Disclaimer: While this post was tragically prompted by events in Mina, Saudi Arabia, the fundamental idea applies to human behavior and the human brain in general terms across all countries and cultures.
I was at an event several years ago and overheard a researcher say something to the effect of, “We’re not that far removed from the caves.” Surely, a provocative statement at first blush, but stay with it a while longer and apply it to the events going on in the world today (heck, possibly over ALL of human existence) and you might begin to see his point.
In fact, I was reading a New York Times article just this morning (Sep 25, 2015) related to the human tragedy in Mina, Saudi Arabia in which hundreds of pilgrims were killed or injured in a mass stampede during the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. The article I’m referencing mentioned other similar tragedies of human panic, stampedes, and deaths: Duisburg, Germany in 2010 and Cincinnati, Ohio in 1979 to name two.
The article goes on to mention several factors that may have contributed to the tragedy: uncertainty, fear, panic, heat, exhaustion.
What’s the link to neuroscience?
All of these factors–considered threats to the brain–can quickly trigger the limbic system’s “fight or flight” response and shut down (or significantly impair) our higher level cognitive functioning. Normally, a stampede is something you equate with animals. But when humans panic, our brain functioning becomes very automatic and reactive, much like an animal reacts to a threat–not much thought, just action.
Tragedies like the one in Mina are terrible reminders of what can go wrong when our reptilian brain takes charge of the show and makes decisions for us (according to the scientists, as much of 95% of our daily behavior in non-conscious).
Our failure to notice and manage (i.e., regulate) these inner signals can be catastrophic. It is our ability to be aware of these quick shifts in our brain state and regulate them that can literally be the difference between life and death.
And that brings us back to the subject of this post, “We are not that far removed from the caves.” While examples abound about this propensity, it turns out that there is a silver lining (as I often find when it comes to the human brain). Most of the time, crowds can get it right in the face of threat and danger. We can leverage the brain’s neuroplasticity (ability to change itself) and strengthen our self-awareness, social awareness, and self-regulation muscles and maintain a more cognitive response to danger.
Put another way, we can gain a little more “distance from the caves” and continue our higher evolution as humans. (Stay tuned for how…)
Photo credit: © FabioBerti Dreamstime.com
Disclaimer: I might step on some of your toes with this blog post.
I’ve delivered hundreds of brain-based programs to thousands of people over the past 10 years and am often dismayed (but not surprised) when I come across a person who says, “I already know this,” or “I already do that,” but when you watch them in action and listen to them in conversation–it is clear they do not.
Some of the reasons for this are linked to the brain itself. It feels good to the brain to think it is good at something (“I already do that”). It feels good to feel we are better than others (“I already know that”). It also feels painful to the brain to not know something or to find out you didn’t know something.
Another common mistake I’ve seen is people who think a brain-friendly or coach-like approach is all about questioning. While questioning is a significant piece of the puzzle, it is the kinds and types of questions you ask that truly make the difference (I’ll be speaking on this more at the Partners in Business – Operation Excellence conference).
I’ve come to believe there are seven (7) fundamental conversations we engage in at work, whether it be the classroom, the conference room, or the boardroom:
- Performance issues
- Blind Spots
Just as there are seven conversation types, we think there are seven types of questions that are related to or relevant for each of these conversations (there is even a “special case” type 8). And there is different neuroscience research that supports each of these conversations, some foundational, some you might call more “type-related.”
For instance, “Conversation 7 – Blind Spots” refers to actions that are more non-conscious or “blind” to the people performing them. The brain loves to make things automatic so it doesn’t have to spend precious (and limited) energy to rethink every action we take. The very nature of it being automatic means it doesn’t require conscious thought or effort. That’s good (do you want to relearn how to brush your teeth every day?!) AND it can be costly in some ways. We can be automatic about things that require a bit more conscious thought or we can do or say something without even realizing we haven’t given it a conscious thought. Helping someone with a blind spot involves raising his awareness in a way that doesn’t overly engage the “fight or flight” response (governed by the limbic system). Asking “presence” or “learning” questions can help shift someone’s brain into a more quiet state and allow her to “see” themselves in action in order to make more conscious decisions.
