Sometimes it’s useful to get back to basics.
On a daily basis I hear of the motivation and engagement challenges that leaders face. We live in an evolved, sophisticated social world, yet our brains have not evolved at the same rate and are still designed to survive and respond in a relatively primitive social world.
All humans have a one-track mind.
The fundamental role of the brain is to ensure the perpetuation of the species …
which is, actually, just as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. To achieve this important goal your brain does two things:
it seeks to protect you from threat
(anything that might lead to your death or disablement), and
it seeks reward
(anything that will keep you alive and thriving).
When you are in ‘threat’ mode (i.e., checking to make sure everything is safe) your capacity for logic, creativity, seeing possibilities and being open-minded and curious is significantly inhibited. Your brain will instruct all non-essential functioning to go ‘on hold’ till the threat is managed or gone. It’s like a fire alarm or bomb threat in a high-rise building…until the ‘all clear’ is given, all non-critical work and activity (ie, except for getting people out of the building and making sure all is safe) is abandoned.
BUT…the circumstances that impact our perception of threat have changed significantly. The brain does not distinguish between physical and psychological or social threats – they are treated with a similar ‘threat’ response in the brain.
Primitive threats tended to be more physical and included …
- wild animals
- crazy neighbours with spears
- commonly occurring famine, floods and drought
- abandonment or ostracisation from the tribe which potentially led to no food, water or shelter.
The more common threats we experience today in a country like Australia tend to be more of a social nature and include…
- social or contribution rejection;
- discrimination, loneliness, embarrassment and humiliation;
- changing goal posts and the rate of change;
- lack of control over our work environments;
- financial insecurity;
- social media jealously (everybody looks like their life is better than mine);
- high social expectations and the impact of media on our sense of ’normality’ and our ability to achieve that normal (i.e., driving a fab car, huge house with a pool, looking like a model) and so on.
The problem is that the definition of ‘threat’ is ‘anything that is not expected’.
Think about it…how many times in a day do you experience something you didn’t expect? How many times do things not go to plan? How many times do you and others react in ways you didn’t predict? And as a result, how much time and energy in your day is channelled into making sure that these potential threats check out to be ‘ok’?
The answer: more than is useful in terms of us remaining productive and engaged. Way too much time in our day is ‘wasted’ on responding to the calls from our primitive brain. Until we feel physically and psychologically safe, we cannot function to our potential or learn or adapt.
The solution: we must understand and learn how to manage and change our habitual responses and shift to more useful ones. This is where taking a neuroscience approach to leadership can help.
The role of neuroscience is to explain behaviour in terms of the activities of the brain. And we now understand our ‘operating system’ so much more, and indeed enough to understand that we can influence and evolve it’s primitive processes to be more aligned and useful in today’s sophisticated social world.
Leading well requires mastery over the one-track mind. Mastery over one’s own mind, and the skill to support others to a level of awareness around their own primitive responses.
This is about increasing our human skills – our understanding of how humans are really motivated, how they tick. We need to bring back some substance into our leadership.
My thoughts around developing Leaders of Substance are outlined in this video.
The capacity to diagnose and respond effectively to a lack of psychological safety – in self and in others – is now a critical leadership skill. If you are not playing in this space…it’s time to at least take a look.