When Fear and Learning Collide

Fear is as personal as a fingerprint.

Everyone has a daredevil friend whose idea of fun is to sky-dive from a helicopter, while just the thought makes us quiver. What frightens one person is another’s playground.

Understanding a protege’s emotional state is an essential first step in creating an atmosphere of trust. And with learning, fear is far more a liability than an asset.

Fearful learners tend to take fewer risks, and proteges differ in what elevates their anxiety. How can the physiology of fear serve mentors?

The brain is divided into two key parts — the cerebrum and the amygdala. The cerebrum is that big gray part that’s divided into two hemispheres. The right side is the intuitive, creative or emotional side; the left is the logical, analytical or rational side.

The cerebrum is the seat of logic, creativity, analysis, insight, learning and problem-solving. The amygdala, sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain, controls the fight-or-flight response and triggers the secretion of adrenaline — the hormone that goes into the bloodstream to make us stronger and tougher when threatened. Adrenaline is not stored in the brain; it’s the amygdala that flips the switch, causing its release and enabling your senses to be sharper in a crisis.

When you experience anything in life, imagine the message taking two routes. The slower route goes to the cerebrum; the faster route goes to the amygdala. The amygdala is connected to the cerebrum and acts like an early-warning clearinghouse for signs of threat. If the amygdala senses danger, it sends a message to the cerebrum to ignore the forthcoming message.

With that warning, the cerebrum mostly shuts down to allow the amygdala to deal with the threat in a reactive or instinctive way. Evolution has enabled the brain to let instinct rule over logic in times of threat or danger.

When people go into this state, they’re not operating out of their normal thinking brain. They’re operating out of the world of fight-or-flight — they want to fight or flee. Since in the typical mentoring relationship, a fight is not deemed an appropriate response, the protege will opt to flee. He or she won’t literally run out of the room, but will more likely be reserved and timid.

Higher-level learning is acquired in the cerebrum, now dormant, rather than the amygdala, now in charge. The goal of rapport building is to invite proteges out of their “terror” state to a more rational state where effective learning — risk-taking — can occur.

It’s important to remember that before you can engage in facilitating insight, you must get proteges out of the part of the brain they are in (the amygdala) and into the part of the brain where learning occurs (the cerebrum).

The amygdala is telling them to get ready to flee or fight. The actions of the mentor need to signal that the protege’s defensive stance isn’t necessary. Humility begins to set the stage, but it’s the search for understanding that causes the protege to shift from the frightened posture to an accepting mode.

Empathy is a powerful partnering practice. It says to the protege you’re like him or her, not above or below.

It means using words that communicate identification with the protege; that you fully appreciate the effect the fear of the unknown has on them.

In essence, proteges need a mentor to provide courage. Two ways to help them find courage:

  • Use positive affirmations. Mentors sometimes approach proteges as though affirmations are rare and expensive gifts. This is a fallacy. Look for things to compliment; lavish praise with sincerity and enthusiasm.
  • Assume that the protege has no reason for low self-esteem. Never buy into a protege’s low self-opinion. The subtle message sent as a result will become self-fulfilling and help the protege assume feelings of worth.
    When proteges bring fear into a learning environment, they limit the depth of their growth. Invite your protege to hunt fear with you and together enjoy the bounty of your success.

Marshall Goldsmith is an authority in helping leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. He is the author or co-editor of 32 books, including “Managers as Mentors,” with co-author Chip Bell. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.