Wednesday, December 16, 2009

CLUES Don't fight with your family this Christmas!

Christmas with the family – pleasure or a pain?

As Christmas approaches, many of us will be preparing for the annual family get together.

Some of you will be looking forward to it.

A few of you will be putting on the family event or attending it because it’s the tradition in your family but dreading how it might turn out.

Others will have, as I used to, inflated expectations of what a lovely, friendly, happy event it would be – only to be disappointed. You can’t make a family that doesn’t have lovely, friendly, happy relationships through the year, have them on Christmas Day!

Take a STAR approach to the Festive Season

Whichever category you fall into, don’t let your ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts) get in the way.

Be aware if you feel yourself getting agitated or annoyed (i.e. The Almond Effect®). Notice it and tell yourself to calm down. It is only for this day. Don’t let the stress and tension cause you to miss the potential pleasure of having a hassle free Christmas.

Be a STAR. Stop and Think about what’s going on before you Act. Then when you reflect on the day, don’t let your brain strengthen any negative hard-wiring. Focus on the good things that happened and Rewire those.

And watch out for everyone else’s Almonds (amygdalae) too! Don’t rise to the bait.

Sugar coat the 'almonds' on this occasion – after all, it will be 365 days until the next one!

Hope you have a fabulous Festive Season and a wonderful 2010

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

CLUES Don't keep them in the dark

“Don’t share this with anybody”.

Has your boss ever said that to you? Have you ever said it to your team?

The secret might be about a restructure, change in product line, new technology, the company’s financial results, a mistake, a failure, a possible merger, something about themselves, another employee or even about your role yet you are sworn to silence.

And what about at home? Have you ever withheld something from your partner or kids? An action that’s left you feeling uncomfortable at best and dishonest at worst?

Apart from the discomfort you almost certainly experience, I am sure you’ve witnessed the effect of secrecy on people around you especially if they suspect something is up and they are already operating in an information vacuum.

People generally hate being kept in the dark. You are right if you suspect that our amygdalae are implicated in reactions to silence in ‘suspicious’ circumstances.

You are so predictable!

Let’s explore this. Most of what we do everyday we don’t need to think about - we run on ‘automatic.’ We consciously don’t need to think about what to do next – we just ‘know’. Our brain guides us to take action based on pre-existing patterns of behaviour (habits) and predictability of outcomes.

So from the moment you get out of bed to the time you go back to bed, you probably follow a comparable routine each day. We don’t like to think we are predictable but we are. We have to be otherwise our working memory would be exhausted and we would be bushed from the sheer effort of using our brains so much.

Routines are the basis of how we live

For me, my early morning outline is to get out of bed, go to the bathroom, then to the kitchen, turn on the electric jug, get my vitamins out, turn on my computer, open the sliding doors to the deck, open the front door and go down the steps to collect the newspaper, get my breakfast and so on. I don’t actively think about it - it just happens like that most mornings.

My sub-conscious brain is guiding my actions and making decisions (like, is there enough water in the jug, stop pouring milk into the bowl) based on neural patterns laid down in its hardwiring that predict outcomes

Of course, if the paper hasn’t been delivered or I’ve run out of vitamins then the routine is interrupted. Then I have to stop and think about what to do – well actually first my amygdala automatically does some checking and assesses the risk to my survival with this break in pattern.

Usually it’s no big deal because my amygdala knows based on history that the lack of vitamins or a newspaper is not life threatening!

Pattern interrupter

However if my computer tells me when I turn it on that my hard drive has failed then that’s another reaction entirely - my ‘almonds’ kick in!

I immediately have to manage my survival response (manifesting as words that it’s preferable not to use!) and stop panicking long enough to get my thinking brain (pre-frontal cortex PFC) to work out where I put the number and service code for Dell, what I backed up, what I lost and what my priorities are.

My predictable morning didn’t go as planned so The Almond Effect® kicked in – and I haven’t even been up longer than 10 minutes!

Is it the same at work?

What do you do when you get to work, do you follow the same routine? For example, it could be that you turn on the computer, get coffee, say hi to people at the workstation across from you, open your email, look at your diary etc.

No drama, all normal just as your brain predicted, unless an unexpected alert starts flashing on your screen to call your manager urgently. Your brain’s hard-wired pattern-based operation is stopped in its tracks as it rapidly tries to assess the ‘threat’ and predict what the urgency is all about.

Your amygdala is immediately on red alert asking whether the interruption is a threat to your survival. If history shows that an alert saying to call the boss immediately is likely to cause a problem, then The Almond Effect® kicks in.

I hope that because you have been in one of my workshops, you’ll immediately put STAR into operation and get your PFC engaged to think before you act!

