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When Your Leader is Mentally Frozen, Get Out the Hairdryer

David’s bucket was empty. His last drop of enthusiasm evaporated after meeting with his executive leader, Candace, for a one hour “catch up” meeting. A whole month had passed by before David was even able to get on her calendar, and he desperately needed to discuss critical issues with her.

The meeting started off with the usual rehearsed “how to engage your employee 101″ verbiage, “How’s life? Your family?” David just needed to resolve issues and gain support on a personnel issue and a project budget approval. He also wanted Candace to be fully present and realize the impact of her lack of attention to the team.

“Candace, I need you to understand your impact on me and the team. We are all feeling the pain of not having your attention, and our performance is suffering as a result.” David expounded upon the key issues and recounted how different team members were struggling to piecemeal solutions together in order to keep things going.

Candace was dumbfounded and modeled a blank stare. “I had no idea! I am so sorry.” She then rattled off five or six promises that she fully intended to act upon. A month later, nothing was changing and the team found themselves in the same boat as before.

What could he do? David was considering radical moves:

  • Put a large banner on Candace’s door that says: “Congrats on being the least attentive leader of the year”

  • Contract with a marketing firm to start a massive campaign that only targets her

  • Get her on the INTERVENTION reality show, and have the whole team confront her in front of the world

Why didn’t the talk work? Probably because Candace was preoccupied with other problems, or there wasn’t a big motivator for her to change her behavior. Couple that with the possibility that she may not know how to change or what to even do because she’s been experiencing a MENTAL FREEZE…

Mental freeze is a new phenomenon happening in organizations experiencing extreme financial, operational, and performance pressures. The constant pushing of doing more with less leaves people severely overwhelmed, equivocal to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). According to, it is the new addition to fight or flight stress response. One’s belief that there’s hope determines which of the three will stick.

In fight or flight, people have a sense that they could possibly escape or resolve a situation. With mental freeze, a sense of hopelessness paralyzes the person’s ability to cope, and he or she just goes on auto pilot. The entire state of mind is centered around the belief that one cannot see a way out or overcome.

So, how do you pull out the hair dryer to help people get unfrozen? Unfortunately there aren’t any clearly defined answers to help people overcome mental freeze easily, but there are some fundamental things to help people address their beliefs of hopelessness, and this requires you to put on a coaching type hat:

1. Tell them you notice their behavior: ” I am concerned about you. We’ve had several conversations about ABC, and I notice that you are having some trouble focusing. When we leave our meetings, it seems that you lose track of our actions. What do you think is causing this to happen?”

2. Ask curious questions like: What could be different? What can you do to shift your thinking? What are the things that are going right? What is most important to you right now?

3. Recommend that they do some research on mental freeze and PTSD: or help are two good places to start to learn more about the phenomenon. You can even print some literature for them.

4. Encourage them to work with a coach or even Employee Assistance Program to privately address the issue. You might even talk with someone who is close to them that may be willing to have a deeper conversation with them.

5. Don’t go down with them. Your sanity is not worth it, so if the behavior is severe enough that you are starting to freeze, get the heck out of there.

Angela Nuttle is owner of Corporate OD Strategies, an organizational development consulting and coaching firm helping people prepare for tomorrow’s workplace in creative ways. Visit her website

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