Psychological safety is as important as physical safety, yet many leaders, teams and individuals still don’t take it seriously enough. I think this is a multifaceted problem and persists for a few reasons: 1) A lack of understanding of the threat response, 2) Not realising just how negative the impact can be, 3) Unaware of what triggers it and 4) Not knowing what steps to take to overcome it. In this article, I want to tackle the first three and bring about a deeper awareness (my next article will focus on 4) so we can take Key Steps together to….

‘be the difference that makes the difference.’

  1. What happens in the body when we feel threatened? I am going to be quite technical and detailed here because I think if we understand the neuroscience and really get that something significant happens in the brain and body that can severely hamper us, it might just motivate us to make changes…Our autonomic nervous system regulates our bodies and is made up of the sympathetic (our stress response and often called fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) systems. When we perceive that we are under threat, the SS ensures that our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis kicks in. The amygdala triggers the hypothalamus and tells the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic and the adrenals release norepinephrine. Cortisol is produced and supresses the immune system, increases blood pressure and blood sugar. We get an energy boost as well as increased heart rate and breathing rate that uses up oxygen and glucose, giving our bodies the resources to fight or flee. The anterior cingulate cortex and frontal lobe are also affected, decreasing immunity, impairing learning and affecting memory. Neurotransmitters are also released telling the hippocampus to record this in long-term memory while supressing short-term memory, concentration and inhibiting rational thinking.

    This is useful if there is a threat that requires us to fight or flee. Usually there isn’t, but our brain cannot distinguish between what is real and unreal. This makes perfect sense when you think about encountering what looks like a snake in the bush. You don’t want to risk presuming that it isn’t, so your midbrain acts like it is and it acts lightning fast to keep you safe.

  2. What is the negative impact of continually responding to threats? If there is no need to fight or flee, the above spells disaster for efficiency, effectiveness, productivity and decision making, which are critical for us as leaders, whether we are leading a large team or simply leaders of our own lives. The parts of our brain that we need the most when dealing with stressors are simply not working. When your short-term memory, concentration and rational thinking take a nosedive, try handling social interactions elegantly or doing important cognitive tasks like completing projects on time to handling complex problems! We also need our working memory for creativity, insight, analytical thinking, problem-solving or even just to use basic pieces of information simultaneously.In addition, the long-term activation of the stress response system and too much exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt almost all the body’s processes. The immune system severely suffers and hormones are very negatively impacted. This puts you at higher risk of many health problems from the common cold to cardiac disease to cancer to autoimmune disease and puts you at much higher risk of mental health conditions too including anxiety, depression and burnout. Not to mention how our drop in emotional intelligence effects our relationship with ourselves and others.
  3. What threatens us and triggers our stress response? Major incidents (like hijacking, home invasions, redundancy, divorce and so on) are of course a contributor but not the main cause of the above problems. We tend to take major incidents seriously but often ignore or downplay the minor factors that take a toll and wreak havoc in the long-term if left unmanaged. I like referring to David Rock’s SCARF Model to give us a framework of areas that influence our brains and can trigger our threat response… Status – how important we fee in relation to others.

    Certainty – our ability to predict and manage our future.

    Autonomy – our sense of control over events.

    Relatedness – how safe we feel with others.

    Fairness – how fair we perceive the exchanges between people to be.

    I am sure we can all relate to times when we’ve felt invalidated or underappreciated, out of control, uncertain, lack of connection and a sense of unfairness, and how much this triggers us. Sadly, these things happen every day. For example, when we interrupt someone, we send messages that their views aren’t as important. If we take work back when someone makes a mistake, it could trigger all the domains of SCARF.

Pay close attention in the coming weeks and increase your awareness so you can identify an minimise threats to psychological safety and take Key Steps to…

‘be the difference that makes the difference.’



NOTE: The information in my blog may be freely shared and re-used in any online or offline publication, provided it is accompanied by the following credit line: This was written by Dr Sharon King Gabrielides, and originally appeared in her free weekly  ‘Key Steps Food for Thought Blog’ available on the Key Steps website.

Dr Sharon King Gabrielides

About Dr Sharon King Gabrielides

Sharon is a dynamic facilitator, speaker and executive coach with over 25 years’ experience in leadership development and organisational transformation. Her PhD thesis contributed a framework for holistic and sustainable leadership development that was published by Rutgers University in the USA. She is faculty of numerous business schools and highly sought-after by leading corporates because she works hand-in-hand with them to create sustainable results and long-term success. In 2020, Sharon was inducted into the Educators Hall of Fame, which is a lifetime achievement award, recognising excellence and her contribution to the field.

Sharon is one of only three women in South Africa to hold the title of Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) – the Oscar of the speaking industry. She is also a COMENSA Master Practitioner (CMP), a qualified Modern Classroom Certified Trainer (MCCT™) and an accredited Global Virtual Speaker. Sharon is also a registered Education, Training and Development Practitioner (ETDP), holds an Honours degree in Psychology and practices as an NLP master practitioner.

Most important to Sharon is that she has become known for her genuinely caring manner, practical and transformational approach, and for providing valuable tools and that allow people to take Key Steps to really… ‘be the difference that makes the difference.’