Not knowing is worst for the brain than knowing

Uncertainty really throws our brains into a muddle because in the absence of any pattern to the contrary, our brain defaults to predict the worst outcome as its natural survival mechanism (The Almond Effect®) – even in non-life threatening situations at home or at work.

This is why you should never be surprised that withholding information, keeping secrets etc will lead to gossip (flocking) pessimism and worst case scenario interpretations.

Lack of certainty creates anxiety, frustration, gossip and innuendo – all expressions of The Almond Effect®.

And anxious people don’t concentrate or perform well –their brains are distracted - focussing on the cause of the anxiety. They are searching for any kind of predictable outcome so that the brain can operate with certainty again.

The situation is clearly exacerbated if we are already operating in an information vacuum because our brains will predict the worst case scenario so we can prepare ourselves to survive.

Applied at home, it means for example that if your teenager isn’t at the place they said they were going to, your almonds go off. If you unexpectedly find a hotel receipt in your spouse’s pocket, if your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere – you get the picture!


Whether you are implementing changes at work or trying to hide something from someone at home, be aware that if the other party’s amygdala can’t see a ‘safe’ pattern, it will get suspicious. And the natural default reaction will be to focus on the worst case interpretation of the events with all the ramifications that will flow.

That’s why most people say, just tell us what’s going on – and then we can work out how to deal with it.

If you think you are doing people a favour by only giving information on a ‘need to know’ basis, think again – brain biology wants just the opposite.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

CLUES Anxiety and poor decision making

Does anxiety ever cloud your ability to think clearly and make the best decision?

A couple of days ago, driving home from swimming training, I began to hear a ‘click-click-clicking’ sound. It seemed to be coming from the front of my car.

In a nano-second, I was on red alert and in the grip of The Almond Effect®.

My mind was racing: ‘I can’t have a flat tyre here – I’m in the middle of 3 lanes of traffic. I can’t get out of the car to check if I have a puncture because I’ll get run over. Oh no, I’m going to cause a traffic jam and then they’ll report it for everyone to hear on the radio. I can’t pull over but if I keep driving, I’ll be driving on the rim and that will be dangerous – and expensive!’

I became aware of my heartbeat speeding up and vivid memories of being stuck in the spiral loop of a multi-level carpark flooding back – which is what happened the last time I had a puncture, several years ago.

Crazy thoughts

On and on my amygdala worried:

“I can’t ring my husband because he is inter-state and can’t help. It’s already late and I have an early morning teleconference tomorrow that I still have to read the papers for. And if I don’t get home til late and am too tired to read the papers properly then I won’t be fully prepared for the meeting and that will be embarrassing and I’ll let my colleagues down. And I look a mess; my hair is still wet from swimming, my make-up is half-on and half-off. What an idiot not to have cleaned off all my make-up before I got into the pool.”

All these thoughts in just one or two seconds because my ears picked up a ‘click-click-clicking’ sound that I didn’t even know for certain was coming from my car!

Name the emotions

As soon as I noticed my heart starting to race I applied my STAR approach: Stop-Think-Act-Rewire.

I took a deep breath, and said to myself: “I am feeling anxious, frustrated and embarrassed.”

You’ll recall that neuroscientists say that doing this calms down our amygdala and this creates space for our pre-frontal cortex, our thinking brain, to work.

If you think of our amygdala as a smoke alarm, when we recognise and acknowledge the emotion we’re experiencing, we turn off and reset this ‘danger radar’. It’s like saying: “Got it - thanks for the warning – I’ll look into the problem now and find a solution.”

My rescuer was also experiencing The Almond Effect®

I took the chance – and kept driving as home was only a few kilometres away. I was extremely fortunate that I made it safely. The next morning, the Roadside Assistance patrol man arrived! He found a roofing nail lodged in the tread of the front tyre.

While he was changing the tyre for me, I mentioned that I had read that his organisation had posted a significant financial loss for the year. The press reported that services and jobs like his were at risk.

In an instant, I saw him in the grip of The Almond Effect®. My helpful rescuer told me what he and his co-workers were thinking. He said they had found out about the financial losses through the press and a voicemail after the announcement had been made.

He said that the drivers figure that crunch time for jobs and services will be in about 18 months time when the EBA comes up for renewal.

And as they, the drivers, thought about it some more, they believed this was all going to be about the EBA due for renewal in some 18 months time.

The driver continued to tell me all the things that he and his mates had worked out: how much the salary bill was for the patrol drivers, what the membership income was, how much the organisation had spent on a failed business venture, how many jobs will be lost, that the organisation really just wanted to bring in contractors, and so on. He also talked about the CEO and his failures (so they perceived) in other companies and how they believed that he was taking this organisation down the same path.

