Achieve better results with less disruption by using your "Smart Brain."

If you want to take your team from surviving to thriving – here is what you need to know! [August 23, 2013]

by John Fitzpatrick, Avalon Foster Group [Author's Profile]

JohnFitzpatrick4I recently attended a project meeting with one of my clients headquartered in Washington, DC. After the initial phase of the meeting, during a short break, the Director of Human Resources and I had a few minutes alone. We began discussing a bright young member of the IT team who had just left "Part 1" of the meeting and had made a great contribution in terms of thoughts and ideas for our learning management project. I commented by saying how impressed I was at the young man’s insight into areas outside his core discipline and experience. This was clearly a bright young guy, who will likely grow in standing and responsibility within the firm.

At this, the HR Director began proudly telling me about what a great hire the young man was, about where he went to school and about a few of the young man’s early accomplishments with the firm. Then seemly out of nowhere the HR Director said, “Yeah, my strategy is simple: if you perform here, you get to keep your job; if you don’t, I’ll fire you.”

My immediate thought was – Okay, here’s a guy who takes accountability and consequences seriously! Fortunately for my client, my scope of work with the firm was not an engagement for leadership consulting or team building. If that were the case, we would have had some serious work to do.

As a trainer and consultant on building and leading high-performance teams, I’m aware that accountability and consequences are necessary in workplace dynamics, but I’d like to offer some tips on how you can achieve better results and less disruption to your business without threatening to fire everybody!

Have you ever been in a relationship where it was terrifying to think of letting the other person down? Have you ever been a part of a team where not giving a 100% was nearly impossible to think about?

I don’t mean from the standpoint that you might be chastised by your boss. What I mean is, when you’ve punished yourself in your thoughts because you failed to come through for them, or when you’ve felt that your feelings of real caring and support for them were not expressed in your behavior.High-Five

This is where intrinsic motivation comes from. When consequences are self-imposed, they are willful and occur naturally and not from external influences like – if you don’t perform here, I’ll fire you! Both types of consequences work. Both will stimulate you to perform. So let me ask you which will create better and longer-term success? I’m sure that you’ve already come up with the answer in your head, but let’s examine what science tells us.

I recently had the pleasure of devouring a book called, Smart Tribes, by Christine Comaford, where she explains it very well. From anthropology and neuroscience, we know that humans have three main parts to our brain, each likely having evolved upon the other. The most primitive part is the reptilian brain, which as you might assume by its name is the same as a reptile's. It manages our balance, body temperature, breathing and other functions we don’t consciously think about. It’s also where our survival instincts come from. When we’re in a scary situation that threatens us and we act out of instinct rather than reason, it’s our reptilian brain that’s doing the work for us.

The next layer, the mammalian brain, houses the limbic system. This is the part we share with mammals and it handles our emotions, short-term memory, and response to danger. It’s focused on survival, but it’s the place our feelings of anger, frustration, happiness and love come from, and at the same time where our “fight-flight-freeze” responses are located.

When we combine these two brains, we get the "survival brain" or what some experts call the "Critter Brain." When you experience an event that your Critter Brain associates with protecting your safety or survival, you will continue to run the same emotional survival response every time that type of event happens, and your responses will instinctively be limited to those that protect you. Why? Because that part of your brain doesn’t care about your “quality of life,” only about keeping you alive.

Another area of the brain called the neocortex is highly advanced in humans. It gives us access to abilities not found in “Critters”. We’ll call this our "Smart Brain." It allows us to plan, invent, solve complex problems, think abstract thoughts, and have visionary ideas. It even lets us weigh our experiences and compare abstract thoughts. To get full access to the gifts of the neocortex, we need be able to disengage our Critter Brian. We can only disengage it when we feel: safe, we belong, and we matter. Think about it. Otherwise, we’ll sense danger! To create safety, belonging and mattering, we need to have strong relationships with our team members built on trust and respect. This means getting to know them. Not at a “keep-at-distance” superficial level, I mean REALLY GETTING TO KNOW AND APPRECIATE THEM! When we know each other and have identified our unique capabilities, we begin to access the camaraderie that takes us into our "smart state."

In our work-life, when we are operating out of our Smart Brain, we have access to more thinking and creative resources and are more apt to tap the resources of others because we feel safe and without need to protect ourselves. We’re more prone to innovate and share information in order to make advances. But in companies where the culture is competitive, political or punitive—where employees do not feel safety, belonging, and mattering—our Critter Brain can hijack our Smart Brain, which is effectively hijacking our performance. Here are some examples:

•  When highly regarded manager can’t speak in coherent sentences when presenting a new product concept to his executive team after months of
    planning and research. 
•  When we procrastinate on calling back a potential customer because we’re afraid they will say "no" to us and we’ll lose the sale.
•  When we fail to provide candid—although constructive and necessary—feedback to an employee who is highly influential among other team members.

As I wrap up this post, I’d like you to think about which “state” you’re operating out of at work, a Smart State or a Critter State? How about your management teams and work units? What state is most embodied within your company culture? And finally, what can you do improve the relative amount of safety, belonging, and mattering in your organization, business unit or team?


August 23, 2013
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