Social Intelligence: Effects of fear

“Banish fear” was a slogan of the late quality-control guru W. Edwards Deming. He saw that fear froze a workplace: workers were reluctant to speak up, to share new ideas, or to coordinate well, let alone to improve the quality of their output.

You are driving to work, planning an important meeting with a colleague, and intermittently reminding yourself that you must remember to turn left at the traffic light, not right as usual, so you can drop your suit at the cleaners. Suddenly an ambulance screams up behind you, and you speed up to get out of the way. You feel your heart quicken. You try to resume planning the morning’s meeting, but your thoughts are disorganized now and you lose concentration, distracted. When you get to work, you berate yourself because you forgot to go to the cleaners.

This scenario comes not from some business primer but from the academic journal Science, as the beginning of an article called “The Biology of Being Frazzled.”The article summarizes the effects on thinking and performance caused by being mildly upset—frazzled from the hassles of daily life. “Frazzle” is a neural state in which emotional upsurges hamper the workings of the executive center.

While we are frazzled, we cannot concentrate or think clearly. That neural truth has direct implications for achieving the optimal emotional atmosphere both in the classroom and the office. From the vantage point of the brain, doing well in school and at work involves one and the same state, the brain’s sweet spot for performance. The biology of anxiety casts us out of that zone for excellence.