Your Caveman Brain: Running From Predators at Work

Strategic Leadership InstituteA couple of years ago a friend of mine and his son traveled through northwestern Zimbabwe when they noticed some vultures in the trees ahead of them. They decided it was a good a time as any to stop and stretch their legs and also to see what the birds were up to. They got out of the car and slowly walked through the tall grass and undergrowth towards the patch of trees where they could now also see more activity on the ground. Suddenly a startled lioness got up from where she was laying just a few feet in front of the two men. Exactly what happened next depends on who tells the story, but the bottom line is that they both got back into their vehicle with neither of them later able to remember exactly how they managed to do so.

I’m sure you’ve heard similar stories of people performing superhuman feats when in life-threatening situations. Known as the ‘fight or flight’ response and first described by American psychologist Walter Bradford around 1915, it is basically the activation of our brain’s automated survival mode.

When the Brain Takes Over

Here’s how it works: Your brain’s most important function is to keep you alive. It does so by regulating your heart rate, body temperature and a myriad other physiological functions but also by constantly scanning the environment for possible threats and rewards. What we refer to as our ‘senses’ is a finely tuned network of nerves connecting our brains with our face, ears, eyes, nose, and rest of the body via the spinal cord. Sensory nerves continuously gather information from the environment and then send it back to the central nervous system where it is assessed for possible threats or rewards. So as my friend and his son were walking through the unfamiliar surroundings their brains were in fact already on high alert, even if their travel-weary minds were not aware of this.

Strategic Leadership InstituteWhen the lioness suddenly appeared (obviously stuffed on the prey of which the vultures were now fighting over the leftovers), their brain’s limbic systems (theamygdala in particular) responded in a fraction of a second by activating the sympathetic nervous system which caused a release of hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline which in turn ‘supercharged’ them to either fight or flee for survival. As part of this process their heart rates and blood pressure increased, breathing accelerated, pupils dilated, and blood vessels in many parts of their bodies became constricted to force more blood into the larger muscles where the blood vessels became dilated for better performance. The result: in fully automated “flee” mode they turned around and probably ran faster than ever before to reach the safety of their vehicle in a blur.

Scanning the Social Jungle

So what’s new and what does outrunning a stuffed lioness have to do with the majority of the world’s population who’s only contact with predators are on Discovery Channel or in zoos?  Quite a bit – one of the most significant findings in neuroscientific research over the last couple of years has been that the same automated neural responses which are activated when we face a physical threat such as the lioness are also activated in social situations. Your brain is not only constantly scanning the physical environment for possible threats, it is also closely monitoring the social environment – wherever you are interacting with other people. When you’re enjoying supper with the family, supporting your child at a sporting event, working out at the gym or trying to hold your own during a meeting at work – the behaviour of those around you is closely scrutinized and any perceived threat can trigger the fight or flight response in your brain.

Strategic Leadership InstituteWhat makes it worse is that threat responses have a greater impact and are far more powerful and easier to trigger than reward responses (see You Might Not Like it, But Bad is Stronger than Good). In other words, we experience negative interactions with other people much more intensely than positive interactions of similar magnitude. So when you’re in a meeting and you tell someone that they’re not performing as expected, the negative impact of that criticism is much greater than the positive impact when, for instance, you thank someone for a job well done (see Neuroleadership: Lead People in a Way That Would Engage Their Minds). What this amounts to is that our negative interactions can trigger automated ‘fight or flight’ responses at any time and in any place.

Fewer Resources for Clear Thinking

Why is this so bad? In a time when, more than ever before in history we need people to be engaged and motivated and creative in order to give us the competitive edge, fight or flight responses can be a serious detriment to a group or an individual’s success. While a sarcastic remark from a colleague or a scowling manager would hardly send most of us running back to our cars, an activated fight or flight mode does have a severely negative impact on our ability to perform. When the brain senses a threat, even in the office, it allocates more of its resources such as glucose and oxygen to the muscles and parts of the body needed to fight or flee (resulting in the same physiological changes as described in the par. “When the Brain Takes Over”). As a result the Prefrontal Cortex – the part of the brain where conscious thought takes place (our ‘working memory’) – receives less resources and its working is thereby impaired (this effect could last for up to four hours after the threat-incident). When our brains are in this threat-induced ‘limp mode’, it severely impairs our ability to:

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Cavemen in Suits

The human race has devised technology which has radically transformed the world we live in and will continue to do so for years to come. We have powerful telescopes that can peer into deepest space; we have super computers that can perform complex calculations in the blink of an eye; we travel faster than the speed of sound; we create data at a scale that could never be conceived before; we have access to nearly all the world’s information via the internet; and we can communicate with just about anyone, anywhere, anytime.

However, in spite of these great achievements our brains are still operating much as it did thousands of years ago when it had to protect us from lions and tigers. Just how primitive our brains still are in this regard is illustrated by a 2011 study which found that even when people look at pictures of animals, specific parts of the amygdala respond almost instantly. So while we’re living in this high-tech world of miracles and wonder, our brains are still pretty much in the cave, trying to keep us alive not only by responding to real physical threats, but also to perceived lions and tigers in the social environment.

The Price of Your Roar

From the brain’s perspective, workplaces become ‘danger zones’ if leaders or co-workers behave in a way that trigger constant threats. In such conditions people are simply not able to perform at their best. Over time they become chronically stressed (an enduring fight or flight condition) and as a result even more sensitive to perceived threats. Thus a negative snowball-effect is created where critical success factors such as job satisfaction, trust, motivation, engagement, productivity and the overall well-being of individuals all diminish as their brains are constantly engaged in a fight for survival.

Strategic Leadership Institute HomepageAs leaders, understanding this gives us the opportunity to change our behaviour in order to minimize the negative effect that it might have on those around us. While changing behaviour is often difficult, neuroscientific research is showing that rewiring our brains and changing our behaviour is indeed possible (see Taking Small Steps is the Key to Improve Your Leadership Behaviour). By practicing the principles of neuroleadership (see Neuroleadership: Lead in a Way that Will Engage People’s Minds) we can stop being the predators which others run away from and become the catalysts of positive engagement.

Understanding how people’s behaviour and events in the social environment impacts our neurological processes is also a powerful starting point to manage our own brains and minimize negative responses such as chronic stress, emotional thinking and aggression. I intend to provide some practical tips on how to do this in my next post. 

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