Mindful Humans

Do your colleagues feel safe around you?


Whether we are aware of it or not, our brain is constantly on the lookout for threats because we are genetically made to be anxious. However, if we arouse worry around us, we deprive others of their abilities to think and solve problems.

Whether we run away or fight is an instinctive way to react, many anxiety-inducing situations at work require us to call upon our rational faculties to remedy the situation. However, these are reduced to a whisper when great worry captivates all our attention.


The Brain: In Constant Search for Safety

Imagine for a moment two cavemen in front of a bush whose branches suddenly start shaking. The first, of an anxious nature, runs away. The other, unflappable, stays put… and is devoured by the wild beast hiding in it. Thus, it was the most fearful who survived and had the leisure to pass their genes on to the next generations, with the result that the evolution of Homo sapiens selected and propagated… the anxiety gene.

Even today, our brain seeks safety. Although, in our era, the dangers that lurk generally do not threaten our survival or physical integrity, we are still subjected to repeated and sustained stress. Our anxiety can then suddenly wake up in our interactions with others or with our environment. From then on, our intellectual faculties are paralyzed, all our attention being absorbed by the tsunami of negative emotions that invades us. Result: our ability to react wisely and solve problems efficiently is greatly affected.


An Emotional Hijacking Harms Our Rational Faculties

We are largely unconscious creatures; according to neuroscience, about 90%.

Indeed, our five senses are subjected to an average of 11 million pieces of information per second. However, we only process about 40 of them in that same timeframe. By limiting the processing of information that assaults us, our brain preserves precious energy, because it’s a fact: thinking rationally demands great attention and sustained effort.

By focusing on the few pieces of information that our attention settles on, the brain thus becomes economical. However, it would be wrong to believe that it does not process, at least partially, the rest of the information surrounding us. By analogy, by association with past experiences and the world models we have created, it draws conclusions without any conscious effort on our part. The emotions and thoughts that then emerge come from the intuitive process of human thought.

Take a specific example.

Your supervisor contacts you because there is an urgent incident to resolve. Concentrated as you are on his words, and already absorbed by the search for solutions to the problem, you see your attention entirely captivated by your conscious efforts of rational thinking. In parallel, you analyze, undoubtedly unconsciously, the mindset of your supervisor, because your brain is always in search of safety. In each of your interactions with others, it wonders if the person in front of you represents a danger.

Your senses intuitively detect the present tension and stress level, but also the aggressiveness and anger of your boss. His non-verbal and paraverbal languages are threatening. And if this superior has caused great stress on your side in the past, then your brain believes it is threatened.

Anxiety rises in you, but you only realize it when it reaches a very high level, because your thoughts were until then absorbed by your rational process. Your breathing accelerates, your breath shortens, your solar plexus contracts; you sweat, your face tenses… and you suddenly realize that your thoughts are no longer focused on solving the problem, but rather completely absorbed by this intuitive perception of danger.

“Will I manage? Does my boss think it’s my fault? Where should I start? Do I have the required skills? Will I lose my job?”

This significant emotional state can be a form of “emotional hijacking” that makes memorization and reflection difficult. It has been shown that negative emotions, beyond a certain point, reduce our field of attention and reflection.

Indeed, to go back to the previously mentioned case, all your attention being suddenly diverted by your emotions, you no longer have the necessary resources to think rationally, which, you will agree, benefits no one: neither you, nor your supervisor, nor your company.

This example illustrates that our unconscious then has all the latitude to instill emotions that absorb our attention, at the expense of our conscious efforts to think.

In such a context, you will surely eventually regain control of your emotions, but as long as you are in this state, you are not able to function at your maximum capacity.

The perception of danger varies from person to person because it depends on our past experiences. But being aware of the effects of a threat on a person’s ability to think raises the fundamental question:


Are you perceived as a threat?

As a leader or even as a colleague, we sometimes give ourselves the right to openly express our states of mind. And because a leader is more observed than other team members, their impact on others is magnified.


  • Expressing our disappointment, our anger, or our stress;
  • Disavowing an employee in front of the team;
  • Blaming another for a problem;
  • Raising our voice;
  • Insisting on the delays caused to the team…


Some of these behaviors are becoming less and less socially acceptable. Others, more subtle, are no less disturbing.

From the neuroscience perspective, they are totally counterproductive.


Helping Others Feel Safe

When the situation requires calling upon all the thinking and innovation capacity of our colleagues, we have everything to gain by managing our own emotions so that these individuals feel safe. Believing that we must put undue pressure on them to achieve results more quickly is a mistake.

Obviously, it is necessary to clarify the urgency of a task and explain its importance – and what it means not to achieve it on time –, but we have the choice to do so by creating a climate of trust and safety. Let’s offer our help if it is needed, and stay attentive to the energy we emit.

In this way, we will put all the chances on our side – and on the side of our collaborators – to arrive quickly at a promising solution.

To be useful to others, let’s help them feel safe. If they feel supported and backed by us, this will elicit in them an emotional state conducive to thinking and problem-solving. As a result, we will achieve our objectives more effectively, in addition to demonstrating leadership that inspires trust.

We are emotional beings who think, not rational beings who have emotions. Let’s not make the mistake of confusing the two.

Key Takeaways
  • To be at their best, humans need to feel safe.
  • As leaders, we are more observed, and our impact on others is significant.
  • Let’s be aware of the climate we create around us.
  • If we do not inspire trust, or worse, if we intimidate the members of our own team, we paralyze their capacity for thinking and innovation.
May we be positive and safe whisperers for the brains of others.

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