

"A powerful frame can cause an internal shift in us emotionally," Rodriguez said. “If you could relate to that frame, if that triggers a value set inside you, [then] you’ve connected.”

Learn more about René Rodriguez’ influencing and leadership techniques, and watch some of his videos, on his website.

Abby Roberts is AIHA's editorial assistant.

Related articles from The Synergist:

Battling the Reptilian Brain: Work-Management Tips for Overcoming Distractions” (November 2019).

Small Decisions: Using Cognitive Science to Improve Communication with Workers” (February 2020).