I’m sure much of it their number-crunching came from ‘back of the beer-mat’ calculations that may or may not be correct but their fears and disillusionment with the organisation were very real.

Communication vacuums breed fear

I don’t know what information the organisation has shared with its employees nor if anything that the driver told me is true. But what I do know from this conversation is that this driver’s ‘almonds’ (amygdalae) and those of his mates were aroused and on high alert as a result of the stories in the newspapers.

As a consequence, they were automatically in fight/flight mode, thinking of the worst possible outcomes and preparing to defend themselves from the ‘threat.’

I have seen this situation in many of the organisations that I have worked with. What results is that employees start focussing so much on the perceived threat that they take their attention away from their main priority i.e. doing their jobs to the best level they can – to the detriment of all stakeholders.

How many of you work in organisations where an information vacuum is created or misinformation spreads? For example, management is so busy protecting itself from external threats – what will shareholders and/or analysts say – that they lose sight of a major internal threat, namely how staff will react if they have to learn about their future from the media?

Leaders have to hold their nerve

Although the worst of the global economic crisis appears to be over, fear and anxiety in employees remains high.

This is one of those critical times when leaders need self-discipline to Stop and Think before they Act. This will be hard if the leader is enduring The Almond Effect® but doesn’t realise it.

That could happen if they aren’t aware of The Almond Effect® and the role the amygdala plays even in non-life threatening situations. Or they haven’t developed the skill of recognising and responding appropriately to the physiological signs that our fight/flight response activates before our conscious brain kicks in.

Understanding this automatic brain activity is a fundamental component of developing self-awareness. And self-awareness is the core skill that distinguishes effective leaders from the rest.

How to do it
Self-aware leaders learn how to catch themselves in the clutches of The Almond Effect® before it clouds their judgment. This way they mostly avoid making poor decisions based primarily on irrational emotional responses not cognitive thinking.

There is no magic bullet to develop this skill. It’s takes commitment and practice. One way to start is to reflect on a past decision that didn’t deliver the outcome you had hoped for – this is Rewiring in STAR. It provides an opportunity to assess whether you would have made a different decision if you were in control of your emotions.

What were you feeling at that time? If you find it hard to remember exactly, recreate as much of the context and the situation as you can. It helps to describe it to someone or out loud to yourself. Write it down if you prefer. As you do this, your brain will take you back to that time and place and you will be able to recognise your emotions at the time.

When you have a handle on these, ask yourself whether the emotions were helpful or unhelpful? If they were unhelpful, where could they have been coming from? What could have triggered them? If you can, keep exploring until you work out whether the unhelpful emotions were based on some past experience. Then explore the similarities between the past experience and the one in which you didn’t make the best decision. There will be some fruitful learning in that.

Sometimes it’s not easy to find the source of the trigger. In that case, and in any event, train yourself to recognise your emotional state at any time and to Stop-Think-Act-Rewire. If you don’t then don’t be surprised if anxiety and other related emotions cloud your judgment and interfere with your best decision making skills.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

CLUES Sharks, trains and brains


I’ll be twittering in future! Quick tips and examples of The Almond Effect® and what to do about it. Help me get started. Follow me on Twitter

Alone at the station

8.15pm - alone on a long empty platform waiting for the 8.30pm train from London Paddington to Heathrow. Another person appeared. He had the entire platform to choose a spot to wait but he came and stood next to me. My heart started to race.

‘Stop it’ I said to my amygdala.

‘Calm down’ I said to my hypothalamus but it continued to flood my body with adrenaline.

All my amygdalae could see was a “young man of middle eastern appearance with a backpack.”

My pre-frontal cortex was appalled and embarrassed at my limbic system response. My cortex had no idea whether the young man was from the Middle East or not – and even if he was, so what?

I took deep breaths. I kept telling myself that my reaction was irrational and that my body should calm down.

Stop Think Act.

Eventually the 8.30pm train arrived. I stepped on, sat down and my heart rate slowed. I started to Rewire...

Deep in the ocean

Two months later, off the Neptune Islands in South Australia I was in a cage heading towards the ocean floor hoping to get up close and personal with some Great White Sharks.

One came soon enough - ‘Cheeky Girl’ – 4.2 metres and 1000 kg. She was BIG! And I saw her many teeth as she passed several times within a metre of me while she attempted to snatch the bait hanging off the back of the boat!

The 30 minutes in the cage passed in a flash.

But did my life flash before my eyes?

Back on board I realised that my heart rate had not increased at all when I came face to face with this enormous predator. All I felt was awe and wonder as I watched one of the most amazing animals I have ever seen.

So what was the difference? Why did I experience the fight/flight response so fully on a London train platform but not at all when within touching distance of a Great White Shark?

