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Are you stuck with a primitive brain?

Updated: Apr 7

Picture yourself in a forest. It’s dark, you’re alone, and it is dead silent. All of a sudden you hear a branch or twig snap. How would you react?

Ever wondered why people act irrationally? I always wondered what is actually going on in their heads. No, that’s not just a judgemental thought I had, but a genuine curiosity as to what is going on in a person’s brain.

Some years ago, I explored this more and began reading some amazing books that not only helped me understand others but understand myself. It allowed me to reflect on behaviours I demonstrated at certain stages in my life.

Back to the forest. I’m guessing you gasped, your heart rate increased, you experienced an energy increase, and your senses were on high alert. You are now in the ‘fight or flight mode’. This is a good thing for your survival.

Right now, an ‘amygdala hijack’ is occurring in your brain. The amygdala is the part of your brain that has sent a rush of stress hormones through your body, hijacking the thinking part of your brain – the ‘neocortex’. The neocortex acts a lot slower than the amygdala.

Why is the neocortex slower to respond? Because our amygdala was a well-developed part of the human brain before the neocortex dating back to early humans (homo habilis). Rational thinking came much later in homo-sapians helping develop our neocortex. This explains a lot about irrational behaviour being that the amygdala is the epicentre of our emotions and is faster to react.

How many times have you reflected and thought to yourself, “why on earth did I do that?”

This reflection stage is your neocortex helping you understand and rationalise your behaviour.

That brings me to leadership and how I lead people. After learning more about the brain, I began to lead people more effectively as my own emotional intelligence had improved. Now I find myself guiding people along the emotional change curve towards acceptance as I take the time to try and understand their emotions. Adopting a coaching style and the use of effective questioning helps individuals activate their neocortex fostering rational thinking in times we feel threatened. The process has already begun in the feedback stage.

To finish this off let’s go back to the forest, yet this time you’re not alone. You have someone else with you. This person is pre-occupied in their thoughts and won’t hear the branch or twig snap. Your reactions trigger fear in the other person putting them into fight or flight mode as well.

What key lessons can we take from this? Firstly, leaders need to avoid demonstrating behaviour that people’s primitive brains will perceive as creating threats, risks, or danger. This causes people to be closed, defensive and suspicious.

Secondly, leaders need to create conditions that will appeal to people’s rational brains, as well as their positive emotions creating a towards reaction. A key way to do this is through authentic, honest, two-way conversations.

Lastly, you can’t fake it. People are good at detecting insincerity. You need to look within yourself, put your ego aside, and genuinely understand and relate to the other person. This will help you build high quality relationships.


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