While films often show confident, assertive leaders, real life does not always emulate art. Depending on social customs and beliefs, many people and even those in leadership positions may find it difficult to assert themselves. There are strategies, however, that can help people overcome the urge to be silent and resist speaking up.
Children emulate those around them, and this often includes biases and social mannerisms. The saying “children should be seen and not heard” can have lasting results for some, especially if there were consequences for speaking out. Overcoming the programming from childhood days can be challenging and may require a great deal of effort.
UNDERSTANDING THE PROCESS BEHIND THE SILENCE
Neural circuits are particularly plastic, or malleable, in very young children. Toxic stress, which results in the constant and prolonged activation of the stress system in the body, can negatively affect brain architecture, including regions of the brain involved in anxiety and fear. This conditioning may cause children to become fearful in situations when there is no real threat present.1
Neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have shown how easily people can be trapped in the survivor’s mind. The amygdala, the part of the brain that controls memories, emotions, and survival instincts, kicks in when a threat is perceived, even if the “threat” isn’t a wild animal about to attack, but merely a question asked in a boardroom meeting. Expanding the capacity of the prefrontal cortex, which allows for complex cognitive processes, can help mitigate the fight-or-flight amygdala, which can cause people to freeze instead of asserting themselves.2
“It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.”
Madeleine K. Albright
THE HOT AND COLD OF THE BRAIN
People mostly interact with the world in a cold system or one that is thoughtful and deliberate. The prefrontal cortex dominates, so thinking is logical and better decisions can be made. In contrast, the amygdala is in control when people are in a hot system, and actions are based on impulses and biases instead of facts.3
To compound matters, a recent study highlighted the tightrope that exists for men and especially women who attempt to be assertive. The perceived competency for women fell by thirty-five percent, with a loss of over $15,000 in worth if the woman was thought to be forceful. Men, on the other hand, had a decrease in perceived competency by twenty-two percent & a drop in perceived worth of around $6,5004.
Therefore, leaders need to develop the skills needed to speak up when the prefrontal cortex is in control without crossing over into a realm that is inhibitive in business. This balancing act may take practice to develop.
WAYS TO SPEAK UP AND BE YOUR OWN ADVOCATE
If you don’t stand up for yourself, then it’s likely that no one will. To prepare for a situation that is causing anxiety or fear, consider these ways to advocate for yourself.
- Practice beforehand. If speaking up is difficult, practice first. Think about what you want to say and what points you need to make. Practice in front of a mirror, your dog, or a houseplant. Record yourself and then watch the recording. Keep yourself calm so that a more balanced state guides your thoughts.
- Find your calm place. Breathing can help control a racing, anxious brain. If you constantly find yourself in panic mode, stop to breathe. A deep breath can increase the capacity to handle physical, emotional and physiological stress.5
- Be the best, most authentic version of yourself. When the amygdala claims control, it’s easy to lash out and say things that we don’t necessarily mean. When interacting with others, leave a frail ego, or an overly sensitive one, at the door. At the end of the day, you have only yourself to answer to.
- Therapy. If you find it too difficult to overcome societal norms or customs that you grew up with, consider therapy. Learning to stand up for yourself is no small challenge, and a helping hand is available if you reach out.
It is possible for leaders to overcome the conditioning in the amygdala that triggers fear when confrontation or assertiveness is required. Learning how to communicate effectively is an important skill for any leader. Developing a strong prefrontal cortex can help promote a calm and more confident state, giving you the courage to speak up when you need.
1. The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain. Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. 2014;Working Paper
3. Available at: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2005/05/Stress_Disrupts_Architecture_Developing_Brain-1.pdf
2. McLennan K. Building Leaders for the Imagination Age: The Case for the i4 Neuroleader Model. About my Brain Institute. 2016;1. [White Paper].
3. Caprino K. Gender Bias Is Real: Women’s Perceived Competency Drops Significantly When Judged As Being Forceful. Forbes . 2015. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kathycaprino/2015/08/25/gender-bias-is-real-womens-perceived-competency-drops-significantly-when-judged-as-being-forceful/#399d1d1e2d85
4. Maxfield D, Grenny J, McMillan C. Emotional Inequality: Solutions for women in the workplace. Vital Smarts. 2015. Available at:http://www.vitalsmarts.no/uploads/9/4/6/7/9467257/women-in-the-workplace-ebook.pdf
5. American College of Sports Medicine. Exercise is Medicine Fact Sheet. 2010. Available at:http://exerciseismedicine.org/assets/page_documents/EIMFactSheet_2014.pdf