Preparing for sharks – the type we find at work

The answer lies in preparation and learning (Rewiring) from experience.

Some of you will recall from previous CLUES that I searched for GWS once before. But even with 3 days of turning the ocean red with burly including tuna heads, blood and guts – no shark appeared on that trip. So much for ‘blood in the water attracts sharks!’

However what we did do on that ‘no show’ trip was to talk a lot about GWS with experts, practice descents in the cage, watch videos, look at GWS photos and listen to research – all of which prepared us for the recent trip – and took away the fear.

In contrast, the man on the platform was a complete surprise. It was the end of a fabulous trip to the UK; I had just been shopping in Oxford Street and was looking forward to returning to Sydney.

I simply wasn’t focussed on what was happening on the platform or that any risks or dangers could be lurking there.

So I was unprepared for the possibility that a man could appear on the platform and trigger an ANT (automatic negative thought) that cracked my almonds (amygdalae) with a sledgehammer!

And I had no previous experience from which to train my amygdala not to react to a racist stereotype automatically stored in my brain’s ‘database of nasty things’ after September 11, 2001.

Face the fear and defuse the almonds

At work, ‘the man on the platform’ might turn up as a surprise outburst from the boss; an urgent deadline abruptly imposed; a retrenchment to be made, a dramatic fall in share price or an unanticipated cut in funding.

But ‘Cheeky Girl’ could show up when you anticipate the performance appraisal next week, a future presentation to the Board, an interview for a promotion, the switch over to a new system.

In other words, there will be some sudden and unexpected events that will catch us off guard. At those times, it is likely that we’ll experience The Almond Effect® - the fight/flight response - even though our lives are not at risk.

When that happens, use the STAR technique – and focus especially on Rewiring afterwards – what can you learn from the experience? The more times you experience something confronting, the less confronting it becomes. Your amygdala learns that it is nothing to be overly concerned about.

But do not beat yourself up for reacting even though your pre-frontal cortex knows you should not have. We are hard wired for survival and our amygdalae do not know the difference between physical and psychological threats.

However when you know that a ‘scary’ situation is coming up (Cheeky Girl) – do everything you can to minimise the impact of The Almond Effect® by preparing as much as possible. Show your amygdala that there are no potentially fatal consequences to what you are about to do.

Then perhaps you’ll even enjoy coming face to face with your Great White Shark

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

CLUES Gmail and Dare Iced Coffee fix The Almond Effect

In this edition of CLUES, we look at two examples of STAR in action – Gmail and Dare Iced Milk. Then we see how it applies to leaders – or not!

‘I wish I hadn’t sent that’: Gmail now using STAR

The whole point of learning STAR, the antidote to The Almond Effect®, is to stop ourselves acting impulsively, in the wrong way, at the wrong time, for the wrong reason, when something stirs us up or catches us off-guard.

In the Gmail Labs, there is a fabulous tool that is doing just that. It gives us a second chance to Stop and Think before we send an email we will regret.

Turn on the ‘Undo Send’ feature in Gmail then when you hit ‘send’, Gmail will pause for 5 seconds before actually sending the email. If you realise in that time (and we usually know in an instant when we have done something and wish we hadn’t), you press simply ‘Undo’ and Gmail redirects the email to your draft box. Email not sent - no harm done!

It’s STAR in action

If you’re looking for an example of (assisted!) STAR in action, this is it: Stop, Think, Act, Rewire.

Gmail Stops the sending for you, giving you time to Think about what you’ve just done and what your real intention and the consequences might be.

It gives you 5 seconds to Act and press ‘undo’ if necessary. And if you press ‘undo’ it pops it back into your Drafts box so you can Rewire i.e. review and rewrite the email til it’s ready for you to send.

Now all we want is an ‘undo send’ mechanism for our mouths, facial expressions and our body language!

Watch The Almond Effect® in action

One of the recent ads for Dare Iced Coffee is all about The Almond Effect®.

Watch the imaginary fearful outcomes the guy’s 'almonds' (amygdalae) trigger in the split second after the woman says “hey babe, can we grab a coffee?” And see him use STAR to suggest an alternative course of action that will keep him out of harm’s way! Watch it here

What sets leaders (and losers) apart

The July 2009 Vol 10 edition of Boss magazine published its list of Young Executives of the Year

What was interesting was the list of tendencies of those who didn’t have what it takes to get on the list:

* Have good ideas but lack the ability to execute them
* Have closed discussions and make assumptions
* Derail frequently and let the dark side of their personality affect their work and relationships at work
* Be arrogant rather than inclusive
* Miss opportunities to use empathy
* Micro-manage instead of delegate
* Be impulsive rather than evidence based in decision
* Lack perception about how others are feeling
* Get confused about managing who they are as people and what’s required in the role

Almost everything on the list stems from inadequate insights about themselves, what makes them who they are and their affect on others – in other words self-leadership.

A huge component of that involves The Almond Effect® - understanding how the stressors and challenges of everyday life trigger our primitive survival (flight/fight/flock/freeze) instincts.

The best leaders know that each one of us is the sum of our experiences and that, unless we monitor our behaviours and actions, our brains are hardwired will take us by shortest, most well trodden route to action. This is fine if the action is appropriate but not fine if we end up reacting in ways that are inappropriate either for others or for ourselves.

The change organ

Our brains can and do change – it’s called neuroplasticity. However, it takes courage to deeply examine what makes us tick and triggers our immediate non-thinking behaviours.

Changing embedded patterns of behaviour can be hard without determination and practice.

We can change our brains by changing our minds. But you have to stay on track. Understanding The Almond Effect® and mastering STAR helps you do that.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

CLUES Worried about job security?

This edition is about keeping yourself and your people calm when jobs are under threat

Are you feeling secure in your job? How about your partner? Or your children or parents or friends?

And what about your team? Your colleagues? Your boss?

On the basis of reports about the predicted increase in unemployment rates over the next year or two, the fallout from the GFC (global financial crisis) shows little sign of easing.

Stimulus payouts and other Government initiatives may provide some financial assistance in the short term but will do little to ease the day to day anxiety, stress and uncertainty that many people feel as they go to work wondering: “Will I still have my job tomorrow?”

Have you seen it all before?

For some CLUES readers, you have lived through periods of recession when redundancies were prolific. And we hoped we would never see the likes of, for example, the early 1990’s, again.

But if we do have to go through it again, we must hope that organisations learn from those past experiences and remember that making large numbers of people redundant often ripped out the organisational heart and deleted large chunks of corporate memory.

Redundancies may deliver a short term financial solution but is false economy if past experience is anything to go by. In the long term not only can they can significant impede capacity to compete swiftly again once the economy improves but in the short term the impact on morale and productivity can be significant and self-defeating.

The same applies when training programs are cut out.

Or is this your first time?

For other CLUES readers, aged under 35, this is new territory. After over 25 years of strong economic times, of abundance, growth and wealth, the global economy has gone through an unprecedented negative turnaround.

Consequently even though you may have been told your job is safe, uncertainty and worries about job security are likely to lurk in your back of your mind and niggle at you.

If you haven’t been re-assured and are seeing your workforce being reduced, these worries will be front of mind.

If you were reassured that jobs were safe but saw people lose their jobs anyway, then not only will the trust factor have plummeted but it’s going to be hard to contain your anxiety levels and still perform well – thus increasing your anxiety and so the vicious cycle goes on.

For an even younger group of people (teens and under 25), used to change as a way of life, the GFC has brought a whopping lifestyle modification with it. For many, gone are the days of extravagant living and job-hopping, of being able to pick, choose and change jobs at will.

Holding on to the job you’ve got is now the name of the game for many young Australians. At the very least they are concerned for their friends.

Managing the people around you

The Almond Effect® is when our brains activate the flight/flight mode for the wrong reasons. We are not about to die but as our amygdala can’t tell the difference between a physical threat and a psychological threat to our survival it sets off its armies of adrenaline, hormones and other chemicals to enable us to repel the threat or get well away from it.

So if despite assurances or logical analysis, our amygdalae sense a threat to job security and/or the need to keep performing well to hold on to a job, be prepared for increased stress and anxiety levels which, unless managed, will impede performance anyway.

Your best approach is to look for signs of the flight/fight mode in yourself and the people around you. Then you can deal with it.

What you might see

Here are some examples of the kinds of behaviours you might see:

* Unanswered phones
* Increased conflict and disputes
* Sharp barbed responses
* Lethargy
* Increased gossiping
* Martyr like behaviour
* People coming to work when they are sick
* Fun has gone
* Reduced motivation
* Busyness increases but strategic thinking diminishes
* Lack of focus
* Inability to concentrate or retain information
* Short temperedness
* Lack of confidence
* Not taking on new challenges
* Not taking holidays

A free ebook of Strategies for Success from Leading Experts in Personal and Professional Development is yours if you send me your examples of The Almond Effect® in your life at work or at home Click here

What to do about it?

When people are anxious they need the truth. Without honest information, people fill the vacuum with fears and concerns. They also need an opportunity to share their anxieties even if you have to supportively coax that out of them.

What does NOT work is avoid talking about the situation, lying or fudging the truth or trying to maintain a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude.

