In January 2005, the Harvard Business Review published an article called “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform.” Its description of the executive being bombarded by emails, Blackberry beeps, voicemails, constant interruptions, back-to-back meetings and deadlines that never end is all too familiar to most of us. 

This executive is constantly in touch with her business - at least 8 hours a day, seven days a week. Unlike attention deficit disorder (ADD)—a neurological disorder that has a genetic component and can be aggravated by environmental and physical factors—attention deficit trait (ADT) springs entirely from the environment.

Historically, never before has our brain been asked to track so many data points. When the mind is coping, it is being governed effectively by the frontal and prefrontal lobes of the cortex, which guides our decision making and planning, the organisation and prioritisation of information and ideas, and, time management.

When the mind is coping, the deep centres below the frontal lobes that govern basic functions like sleep, hunger, sexual desire, breathing and heart rate, are sending out messages of satisfaction and joy.

These centres are pumping up your attention and motivation and won’t interfere with your working memory, which is what you need - to track the many data points coming in.

But when the brain suddenly has to deal with the sixth decision after the fifth interruption, in the midst of the search for the ninth missing piece of information, on the same day that the third deal has collapsed, - then the brain begins to panic!

It reacts as if it were responding to a sabre-toothed tiger attack. The deep centres now interpret the messages from the frontal lobes by sending alarm signals of fear, panic, anxiety and irritability. The frontal lobes are hijacked by these deep centres’ messages and fail to assert their calm, rational decision making.

Daniel Goleman has coined the term “amygdala hijack”, which is when our deep centres hijack our rational thought and we respond to challenging stimulation with anger, fear and anxiety. We are robbed of our flexibility, our sense of humour and our ability to deal with the unknown.

We forget the big picture and the goals and values for which we stand. We lose our creativity and our ability to change course. We fail to see the choice that humans alone as a species have to react to any situation.

We forget the greatest lesson of Victor Frankl, a German psychiatrist who survived arguably the most horrendous of all human stimulations, the Nazi concentration camp. Frankl wrote about how that, even in the midst of the most dire of all human conditions, we ALWAYS have choice about how we can respond.

We do not have to succumb to the hijack that wants to bypass our rational frontal lobes—IF our minds are in a healthy state capable of pressing that PAUSE button for even just a split second.

Implications on what organisations need to do for their people:

Promote positive emotions through ensuring people are working in teams with support. Apparently, most humans need a “human moment” at least every four hours where they can just talk face-to-face with someone.

This stimulates the deep centres of the brain to send messages through the pleasure centre to the area that assigns calm resources to the decision-making frontal lobes, therefore, supporting the physical care of employees’ brains through sleep, a good diet and exercise.

If you can wake up without an alarm clock, you are getting enough sleep.

Too many carbohydrates cause the blood glucose levels to yo-yo, which leaves the brain either glutted or gasping for glucose. The brain needs complex carbohydrates and protein, supported by omega - fatty acids.

Exercise produces many chemicals that the brain loves, including endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine, as well as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and nerve growth factor (NGF). Both BDNF and NGF promote cell health in the brain and protect it from aging and stress.

Organising for ADT— help the employees to figure out how to have times which are free from distraction and learn to have the office environment that works best for them.

Make the office environment calming and soothing: provide on-site gyms, shortened work hours, on-site day care centres where parents can eat with their children, and unlimited sick days, etc.

Originally posted on: 9 January 2011
Last updated on: 18 February 2024

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Katharine McLennan

Katharine McLennan

Executive Coach & Psychotherapist
About my Brain Institute

Katharine is passionate about sharing her endless expertise and thought leadership on talent development, strategy, neurocoaching and psychotherapy.

Katharine McLennan has a career that spans corporate strategy, execution and leadership. Her specialty is facilitating executive teams in the integration of strategy, operations, team dynamics and self-transformation. Her ideas on the future of work, leadership culture and HR transformation are provocative and inspiring in seminars, speeches, or writing.

Katharine is now an executive coach and psychotherapist for a range of corporate, government and non-profit leaders of organisations. She focuses on corporate strategy, talent and psychology. She also works with individuals facing depression, anxiety, addiction, trauma, and career transition.

Her corporate roles have included: Head of Strategy and HR for the Federal Government's Export Finance Australia, Vice President of People & Culture of Cochlear, Head of the QBE Global Leadership Academy and Executive General Manager, Talent and Business Unit HR for the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

Prior to her corporate career, Katharine spent TEN years in leadership consulting, providing advisory services on behalf of three major organisations: Heidrick & Struggles, the Mettle Group and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Through this work, she led projects in succession planning, CEO team strategy facilitation and executive assessment and development for ASX Top 50 clients, helping these clients to manage their internal pipeline.

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