Overcoming the Brain’s Negativity Bias

We didn’t get where we are today by being positive you know. Oh no.  Survival is a tough, uncompromising business.  Our ancient ancestors needed the negativity bias that is neurally wired into our brains in order to be successful. And successful they were; the fact you are reading this today being proof of that. The paradox is that this very successful survival mechanism – ‘the negativity bias’ – can often get in the way of people being able to experience life positively.

Let’s look at a simple model of how the human brain has been built up over tens of thousands of years of evolution.  (see also Rick Hanson’s article on this subject).          We can think of it as being composed of three (evolutionary) layers:

1. The Lizard Brain            This is the ‘old brain’. It shares many characteristics with the reptilian brain. It tends to fire in a reactive way. It is alert to dangers.  One classic and well-know example that is often quoted is the ’emotional hijack’ – when our emotions take over and we can actually feel like we are at the mercy of another brain. In some ways that is true.  When the ‘red mist’ falls across our eyes in moments of fury or fear, the lizard has taken over the controls.

2.   The Mammalian Brain      The middle layer of the brain, which we share with other mammals (in an evolutionary sense) is much more concerned with seeking rewards. More sophisticated processing takes place at this layer than in the ‘old brain’, although in neuroplastic terms it is still relatively ‘rigid’.

3.  The Primate/Human Brain    The most recently developed, upper layer of the brains of primates and humans is concerned primarily with attachments and relationships.   We see this most clearly in the use of communication, language, social network development and extracted thought concerned with abstract concepts such as philosophy, religion and science.

Some of the most recent advances in the science of neuroplasticity have started to reveal amazing abilities for the brain to change and alter shape (by creating new connections and thickening existing connections) as a result of experiences and repeated use.  While neuroplasticity can, and does, take place at all three levels of the brain, it does appear that it is much more difficult to affect changes in the lizard brain than in the primate/human level (or neocortical region) of the brain.  For a superb in-depth treatment of this area, I refer you to Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain.

Why is this important?  Well, it means that, no matter how sophisticated and developed our thinking becomes, no matter how much we believe we have our emotions under control, there is, deep within our 21st Century selves, a part of us which is operating on one simple rule, which is basically “Get Lunch – Don’t Be Lunch!”

Now, even in the wild, most anxious episodes resolve fairly quickly.  The highly attuned Continue reading

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From Curiosity to Attention

“You had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.”                                              as spoken by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character (Calvin Candie) in the move ‘Django Unchained’

“Be curious” is a very popular term used widely within the coaching fraternity.  It is of course great advice, as it encourages people to ‘simply notice’, without judgement, and with an open questioning mind. Being curious helps raise self-awareness. It also encourages one to consider and reflect on things that may otherwise go unnoticed. However, merely ‘being curious’, in itself, is unlikely to create the sufficient mental conditions for significant learning and change to occur. To achieve this, generalised curiosity needs to be cranked up to a state of sharply focused ‘attention’.

Being curious is the equivalent to being a casual ‘observer’ of the game. Having focused attention requires you become completely ‘immersed’ in the game.

source ackowledgement: crit365.com

source acknowledgement: crit365.com

I have touched on this subject many times in the past, most notably in Slow Down, you Move too Fast.  Before getting to agreements that something needs done about a problem, and long before specific actions are decided upon, it is vital that high levels of attention are shone on the issue. People simply do not agree to take action on situations unless they first of all recognise that it is important enough to do so, and that there are high enough stakes at play to make it worthwhile. Continue reading

Enough v Perfect? You choose.

I am enough!

As a leader, would you ever tell your people they are “Already enough”?  What would stop you saying that?  Have you ever said to yourself, “I am enough”?

with thanks to: Hugh at gapingvoid.com

with thanks to: Hugh at gapingvoid.com

Doesn’t it amount to an admission of defeat? Isn’t it saying I can’t get any better? Where is the ambition in the word “enough”? It is surely the antithesis of everything we aspire to. To keep improving, to become more effective, to control, to perfect. To be perfect.

But, think again. We are a society riddled with uncertainty. As a result we battle against that uncertainty and it comes out as anger, as fear, and with bitterness. The more scared we get, the more certain we become in our beliefs. The angrier we get, because others just don’t get it, the more it results in increased frustration and fear. A vicious cycle of fear, anger and increasing uncertainty.The struggle to attain is driven by ever rising expectations. Expectations from where? From parents, from peers, from ourselves? The pressure to be the best you can be, to maximise your potential. They are well-meaning expressions, I find myself using them as self-motivators, what harm can they do? The trouble is, they don’t come with an instruction manual. No-one ever knows Continue reading

Stroke of Genius

I was intrigued by an article I read this week on 5 Reasons Your Top Employee Isn’t Happy. It got me thinking about how we manage talent.  And maybe there lies the problem – in that very word ‘manage’.  Talent is a precious thing, but should it be given ‘maverick status’ or does it need to be controlled?  Well, I guess the answer might well vary depending on the culture of the company, what period in the company’s development you are at, or what sort of leader you are?

source: bbc.co.uk

source: bbc.co.uk

I immediately thought about the football team analogy. I have played and watched football over more years than I care to remember, and the recurring debate about how teams should accommodate rare talent just never goes away.  What I have seen,  is that teams who are riding on the crest of a wave, winning everything in sight, and blowing the opposition away, can often afford the ‘luxury’ of the occasional ‘maverick’ or ‘outlier’.  Often described as a genius, these players entertain the crowds and keep the sports (and sometimes front-page) writers happy.

But, when the going gets tough, everyone is expected to put in a shift. Sulking on the wings with your hands on hips, complaining about not getting good service, doesn’t go down well – not with the crowd (or shareholders), team mates (or work colleagues) or coach (boss).

It’s a big issue for companies too. When someone is bestowed the title talent (or genius) – what is expected of them and of others?   Continue reading

Get Less Busy

source credit: geniusbeauty.com

People in our workforces are under serious strain.  They are constantly being asked to do more with less. Our businesses and government departments are responding to the austerity drives by trimming more and more from their budgets, which inevitably means fewer people are left to do the work. Meanwhile the demands are increasing. With everyone in the economy tightening their belts, company profits are falling, which means that a smaller and smaller workforce is being challenged to work smarter, harder, more innovatively and to ‘keep their chins up and stay engaged’.

In the midst of this, what are our leaders getting up to?  Well, from what I can glean, I see leaders who feel a great deal of responsibility for this state of affairs, and who are responding by working themselves harder and more intensely than ever.

The irony is, that at this time, perhaps more than ever before, our leaders need to be making themselves much less ‘busy’, and focusing more than they ever have done on nurturing their workforce.So, what can we be asking our leaders to be thinking about right now that will help them to do just that? Continue reading

Dance under those Lights

George Bernard Shaw is reputed to have described a sick man as being unable to think of anything but his ailment”.  The general malaise and depression that swamps much of our news, both regionally and from around the world, is reminiscent of Shaw’s sick man. Get too close to a problem and you can’t see beyond it.

Our organisations and businesses are being driven by a management obsessed with ‘looking in the rear view mirror’. Think about it!  What goes on in meetings in organisations and businesses, day in day out? How much of the focus is on what has been going wrong, and why?  How much time is devoted to looking at trends, and graphs, and budget forecasts based on productivity over the last month, quarter or year? How much of the employee performance appraisal is devoted to the fine detail of relative value and contribution of people over the past quarter or year, and not about the development, potential and possibilities in the future?

When managers are obsessed by the problems of the here and now, the next decision, the next quarterly review, the next appraisal or the next monthly operational review data pack (… please save us from the dreaded review pack !!), then they are focused on the ailment.

Where is the vision in all of this?  Where are we going?   Continue reading

Are you prepared to upset the Apple Cart?

I recently had a conversation with a senior manager in a large global organisation about how he was applying performance management in his area.  What he told me surprised me.  He had a few people in his teams that were clearly not performing as well as they could.  Their contributions, when set against people doing similar jobs in other parts of the business, were lower, and they showed no desire to grow and develop beyond their area of specialism. But the manager appreciated their efforts, saw them as ‘steady-eddies’ and knew they would never be star performers.  They were valuable to him, because they had skills he would find hard to replace, even though he knew demand for those skills were in rapid decline. He saw no point in ‘upsetting the apple cart’, as he put it, as everything was running quite smoothly.  His customer was happy, his team was happy, and he was happy. So, why cause problems?

I asked him how he wanted to be viewed by his team as a leader, when they looked back on their careers.

At first he thought that they would see him as a ‘friendly manager’, someone they could ‘trust’, who ‘looked after them’, and to some extent ‘protected them’ from all of the ‘latest fads’ and ‘initiatives’ that were doing the rounds in the business.  Those ‘fads and initiatives’ that he was referring to are about preparing people for what are major global changes within the industry, that are demanding different skills and ways of working.  People are being encouraged to take responsibility for their own careers, to uplift their skills, and develop new ways of thinking to better prepare themselves for the disruption and challenges that are rapidly emerging.

I suggested that it was possible they would look upon him as a useful buffer and protector from ‘disruptive change’ in the short term (or for as long as their area remains viable), but that in the longer term they are likely to look back and question why others had ‘stolen a march’ on them.

They may be saying things like: Continue reading

How do you Influence People?

How often have you thought about your own personal influencing style?  And, has it changed over the course of time?  If it has changed, has that been as a result of your own careful thought-out intervention and change, or has it happened subconsciously, so that you are only aware of the change as a result of reflection?  I suspect that, like most of us, you have not often given it too much thought, especially when in the thick of the action, when deadlines are looming, and decisions just have to be made.

Influencing others is at the very core of Leadership. While that has always been the case, in today’s complex, inter-connected world, it is even more true. To be successful in a world where a leader had direct control over their troops, in an environment where command-and-control was all that was needed, where the tasks expected of people were simply expressed (basically “do-it”, or the slightly more persuasive JFDI), influence was probably less important than straightforward authoritarian directorship.

Effective leaders in today’s business world, recognise that Continue reading

Why aren’t Business Leaders more like Athletes?

It suprprises me that our aspiring business leaders and even general managers in corporations and in public service do not dedicate more time to brain science. I liken this to the world of athletics. An athlete’s primary job is to run faster, or jump higher or throw further. Sounds simple. But it is now well-recognised that to be the very best and to achieve the nano-second advantage that might make the difference between gold & silver or even between qualification for the olympic team and staying at home, athletes need to know a lot more than ‘just’ their traditional training programme. In the course of becoming the best they can be, they become well-versed in areas of muscle physiology, nutrition, anatomy, cardio-vascular mechanics, as well as some important principles of the the way their brain works through relaxation techniques, managing and channelling emotions and positive visualisation exercises. So what do we need and expect from our leaders? Continue reading

Leadership as an Activity

Ask people to define leaders or leadership and I’m willing to bet they will think of it in terms of people. Figures of authority. Historical figures who have led countries, movements, armies. There is no doubting that the people they mention will have been leaders (good or bad). But it misses the point about leadership. Leadership is not defined by the position or authority one possesses or has been granted. It is better thought of as an ‘activity’. Leadership is evident in the behaviour displayed by people and is measured largely by the extent to which the activity mobilises others to accept responsibility for owning issues, changing conditions and tackling tough challenges. Note, the important point here is about mobilising others. True, leaders can and often do take action and make decisions, but I believe the most significant measure of leadership is the extent to which leaders are able to focus other’s attention on the need to take action. That is the mark of true Leadership. That is what causes real change and alters mindsets, and, very importantly, does not encourage dependence.

I recommend a great read on this topic. Ronald Heifetz who wrote Leadership Without Easy Answers.
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Book Review Audio