So here are some tips:

* Share information – keep people up to date with what you know. And it’s better to over communicate than not share enough. It’s rare that an employee will tell you to stop talking to them about what’s going on.

* Acknowledge concerns and create opportunities to discuss them either one on one or in person. Don’t brush this ‘under the carpet’.

* Look for the warning signs (like those above) that people are stressed or anxious. They might deny it but amygdalae don’t shut off just because we want to hide our feelings.

* Consult with your people about how to handle situations and challenges. Not only will they probably have great ideas but it also dampens down The Almond Effect and shows that you value their input.

* Lead by example and stay positive. This means using your STAR skills (Stop-Think-Act-Rewire). Remember that emotions are contagious.

* Stick to your values – personal and organisational. People will pick up inconsistencies in a heartbeat and that ignites The Almond Effect.

* Keep yourself fit, stay calm and eat properly. Get rid of your own excess adrenaline and stress hormones. Walk, run, swim, play football – whatever works for you, just use up those fight/flight chemicals that are hanging around in your bloodstream. As the safety demonstration on planes tell us- look after yourself first so that you can help others.

* Educate your people about The Almond Effect® and what to do about it. Click here to contact Anne about how she can help you do this.

"If you want to be impressed with a depth of expertise, stimulated by new understanding about yourself and leadership and entertained, then Anne should be top of your list.

The impact of her presentation has lived on beyond the day. Some of our leaders are experimenting with her ideas and concepts, especially in the context of strengthening positive relationships with their staff and having some new tools to help with tough issues. Tim Robinson, Executive Manager Corporate Support, Fairfield City Council”

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

CLUES What Sharks teach us about Decision-Making

Two questions for you:

1. Do you consider yourself to be a good decision maker? Yes or No?

2. Would you go swimming at the world famous Bondi Beach where a shark attack occurred earlier this year? The beach has been closed on a number of occasions since because a shark has been spotted in the area? Yes or No?

If you answered Yes to question one and No to question 2 then I want you to reconsider your first answer. Are you really a good decision-maker?

Risk, reality and The Almond Effect®

Many people answer No to the second question because of The Almond Effect® which compromises our ability to evaluate risk because we are not thinking clearly, if at all.

The chances of getting killed by a shark are infinitesimally small. The recent non-fatal attack on Bondi Beach was the first in 86 years.

The fatality rate in the early 20th century was 3.8 a year in Australia. In the early 21st century that statistic has decreased to 1.2 deaths each year Australia wide even though every year, due to population increases, better transport and a continuing love of the outdoors, a greater number of people swim in the ocean, race in ocean swim challenges (like me!), paddle beyond the break on surf boards, dive and snorkel, kayak and fish dangling bait off the back of boats.

And of course, there are other reasons for the decreased mortality rates including smaller shark populations, netted beaches, no sewerage being dumped off the coast, faster rescues (if you’re at a patrolled beach) and better emergency medical care.

Decision making involves the assessment of risk

So logically, there is very little risk at all if you are one of the thousands of people who every week, 52 weeks a year, year in year out, swim at Bondi, one beach out of 35,000 kms of Australian coastline.

But our brains are hard-wired for survival and most of our amygdalae have seen Jaws or at least heard of it. Or have picked up on other people’s fear of sharks and so, just to be on the safe side, our brains have popped these images and fears into our own databases of things to be frightened of.

Lodge this data into your thinking brain:

In 2000 – 2006 the number of deaths caused by:
* Horses: 40
* Cows: 20
* Dogs: 12
* Sharks: 10
* Snakes: 3 - 4
* Bees: 2 - 3
* Road accidents: 1616 (in 2007)

* Drowning: 400 times greater risk than being taken by a shark

* Shark experts’ assessment of risk of being attacked by a shark: 264.1 million to 1

Source: AFR Jan 31- Feb 1 2009 quoting NCIS statistics

Logically it is much safer to swim at Bondi than to do almost anything else, including travelling by any means to get there. But unless you are a STAR and have mastered your primeval hard-wiring, my guess is that, even if you do get safely to the beach and go into the water, you now stay close to shore and stay between the red flags – and the Lifeguards are grateful for that!

Emotions, Decision Making and Veto power

The link between sharks and decision making is that you can’t make decisions in the absence of feelings. People who say they can are either kidding themselves, have learned the art of managing their emotions or simply don’t know what the neuroscientists tell us about the way our brain works.

The key to good decision making is to acknowledge and deal with the feelings attached to any decision in a calm considered way and not simply by default. Let me explain.

We know from the work of Joseph le Doux that healthy brains react emotionally first. We‘ve covered this before in previous editions of CLUES.

Our brain’s default position is to minimize danger and maximize reward.

