How Neuroscience Can Help Us Understand De-Escalation: From First-Responders to First-Line Managers

Whether it’s on the front-lines of a crisis or from the other end of the conference table, we all engage in a form of de-escalation any time we attempt to resolve conflict. When we argue with our partner, disagree with a friend, or feel the tension around us in a conference room, there are opportunities for escalation.

Given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, social unrest, virtual work and school, and an upcoming election, we’re frequently in situations prone to escalation. Regardless of our individual burdens, the entire society is under stress. This is an undeniable fact, and an incredible opportunity to recognize our commonalities as humans and learn ways to de-escalate tensions.

Opportunities to de-escalate exist all around us.

In the season premiere of our webinar series Your Brain at Work Live, we saw that the NeuroLeadership Institute’s approach to teaching first responders de-escalation principles can easily apply to corporations. In partnership with MILO Range Training Systems we have developed an interactive de-escalation briefing that applies the science-based understanding of escalation to the law enforcement context. Though the stakes may be significantly higher in exchanges with first responders, the dynamics of human interaction are similar across many contexts.

“What really stood out for me was that being ‘hair-triggered’ is not just a law enforcement issue—it’s a societal one, which can be understood by learning what happens in the brain and the body, and using specific tools including technology to de-escalate in real-time,” explained Yael Swerdlow, CEO of Maestro Games, SPC after attending the Neuroscience of De-Escalation briefing. “It’s as much a work issue, as a Thanksgiving table issue.”

Why things escalate

A science-based approach to effective de-escalation starts with understanding the brain’s response to a potential threat.

The human brain is designed to constantly scan our environment for potential threats and rewards. When a potential threat is detected, the brain enters a state of heightened alert to prepare us to react. Whether the threat is real or perceived, our response impacts how we hear others, how we process information, and what decisions we make under pressure.

Human needs are human

NLI’s SCARF® Model describes the five primary domains of threat and reward that occur during social interactions: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.

For example, when interacting with law enforcement officers in some contexts, civilians may be vulnerable to having all five SCARF® domains activated due to the inherent imbalance of power between the two parties and the very nature of the interaction.

Conversely,  just as the civilian will react to the officers, the officers are equally prone to have their own SCARF domains triggered. This heightened state of mutual  stress makes escalation more likely. It will take focused attention to maintain a peaceful interaction.

Similarly, in an organizational setting, the power dynamics between managers and their direct reports can lead to amplified levels of stress and threat response leading to misreading the intentions of others, overinterpretation of subtle signals as negative, and increased tendencies to generalize or respond defensively. The manager’s relative affects how they listen to their workforce and respond to their needs. The different points of view between managers and their direct reports and their past interactions—especially negative—will shape every subsequent encounter.

To prevent escalation, it’s important to keep ourselves and others at a manageable threat level—one that still allows us to hear others, respond calmly and rationally.

Leaders may create threats by accident, but they can also reduce them on purpose

When employees experience a threat state, they are less able to accurately perceive, process, and act on information in the workplace.

By being mindful of the impact threat response, leaders can offset the potential negative side-effects by communicating in a way that sends positive SCARF signals. The result is a decreased chance of escalation and employees that are more focused, engaged, and productive.

Some remedies:

  • Status: Balance providing direction with acknowledging the status of others, by respecting their position, role, and contributions.
  • Certainty: Provide clear expectations to limit doubt and increase predictability.
  • Autonomy: Avoid micromanaging and give employees the chance to demonstrate their competence.
  • Relatedness: Resist signaling superior/subordinate role differences, as it communicates more of “me” vs “you” dynamic, instead of “us”.
  • Fairness: Be as transparent as you can about the reasoning behind your decisions.

Because the causes and effects of escalation are dependent on both context and interpersonal interactions, leaders in business can learn from the teaching we provide to law enforcement to de-escalate tense interactions.

United States law enforcement organizations can learn more about our free de-escalation briefings here.

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