This is but one example across the seven conversations. Things are even more complicated by the fact that our brain strives to minimize danger multiple times every second. It is our primary organizing principle (E. Gordon, 2001). This hypersensitivity to threats effects our questioning approach. We tend to hyper-focus on danger (a.k.a. problems) and “question into” them.
And that brings me back to my disclaimer. I don’t fault or judge the people who say, “I already do that,” or “I already know that.” Many do. But in some cases, the person’s brain has taken over (it’s usually in charge without us being aware!) and the questions he asks are not the best he might ask.
When you truly understand the brain, you can begin to change the way you show up and you can start to behave in a much more brain-friendly way–starting with the questions you ask.
You’ll be amazed at the results you can get.
“There is a very long history within psychology of people not being very good judges of what they will actually do in a future situation.”
These words are from Matthew Lieberman, Ph.D., the co-founding father of the field of social cognitive neuroscience, the Director of UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, and the author of the book “Social.”
Why is his statement important?
Because the field of neuroscience, including Matt and his colleagues’ pioneering work, is helping us to better understand what is going on in our very unique and complex brains. And things are not always what they appear to be.
And why is that important?
Because all of us want results: in life, at home, at work, in school. We are all trying to achieve something, and if you understand the brain and know how to work with it—instead of against it—you can improve your chances.
How do I know that?
Because I’ve spent the past 10 years learning to understand the brain, how it functions, its limitations, what is common among us, and what is different between us when it comes to what is literally inside of our heads. I’ve delivered hundreds of programs to thousands of people and watched transformations take place when people learn how to honor the brain (which, by the way, honors the person to whom that brain belongs!).
What am I talking about?
Did you know that the brain is wired to be empathetic to people who share our racial group. This is linked to our very primal and basic need to survive (if he looks like us, he’s probably safe). We think—and say—we are sensitive to the pain of those who are not like us but the brain tells a different story. In a study that examined the empathetic pain reactions of two ethnic groups, each group was more empathetic to the “pain” of their own racial group, despite reporting a similar reaction to the other racial group’s pain. As one study  puts it, “Race has been demonstrated as a feature impossible to ignore in facial processing ,–, even when race is implicit and not relevant to the participant’s task. Thus, it is possible that race may cause an automatic and bottom-up bias in empathic neural activation to pain. It may be that the neural processing for differentiation of race operates at a more basic level than broader social distinctions. “
What they mean by “bottom-up” you can think of as unconscious or automatic behavior. Another way of putting it is the brain has made a choice without your involvement. And that unconscious choice is informing your behavior. When you understand what is happening, you can begin to employ tactics to overcome this kind of automatic brain functioning. This is particularly of value when you look at what is happening in current day America.
Another fundamental idea we work with is based on Evian Gordon’s 1-2-4 Integrate Model . The “1” in Evan’s model refers to the brain’s “primary organizing principle,” which is to minimize danger and maximize reward. This principle leans strongly to the favor of minimizing danger and is a powerful example of our dominant need to survive. It also links back to Matt’s work in that many of the dangers we face are social, rather than physical, in nature. And these social threats place us in a state of conspicuously low cognitive functioning.
In essence, we become automatic when faced with “social threats” and end up doing and saying things that don’t often work in our favor—although they do keep us alive, from the brain’s perspective.
We help leaders and managers learn how to better manage social threats, maintain cognitive functioning AND improve the nature of their interactions so they achieve the things that are most important to them.
Put another way, it’s not just about surviving—it’s about truly living.
I must be easily amazed.
Two posts ago I wrote about how amazed I was at leaders who put up with poor performers. In this post, I want to express my amazement at how many leaders think their employees know what is expected of them.
Whenever I’m faced with an employee performance issue, the first question I ask a leader is, “Does the employee know what is expected of them?”
The answer is usually, “Of course!”
I then ask, “Have you specifically communicated that expectation to the employee?”
The reply is usually, “They should know that!”
Let’s be frank here, employees are not mind readers (well, most are not). Unless you tell an employee in clear specific terms what you expect from them, you should expect a gap in performance.