But Benjamin Libet who conducted various neuroscientific experiments from 1983 until his death in 2007 gave us another piece of the brain puzzle. He concluded that we have the power of Veto over our brain’s default position.

This Veto power is at the heart of the STAR method for managing The Almond Effect® - training ourselves to choose our response to a situation as opposed to simply reacting without thinking.

Libet found (and other researchers have subsequently confirmed) that from the moment something enters our brains through our senses for processing until the moment we become consciously aware of it and have a desire to respond is about .2 to .3 of a second.

Libet says we will respond to that stimulus on default in about .5 of a second.

That means we have about .2 of a second to recognise the stimulus for what it is, then choose to override the default position and select the best course of action to take to get the best outcomes.

So in a situation where our amygdala perceives a threat (eg a snake or a piece of black hosepipe), we have .2 of a second to ascertain whether it is a real threat or simply The Almond Effect® kicking in – to ascertain whether the ‘threat’ is truly imperilling our lives or it just feels like it at that instant on the limbic system’s fast and cursory review of past experiences.

In that .2 of a second we can go with the default reaction (jump back or hit it with a spade) or choose what not to do i.e. exercise a power of Veto over our brain’s automatic survival mechanism by quickly focussing attention on the object, registering that it’s just a piece of pipe and therefore choosing to ignore it.

Veto Power in action

What this means is that whether we are about to go swimming at Bondi Beach or are confronted with an angry employee, a request for a ‘quick meeting’ from the boss, a ‘can I talk to you’ phone call from your spouse, an imminent performance management meeting, a ‘look’ from your manager or any number of situations that your amygdala can misinterpret, we have .2 of a second to focus attention and then choose our response.

For an instant we can be a fly on the wall, an impartial observer, someone on the outside looking in.

We can then simply do nothing and go with our default flight/fight/freeze or flock reaction.

Or we can be a STAR. We can Stop – notice that our amygdala is on red alert - we might be shaking, heart racing, blushing, feeling instantly sick etc. Then Think – i.e. do something to calm ourselves down so we can access the logical part of our brains. Only then will we Act, do what we choose to do. Later on, we’ll Rewire, reflect on the situation, on what we learned and embed the positive responses or think of ways to prevent any unhelpful reactions.

What kinds of decisions are being made during the GFC?

Personally I’m much more concerned with bluebottles than sharks. And I’m much more concerned about the decisions of some employers and managers in the current global financial crisis, who may be failing to acknowledge and take into account the impact that their personal fears and insecurities on the quality of their decision-making. These are people who do not understand the power of Veto and the STAR methodology.

Coaches and Mentors have a major role to play here, to hold up a mirror of reflection and ask decision-makers to honestly assess the feelings that they have that underlie the decisions they make.

However it happens, assessing the impact of our emotions and experiences on our decisions would be a significant step forward in the challenge to rebuild confidence in our economic future. Share the concept of the Veto power and STAR with decision-makers everywhere you can. And don’t be afraid to go swimming at Bondi Beach!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Clues on Uncertainty- the biggest fear of all

Uncertainty is the most crippling fear we can experience. But we create uncertainty ourselves, no-one does it to us. So if we
can create it, we can learn to manage it. Listen now for the CLUES you need.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

CLUES Are you worried about money?

There has never been a more important time to be emotionally strong and mentally tough, to control your amygdala rather than the other way around.

Job cuts are now announced daily. We see iconic brand employers laying off staff. We watch well known retailers closing their doors. Does it cross your mind: “will I be next?”

In most organisations you will be under pressure to cut costs, reduce budgets, remain competitive, deal with your employees’ uncertainty and stress as well as your own and yet still manage your team’s performance for strong results in an economy lacking in confidence and optimism.

And how are things at home?

We haven’t even started to talk about the pressures and decisions you might be faced with at home.

If you have young kids – how do they ‘get it’ that in the course of six months, the ground has shifted under things they took for granted.

If you have parents – are they fretting about the drop in the value of their superannuation fund – in some cases of 50% or more. At least with our parents, many of them lived through tough economic times before – and if they can keep their ‘almonds’ under control, they’ll know it’s cyclical. But who would blame them for saying – I may not have time to wait out the cycle!

Don’t succumb to The Almond Effect®

It would be easy to give in to fear and alarm. That’s what your amygdala wants you to do. That’s what The Almond Effect® is all about. It’s the stronger and dominating emotional response – it’s automatic while being calm and optimistic requires a deliberate choice.

Remember it is The Almond Effect® that initially caused (and is still causing) people to react to appalling financial events way out of proportion to the threat that existed at that time. I strongly hold the view that this global financial and economic mess is the result of uncontrolled panic and fear reactions to perceived threats that in many cases were not real – but our reactions have now given those fears substance and reality.

I want him on my plane

In stark contrast think about the way Captain Sullenberger landed Flight 1549 in the Hudson River on January 18 saving the lives of all 155 people on board.

Through his training and experience, the pilot showed complete mastery over the potential disastrous consequences of The Almond Effect®. Using his pre-frontal cortex (PFC) he over-rode his amygdala – and focussed on acting calmly and logically to get the best possible outcome to the crisis. I am sure that the passengers and crew were also very happy that he also glided planes for a hobby!

Yes we can

The saving of Flight 1549 was an example of self-control in a life threatening situation. You too can do this and rule your amygdala - especially in challenging but not actually life threatening situations such as the ones the economy is creating right now.

Lack of confidence, fear about the future – you can discipline yourself to think rationally and with hope about what this really means for you. Learn to ‘Flick the Switch’.

Flick the Switch

Here is an introduction to one of the tools we use when teaching the STAR method for mastery of The Almond Effect®. It is a simple process that we can use to respond thoughtfully rather than react emotionally.

I created the tool based on research from neuroscientists showing that a conscious act such as naming our emotions produces a decrease in amygdalic activity and an opportunity for the PFC to assert control. It is a clear example of STAR in action Stop - Think – Act – Rewire.

You’ll learn to do this quickly in your head but do it on paper the first time and at any time when you want to really take the time to think through what’s worrying you.

Create it as a flow chart for optimum visual impact.

What’s worrying me most at the moment?
Can I control it?

Best outcome?
How can I work towards this?
Physical actions? Now/future?
State of mind needed? Now/future?
What does the change and outcome look like?
Activate feeling or behaviour!
Triggers/techniques to Flick the Switch!

Worst outcome
How can I work to minimize this?
Physical actions? Now/future?
State of mind needed? Now/future?
What does the change and outcome look like?
Activate feeling or behaviour!
Triggers/techniques to Flick the Switch!

What can I do to manage my stress?
Physical actions? Now/future?
State of mind needed? Now/future?
What does the change and outcome look like?
Activate feeling or behaviour!
Triggers/techniques to Flick the Switch!

We expand, explore and practice these steps in our workshops. If you want more information on our workshops and tools, let me know.

Stop reacting, start responding at work

A major concern I have about the rapid increase in redundancies and sackings is the message it sends not just about the organisation’s lack of loyalty and compassion but its lack of leadership insight, courage, tenacity and strategic thinking. Not just to the retrenched but to all staff and customers.

We’ve been through it before in the 80’s and the 90’s. Mass redundancies and layoffs in a panic situation resulting in lowered engagement, innovation, teamwork and performance – everything that organisations in the 00s have invested in.

And will organisational history repeat itself? In the past, these actions resulted in bringing about the very things they thought they would avoid including increased costs, poor retention, low engagement and re-hiring on a more expensive basis.

Clever organisations and thoughtful leaders will react strategically at this time. They will not be frightened. They will see it as an opportunity to review, change and revisit the existing way of doing things. They will make hard but wise decisions with a view to the future as well as the short-term. They will respond not react.

And most importantly of all, they will stay the course back to prosperity and success. That will take intestinal fortitude on their part and yours.

Stop reacting, start responding at home

It’s a similar message for home. If you apply the same thinking you’ll insert a pause before acting, you’ll consciously take time to reflect and plan your responses, you won’t panic, fret and stress.

STAR tools can help you achieve that ability– based on neuroscientific research that is unlocking doors into the reasons why people behave the way they do – and what to do about it.

Scared again - I’m practising what I preach

This weekend I am swimming in the scary 2.7km ocean swim from Palm Beach to Whale Beach – my response to the cancer-related deaths of family and friends and for so many other friends who are dealing with this dreadful disease.

Thank you to the many of you have supported me with your words and your sponsorship in my quest to raise funds for Cancer Research. Perhaps the short video I sent influenced that - see it at

In any event I want you to know that I am Flicking the Switch every time I think about the swim. If I wasn’t actively using STAR tools, I know I would be feeling sick (and wanting to break a leg or something so I didn’t have to do it) at the thought of Sunday. The adrenaline is still running I can assure you but I am visualising what it will be like to emerge from the sea at Whale Beach in one piece and constantly Flicking the Switch to that feeling.

I’ll let you know how I go.

You can still be part of Team Anne

And it’s not too late to sponsor me – it truly adds to the motivation I need to conquer The Almond Effect® and get into the water. Please go to to be part of Team Anne as my wonderful supporters call themselves. I would be really appreciative of any contribution no matter how small.

Hope you enjoyed this edition of CLUES.

Till next time, take care.