“If we had only stopped working for a minute or two and talked, then we would have done better!”

This is a common refrain when people reflect on their performance in a team practice exercise. It seems that the more complicated the task, the less likely people are to step back and ask themselves, “How are we doing?” or “What are we doing?” and “Are we on track?”

When we’re under pressure to meet a deadline and our task is unfamiliar and demanding, we are at risk of under-performing. Why? It’s because our amygdala — a part of our brains that’s connected to decision-making and processing emotions, including fear — is activated.

The voice of a time-keeper saying, “There are only 5 minutes left!” can be enough to drive our primitive brains into panic. We go into one of the 4 strategies that the reptilian brain has access to — fight, flight, freeze or appease. The part of our brain that can drive learning — the neo-cortex — is shut out.

The bigger challenge here isn’t just to learn how to better complete parts of the complex task. It’s to actually learn how to catch yourself going into “tunnel” mode — becoming captured by the pressure of the deadline — and activating your amygdala.

There are 2 layers of learning that we need to be aware of to avoid this trap.

  • Level 1: The skills we need to perfect in order to do the task itself more effectively.
  • Level 2: The skill of recognizing the onset of the amygdala takeover, and the ability to circumvent that takeover and stay in “neo-cortex” mode so that we can be learning while accomplishing our task.

Everyone can develop the capacity to notice when they’re in danger of amygdala hijack. And everyone’s tolerance is likely to be different.

A group I recently worked with used data from a personality assessment called “the Workplace Big 5” to discover which group members might be more susceptible to amygdala hijack. Then they worked out a non-threatening way for that person to communicate when they were getting close to an overload.

The team then agreed that they would use this signal for them to stop and take a break. They promised that they would literally stop working for what they dubbed a “learning review moment.”

It was wonderful to watch them in the next work session as they implemented their plan. They took their break and discussed the task, and also reflected on how they were working together. They realized that if they shifted some roles in their team, they could tap into teammate strengths that they hadn’t realized before.

With this simple, explicit approach for working together, they took a major step toward being a more effective learning team. They made their learning strategy, followed it, and got better results.

When teams learn how to learn — and recognize that they are learning — the motivation of team members increases, their self-confidence rises, and overall satisfaction in the team improves.

Our research has shown that team success can be measured by looking at 3 key outcomes: Results, learning, and satisfaction. There’s an obvious synergy among these outcomes — teams that learn are more satisfied and are better at achieving results. As they achieve better results, the motivation to learn is increased, which drives satisfaction. The cyclical relationship creates a process of continual improvement, and will help keep you and your team on track.

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