Managers who are feeling stressed or burnt out can unwittingly jeopardise their entire team’s engagement, according to a neuroleadership expert, who warns that emotions are contagious.

EnHansen Performance founder Kristen Hansen explains in a recent HR Daily webinar that the “organising principle” of the brain is to minimise danger and maximise reward.

The brain scans the environment for potential threats and rewards five times every second, and can enter a “threat state” without people even realising it, she says.

A threat state impairs performance and is associated with negative emotions such as frustration, anger and worry, while a “reward state” is conducive to peak performance and associated with positive emotions, such as calmness, curiosity and happiness.

“The key here is the threat response produces much more of a narrow process. We physically have a peripheral vision that narrows when we’re in a threat state. We’re more risk averse, we have less insights, we’re less connected, and we’re problem-focused – versus being in a reward state where we’re broad-focused, open to risk, have more insights, are more connected, and are solution-focused,” Hansen says.

Hansen, whose clients include Google, the Department of Defence and Westpac, says that whether managers realise it or not, emotions are part of every decision they make.

Emotions that leaders aren’t even conscious of having could be triggering threat responses that impair their employees’ performance, she says.

“A lot of managers don’t understand their emotions are contagious.

“If emotions are contagious and we’re feeling flat, or we’re feeling stressed or burnt out ourselves, we need to be cognisant that we’re spreading that to the team. One threat state in a team member can immediately create a threat state, in any meeting, for the entire team.”

The team will then be less likely to connect and produce insight, and will be more risk averse, Hansen says.

“If managers themselves are experiencing threat and not able to regulate those emotions effectively, they’re already on a downward spiral with how they’re making people feel,” she says.

“Recognising their own state and the extent to which they’re having an impact on creating threat and reward for others is really an important part of engagement.”

Great leaders are intentional in the way they interact with staff – “the mood they’re in, how they deal with setbacks, how they show that they can deal with change, even if it’s impacting them as well”, she says.

Use language that promotes growth

It is also important for managers to encourage employees to have a growth mindset, Hansen says, drawing on the work of author and psychologist Dr Carol Dweck.

“A growth mindset is one where intelligence can be developed; people believe that they will embrace challenges and they will persist despite the obstacles; they have patience, and they see that if they put more effort in, they will get more out of themselves and they will get to mastery,” she says.

Employees with a fixed mindset, on the other hand, say things such as, “I’m good at this, I’m not good at that”, “I don’t run”, “I’m a procrastinator”, “I can’t do maths”, and this attitude limits their ability.

Leaders can encourage a growth mindset by changing the way they speak to their employees, Hansen says.

Instead of saying, “you’re really good at analysis, but you’re not good at communicating that analysis”, a leader might say, “you’ve put a lot of effort into analysis this year, what would it be like if you put that same amount of effort into communication?”

“What we’re doing is saying: you can develop that skill; that’s not something you are either good or bad at,” she explains.