GUEST COMMENT: Why bankers are in danger of arousing their primitive brains and how to deal with it

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Clara Seeger

Bankers today are exposed to more risks, uncertainties and pressures than ever. In the human brain, this elicits a threat response, a permanent state

of fight or flight. Executive Coaching alleviates many of the pressures faced by bankers in today’s difficult economy. This is how:

1. Stress

A degree of stress is needed for performance. The optimal arousal curve is an inverted U-shape. When stress levels exceed the “sweet

spot” for optimal performance our brain’s executive centre (prefrontal cortex) is severely compromised, at an enormous cost to the individual’s

mental health and the bank’s performance. It has been proven that it is uncontrollable chronic stress that leads to burnout. Coaching, an entirely

client-led intervention based on self-directed learning, reduces stress by giving bankers the control they often lack in their work.

2.  Market volatility

Certainty is a key social motivator. The brain is a prediction machine, which helps it hardwire most processes to reduce the workload of our resource-limited working memory. Coaching creates a safe haven of certainty through its structure and clearly defined objectives. Negative emotions caused by economic uncertainty are addressed by techniques such as symbolic labelling (attaching a one-word label to sum up one's emotions, e.g. "worried") which has been proven to reduce the arousal of the amygdala (centre of fear) to sustain optimal cognitive functioning.

3.  Performance pressure

The pressure of performing in the light of ever-moving markets arouses the primitive brain. It takes a toll on people’s emotions, a central, yet neglected component of decision-making. Coaching facilitates emotional regulation: it helps individuals select and modify situations they expose themselves to and trains them to deploy attention to helpful factors (away from hot spots). Coachees learn to deal with difficult emotions by practising cognitive change through reappraisal. This technique enlists the prefrontal cortex in exploring alternative perspectives, leading

to more constructive outcomes.

Ironically, while bankers are expected to excel at decision-making and problem-solving, they operate in a world that compromises optimal cognitive

functioning. Coaching plays a crucial role in creating a safe environment where bankers can exert their autonomy, enjoy a degree of certainty,

regulate their emotions and reduce their stress levels.

Dr Clara E Seeger is a NeuroLeadership expert with a background in investment banking. She helps finance professionals create more meaning in

their work, thus increasing performance. Her methodology is brain-based, building on research from neuroscience to facilitate positive change. You can contact her at: