Great Leaders Stay in the Approach State

by Oct 2, 2018

Just about everyone is familiar with the “fight or flight syndrome” — our instantaneous instinct to either fight or flee when we suddenly find ourselves in danger. It’s a survival mechanism that helped our long-ago ancestors stave off wild animals and enemies back in the cave-man days.

But did you know there is a similar mechanism that kicks in when we are faced with challenging social situations? In their book The Leadership Coach’s Advantage: A Guide for Practice, authors Melinda Sinclair and Dorothy Greenaway state that social triggers, like physical triggers, can put the brain in an Avoid State or Approach State. Most of our work occurs in a social setting, so understanding these two emotional responses is important for leaders to understand. 1

About the Avoid and Approach States

Social threats send us shirking into the Avoid State, which renders us less able to do the kinds of higher-level thinking. But when we feel confident in a social setting, we move into the Approach State, where we approach situations and decisions rationally. The Approach State is the domain of great leaders!

In challenging situations, when critical decisions and sensible choices are necessary, we need an increased level of emotional intelligence (sometimes referred to as the “emotional quotient,” or EQ) to gain trust and develop a loyal following. To gain a high level of EQ, we must have a mindset that is congruent with growth. This mindset is called the Approach State. The Avoid State is a mindset that demonstrates a low level of EQ and a hindrance to growth.

Here are the hallmarks of someone who has either mindset:

Benefits of Staying in the Approach State

There are many social and health-related benefits to staying in the Approach State and getting out of the Avoid State when we feel it closing in. To remain healthy and to foster great relationships, it’s important to remain in the Approach State. Here are just some of the many benefits.

When we are in the Approach State:

  • We tend to be more creative, and we have higher emotional intelligence.
  • We are more relaxed and less stressed.
  • We are better able to make sound decisions.
  • We are much more likely to influence others and serve as positive role models.

Choose to Be in the Approach State

The great news is that we choose which state to reside in. The Approach State and the Avoid State are not thrust upon us. They are mindsets we choose. As leaders, it’s important to be aware of our mindset at all times and to choose to remain in the Approach State.

There are ways to move your mind off something that’s happening and stop focusing on feeling uncomfortable, like you’re being overtaken and like you lack the skills needed to deal with a situation. When you get yourself into a situation where it’s difficult to remain in the Approach State because you’re a human being and that happens, here is an acronym you can use to help yourself remain in the Approach State: STAR, which stands for Stop, Think, Assess and Respond.

One way to do this is to focus on something tangible that is positive and makes you feel great about things. For example, I have a photo on my desk of one of my daughters holding a foam finger at a baseball game when she was eleven years old. Her hair was scattered everywhere, and she had a silly look on her face. When I look at that picture, I smile, regardless of how bad of a mood I’m in.

Whenever I look at that picture, it’s as if I am sitting at that baseball game. You cannot get me in a bad mood. It just won’t happen. When I get to a baseball game, I can easily turn off my cell phone and forget about everything.

For some people, it’s getting on the golf course or being around family — being in a situation where you can laugh and enjoy yourself. If you’re on vacation, you can rejuvenate yourself. During that time, you will experience improved immune function, decreased blood pressure, relaxation, and improved digestion. Your muscles will be more relaxed, your heart rate will decrease and you will feel more emotionally stable.

When you feel negativity clouding your mood — when you feel yourself slipping into the Avoid State, what strategy will you use to redirect your mind? Find several simple ways to take your mind off the current situation, and use them to keep yourself in the Approach State.

Learn More in Our Take the Lead!™ Training

This discussion about the Avoid and Approach States is just one of many topics we cover in our RedRock Leadership Take the Lead!™ leadership, management training and coaching programs.

These exclusive, proprietary programs provide a foundation for improving leadership within your organization. They include the following:

  1. Three months of high-impact leadership training and coaching
  2. An integrated behaviors–motivators leadership skills assessment
  3. A comprehensive self-study learning kit
  4. Access to comprehensive instruction and ongoing support in areas including leadership development, communication, time management, goal planning, management skills, coaching, strategic planning and organizational development

Learn more at

1. Melinda Sinclair and Dorothy Greenaway, The Leadership Coach’s Advantage: A Guide for Practice (Victoria, Canada: Friesen Press, 2013), 118.

Jeff Ruby

Jeff Ruby

Founder of RedRock Leadership

During the course of his professional career, he has worked in organizations ranging in size from a sole practitioner to Fortune 500. Included in his experience are roles in starting and selling companies, sales and sales management, training and development and executive coaching.

RedRock Leadership is a sales training and leadership development company committed to growing companies by growing individuals through on-going training infused with the competencies of emotional intelligence.