Reptilian brains

2009

Recently I've seen a rise in behavior from managers that left me confused until I started thinking about the way our brains work. Otherwise rational, caring people were making decisions that they knew weren't the "right" decisions but were perfectly comfortable making them anyway. The question wasn't "What were they thinking?", it's "What part of the brain were they thinking with?".

The human brain is a funny thing. Four pounds or so of grey-pink goo can imagine the Mona Lisa, design Notre Dame or actually believe the moon landing was faked in a studio. It can dream up wonderful things and rationalize very, very bad ones.

The good stuff (aspirational thinking, elaborate visions of the future) happens in our frontal cortex. It's a miracle of nature, and takes a lot of work to process properly. The bad stuff (short-term thinking and hostility) occurs easier because it happens in our reptilian brains and often pops up without our thinking about it.

Now, when I say "reptilian brain", I am not implying that these folks are pea-brained, cold blooded or enjoy basking naked on rocks in the hot sun (although there was one disturbing incident at a sales meeting in Orlando). It's just that to properly use all our hard-earned braincells and dendrites we need to be relaxed, well-fed and focused. Does that describe any manager you know lately?

No, when we feel threatened or frightened we tend to shut down the high-maintenance parts of the thought factory and rely on the most basic brain functions, the ones that control the "fight, flight or freeze" reaction. They do not create great works of art, but they do keep us alive to work another day.

Let me give you a couple of examples of this in action.

A client of mine recently cancelled all training activity for her department and has no plans to reinstate it in the foreseeable future. In her calmer moments (when her sales people were producing and she had all the business she could handle), she used to wax eloquent about all the reasons developing her people are important (reduced turnover, employee engagement, being able to function at a high level in the future).

All those things remain as true as ever, but here's the point: her sales team is 20% behind budget. Costs have to be cut or she'll lose her job (can you feel the threat here?). Now she could calmly look at her expenses and take a bit here, a bit there and cobble together a creative solution, or she can do the first thing that occurred to her.

Her survival instincts told her to cut something big out of the budget and when was the last time you heard of anyone getting fired for not using their training budget? Score one for The Lizard.

Second is the article I saw in Business Week recently suggesting that some of the signs of recovery in the economy may be deceptive because even though revenues are leveling off or increasing - and they are spending again on marketing and advertising - a surprising number of companies are not investing any new money in Research and Development.

A calm, logical argument can be made that without investing in new products or revenue streams any gains will be short-term. A more forceful one will be made by the person clutching your lapels, looking at you with panicked eyes and saying, "yeah but at least the doors will stay open til then".

Lastly, I recently had a prospect at a huge multinational company. We talked about the proposed program and (as usual) she asked if we could do the program in a 60 minute webinar instead of 90 because the managers are always rushed for time and can't spend time on anything that isn't mission critical. She didn't want to have to convince them to take an extra half hour of training.

But that's why they're supposed to be taking the training - because they don't take the time to calmly think about how best to communicate with their teams and help them communicate with each other!

Yet rather than encourage them to take a few extra minutes to examine their behavior and develop some coping skills, it's easier to not challenge them and reinforce the very behavior that's getting them in trouble. In good conscience, I should (and probably will) refuse that assignment because it will not accomplish their goal. Of course there's a serpent curled up in MY limbic system saying, "hey, a guy's gotta eat" and that sucker is loud and insistent.

Brain research shows that it's possible to survive a long time on the reptilian level, but as Hobbes would say, life is nasty, brutish and short that way and it's no way to run an organization in the long term or enjoy your short stay on the planet.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.