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35 Million Years At Work

By Glenn Kaufman on May. 29, 2012 in Leadership Bites

Biologists will tell you that evolution is a work in progress, and for all species, it only ends at extinction.  While evolution seems to have been kind to our species, it did leave us with at least one peculiarity:  our rational, thinking cortex did not replace our more primitive “reptilian” brain stem, but rather, sits on top of it with blazing interconnected circuitry.  What does this have to do with leadership?

Well, that older more primitive brain exerts a lot of influence on our behavior despite its lack of real estate.  And to make matters worse, it does so without much conscious awareness on our part.  Take, for example, your annual performance review.  When your boss told you that you that you didn’t do a good job on one of your objectives despite your having thought you did, was there at least a moment where you wanted to either reach across the desk to shake him, or run out of the room and get to your desk to print out your resume?  Rationally, you wanted to stay calm and hear him out.  But that old brain wouldn’t have it.  It was shouting “Warning!  Threat!  Prepare for action!” without your control.  Next, you faced a web of decisions:  stay and listen, stay and defend, flee and face the consequences later, etc.  And so it happens, in similar ways, every day, in every organization.  We wear nice suits to work, but they only partially cover up the “ancient” within us.

As leaders, are we merely innocent victims of our biology, or can we harness the primitive in ourselves, to be more effective in our jobs?  How can we put this “sixth sense” to work?  When you factor your “gut instincts” into decisions, you are already listening to the primitive brain.  It’s your unbiased radar that beckons you to “think twice” or “dig deeper” into things before you render a decision.  Research shows that we use our instincts more than we recognize because the rational brain is very clever at coming up with sound, logical reasons for our decisions a fraction of a second after our gut actually makes the decision for us.  This means that our less rational brain, even when we can’t articulate why we feel a certain way, is actually processing information in a potentially useful way.

I am not going to suggest that we throw out analytics or that gut trumps logic in all situations.  But here’s an experiment that you might want to try the next time you are deliberating to make a decision with your team.  Rather than starting with the PowerPoint data and picking it apart to render a verdict, try starting with your gut instinct and the collective instincts of those in the room regarding the decision itself.  Imagine the dialog when you open with, “what are your guts telling you on this?” followed by, “here is what my gut is saying…isn’t it interesting how we are each responding.”  It’s a great way of playing devils advocate and opening up discussion that would normally favor “my deck” over “your deck” and pages of so-called “facts”.  You have nothing to lose: in the end, many of your decisions are not made “rationally” to begin with.

So consider what your gut is telling you and see whether thirty five million years of ancestors have anything interesting to say.


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