What should be included when communicating your expectations? Think of the questions a reporter is trained to ask:
- Who? Who is involved, who is doing what, who has authority or responsibility for the task.
- What? what exactly do you expect in terms of an output or completed task. Include qualitative and quantitative measures. For qualitative measures, use a Lipert scale of expected output.
- When? When should the task be completed, what is the deadline. Include milestone deliverables with dates AND times.
- Where? Where should the employee turn for help, resources…
- Why? You might forget this but it’s important to help tie the task to the larger departmental or organizational impact.
- How? Leave this one to the employee, providing only required spending or other operational (or moral/ethical) guidelines. Give too much “how” and you become a micro-manager.
Before you take progressive or disciplinary action on an employee for poor performance, ask yourself, “Have I truly communicated my performance expectations in clear and specific terms?”
Then ask yourself, “Did I give them an opportunity to restate to me their understanding of and commitment to those expectations?”
If you’re not sure of the answer to either of these questions, write down your expectations and schedule a meeting with the employee.
Perhaps the issue facing you is one of communication and not poor performance.
I’m simply amazed at leaders, managers and business owners who put up with poor performers (I’m not talking about you, of course).
Maybe I can reframe the situation and see if I can help those leaders think any differently about it.
Imagine it’s not a poor performer working for your company but instead a person, we’ll call him Henry*, dating your daughter (play along with me).
Would you allow Henry:
I tweeted recently about one way to look at (and create) happiness that employs three pieces:
1. Enjoyment – this has to do with pleasure and doing things we enjoy (eating chicken wings, watching a movie…)
2. Engagement – this involves doing what we’re good at; using our talents (singing, playing drums, making people laugh…)
3. Meaning – this is about reaching beyond ourselves and our own pleasure and fulfillment and sharing our gifts with our extended community (charity, volunteering, philanthropy…)
A personal example:
Even though coaching has been around for many years (the first reference to coaching in the academic press was back in 1937), there still seems to be a lot of confusion involving “what is a coach” and “what does a coach do.” I thought I’d take some time to clarify that and to offer you some pointers about selecting a coach, if that’s something you think would help you reach your goals.
There are many definitions of coaching (and we’re not talking sports coaching here!). I use a simple definition: facilitating positive change in a client’s life. I think of it as helping you get from where you are to where you want to be more quickly and powerfully. I work with clients to help them think new thoughts, which (literally) creates new wiring, which generates new habits, which leads to new/better/long-lasting results.
When you work with a coach, you create a consistent level of accountability and stretch in your life that normally does not exist in any other relationship you have. The coaching relationship is also based on your agenda and your thinking (though some coaches act more like consultants or experts or mentors).
My particular method of coaching uses the latest findings in neuro-science to help me work with the way your brain works–and every person’s brain is completely unique and different.
In addition to the generic definition of coaching, there are many types of coaches. They fall into three primary categories and many sub-categories or niches. The main three are:
- Life coaching
- Business coaching
- Executive coaching (sometimes called Workplace Coaching)
I recently offered a workshop based on the Law of Attraction. I was motivated (you might even say, compelled) to offer the workshop by a personal sense to do something positive in the midst of so much negative news.
Several responses to my offering were along the lines of, “I didn’t know you were going in that direction.”
I thought, “What direction?!”
In hindsight, I can understand any confusion I may have caused.
You see, as a business owner, I am not moving in any new direction. My focus is and has always been helping people to identify — focus on — their most important goals (in life or at work) and to create a space in which to do the work necessary to bring those goals to fruition. It is not easy work for the client (or sometimes for me), but it is extremely rewarding work.
One of the inherent beliefs at work in my coaching is the belief that each client has untapped potential. I look for this potential from the very first call or meeting. I believe 100% in the possibilities that exist within my clients. This belief is predicated on great faith and on the practically unlimited thinking power of our individual and unique brains.
The workshop was simply an extension of my business approach and values.
If you’re interested in the workshop or finding out more about how you can use coaching in your personal or professional life, call me at 516.216.4233 or send me an email and I’ll be happy to answer your questions or discuss your current challenges.