Who is in charge at work, you or your lizard brain?
I was once asked, or rather told at an interview ‘everyone is motivated by greed or fear, which is it for you?’ I answered (on reflection Spock like) that I did not agree with the question, and therefore could not answer it. The interviewer was a crocodile of a man and that was the beginning of the end of a difficult interview. We did not get on at all and it was a lucky escape as I would never have fitted with the culture. I have thought about this question and the interview a few times over the years, because it raises important questions about the role of fear, and control in business life. here are some of my thoughts and reflections.
One of my other least favorite statements disguised as a question is ‘you are either with us or against us, which is it’? If this is a question, it gives very little scope for discussion or compromise. For better and worse the world is not black and white and human beings need more complex motivators than sticks and carrots, fear and reward. Above all, we dislike attempts to control us.
The evolutionary role of fear is familiar to us. It has played a vital part in the survival and success of our species by helping us to avoid danger, survive and pass on our genes. All very well when life was ‘nasty, mean, brutish and short’, but sometimes inconvenient in a modern context when we need to avoid primal responses to everyday activities, such as driving or other peoples road rage. Our fight or flight reactions to fear are now hard wired and therefore easy to tap into to drive performance and ‘results’ in a working context. Whilst this may work in overtly performance driven cultures, such as sales, its effects are necessarily short lived and negative. Several studies have confirmed that fear tends to stifle honesty, creativity, trust and just about every worthwhile human emotion.
If all of this seems blindingly obvious, then why are fear and fear inducing management techniques still evident in business and other spheres? From the dressing rooms of well-known football clubs to some board rooms and many more working environments than we would care to admit, fear is still evident and often used to drive performance. Why is this, and what are the alternatives?
The obvious explanation is that it is tempting for managers and leaders, under increasing pressure themselves, to use fear as part of their armoury to drive certain behaviours and to achieve results. Business is increasingly driven by short term performance criteria, numbers, budgets and targets. Fear is the result, regardless of how progressive or otherwise the business culture may be. In other words you do not have to assume Machiavellian or bullying leadership to accept that fear is part of working life. But what are the other more positive motivators which we can tap into and prioritise? Thankfully as our understanding of the ways in which our minds work becomes ever more sophisticated, so do the alternatives.
Neuroplasticity, along with mindfulness, are the buzz words of the day, and thankfully for good reasons. Developments in the field of neuroscience have informed us that our neural connections and therefore thought patterns are not set in stone and can modified to our advantage. Put another way, ‘the learning brain is constantly rewiring itself’*. Ok so the reptilian or ‘lizard brain’- the area which ensures survival maybe hardwired (for good reason) but the soft wiring of our learned behaviours is most definitely more plastic than stone. Through sustained conscious effort backed by the right sort of guidance, and yes mindfulness, we can all change for the better. Bullies no longer need to stay bullies, just as the bullied can change the way they respond. Furthermore, by remaining mindful, you can sabotage negative thoughts and behaviour, before they sabotage you.
Human beings are more sophisticated than a series of fight or flight reactions and we prefer to be part of a collaborative team than out there on our own. We are therefore far more likely to be motivated by belonging, effective teamwork and reciprocity than fear and we will give far more of ourselves to a leader or organisation which embraces these values. In particular, leaders who win our trust and respect will get far more from individuals and teams than the fear inducing manager, whose results are more likely to be short term.
This has been supported by research from MIT which concludes that people are far more likely to be motivated by ‘autonomy, self-direction and the pursuit of mastery’ than they are by fear, or monetary reward. What’s more our motivations are not necessarily selfish;
‘The greatest untapped source of motivation is a sense of service to others’*
As corporate life becomes ever more complex and interconnected, so the need for collaboration and team work becomes greater. To work effectively teams need to be open, to trust one another and reciprocate. They need to be led by emotionally intelligent leaders who understand and are mindful of their own emotions as well as the emotions of everyone in the team. Only then will they know which leavers to pull, when and how.
Far from being a barrier to clear thinking and performance, emotions and feelings are who are and they need to be handled skilfully and respectfully if leaders are to motivate and better still, to inspire their teams. Emotions may even be more powerful than IQ in driving our decisions and actions, and should therefore be embraced and understood, rather than suppressed or buried.
‘If we have learned to supress emotions then they will create confusion; but they will be no less in play…it is feelings not thinking that rules our decision making’*
Furthermore ‘effective engagement’ the extent to which people are fully open and alive to the full range of their emotions, is said to be a better predictor of creativity than IQ or other measures. As the need for creativity becomes greater in business life, so the stick and carrot approach seems increasingly Dickensian and more fit for a bleak house than a modern progressive working culture. Fear filled organisations are characterised by meetings for meetings sake, email overload, excuses, cynicism and blame. This ultimately is the true cost of fear. It is toxic, poisons creativity and inhibits positive action.
‘meetings are just one symptom of an organisation run by the lizard brain’
‘Fear diverts energy away from the purpose of the organisation in order to ensure survival..a culture of fear negatively impacts on the bottom line’*
Finally, a note of caution concerning labels. I have used the word bully several times in this piece and I am conscious that it is a necessarily reductive label. Out and out bullies are a rare breed today thankfully, but for many effective, particularly passionate leaders fear is a by-product of their relentless drive for excellence. Enterprises as far ranging as Apple, Manchester united, M&S and Oracle have all had leaders who have exhibited bullying behaviours which have no doubt resulted in fear. Does this make them bullies? Possibly, but they also demonstrate a wide range of leadership attributes which have driven outstanding success, often over long periods. An element of fear comes with the territory with these leaders, and yet they still seem to retain the respect and loyalty of many of their key people. Perhaps these people are able to recognise that an element of fear is unavoidable. As long as it is balanced with other more admirable leadership behaviours, such as passion, vision, commitment and trust, these leaders seem to be able to benefit in a reciprocal way and perhaps that is their real legacy.
Millions of years of evolution have gone into the making of the reptilian part of our brains and whether we like it or not, fear is one of our most powerful emotional responses. It is part of who we are. If we cannot eradicate fear we can at least control one thing, and that is our reaction to it. From personal experience it is better not to fear, fear but to harness it to your advantage, and to rise above those who seek to use it to more Machiavellian ends.
‘The only thing to fear is fear itself’
Franklyn D. Roosevelt
David Head is a coach and mentor with the award winning firm, Accelerating Experience. firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are interested to learn more about the role of fear in business I strongly recommend ‘The Fear Free Organisation’ by Paul Brown, Joan Kingsley and Sue Paterson, which inspired some of the content and the * marked quotes in this article.