I’m engaged with a local group of colleagues on a series of conversations about the marvelous complexity, flexibility, and mysteries of the brain. Our first conversation was with Deb Gilburg. Deb and her family associates at Gilburg Leadership Institute have done a lot of good thinking about how to talk to executives about how the structure of their brains can color their responses to events and affect their decision-making. Executives also need to be aware that this human system is always at play in the workforce as something to be dealt with.
The Gilburgs use the diagram on the right (and the red and green lines) to provide a language for talking about the brain. (My humble apologies in advance to Deb if I’ve misstated any of this. It is a simplification, but I might still have some of it wrong.)
Neocortex: this is what we normally think of as our operative “brain,” and it contains the machinery for hearing, seeing, thinking, creativity, remembering, decision-making, and so on. We didn’t talk about this much, especially as we talked about how the machinations of the other three components control how much of our neocortex is available to us.
Our limbic brain (green) is shared with other mammals. It is where empathy resides, and our ability to do bond with and be influenced by others. Feelings are what bonds us. This is how we connect with others who share our values; the extent to which we share values dictates the extent to which we can “move into” the neocortex to work together. If you haven’t seen Rebecca Saxe’s TED talk about how we read each other’s minds, you should! She uses MRI to identify what happens in our brains when we consider the motives, passions and beliefs. It’s in this part of our brain that we try to make sense of what is going on in other people’s brains.
The amygdala (yellow) is our emotional memory store. This is where our preverbal memories reside (which are sometimes surfaced during psychoanalysis). The amygdala is responsible for our split-second responses to emotionally-charged situations – those times where we don’t think about what we are going to do; we just up and do it. Often, situations our amygdala perceives as threatening can lead us to the “red line” continuum of responses, from flight to fight.
The reptilian brain is where our survival mechanisms exist. Threats activate this portion of our brain – and the amygdala can alter the circulation of blood flow for a split second away from the neocortex (so no time-consuming analysis can be performed) to either the upper or lower torso, depending on the determined response. The loss of blood flow to the neocortex can also happen to a lesser degree during a time of sustained stress, thus leading to more subtle but pervasive “redline” behaviors. So it is perhaps easy to see why we act unreasonably when we are stressed. For executives, this kind of stress can trigger survival-based behaviors (power plays, knowledge hording, peer distrust, etc.) that would be less likely were they not at this stress level.
“If we don’t have a green-line way to process stress & fear, we’ll drop to the red line.”
The value of understanding the brain in this way is that it provides a way to overwrite the blueprint. For an executive, this can mean acknowledging when employees are stressed (on the red line), and creating opportunities for them to bond over shared values (the green line) so that they can move into creative and strategic action.“Having conversations about what we care about and why can reset our brain and help us make better sense of what is going on, and think more strategically and creatively about solutions.”
A wonderful example of this concept is how Paul Levy, President and CEO of Beth Israel Hospital, addressed a serious budget problem. The hospital was in a position in which it would need to lay off many of the lower-waged employees. Levy was reluctant to do that, as he understood how these people contributed to the hospital as well as the importance of the jobs to their lives and families. At an employee meeting, Levy spoke directly to the staff about his concern, saying, “… if we protect these workers, it means the rest of us will have to…give up more of their salary and benefits.” He received a resounding standing ovation, and over the next several days, suggestions for how the hospital could save money. Many of those ideas involved job sharing, reducing hours, and the like. (Full quote, and full story from the Boston Globe: “A head with a Heart.”)
In the language of the brain’s colors above, what Levy did with his employees was move them from the red line to the green line by connecting them to a core set of shared values about the hospital workers and engaging them to participate in coming up with a solution, because he had none. Getting to the green line freed the hospital staff from more primal, red-line reactions to the budget reality and enhanced their capacity to exercise their neocortex— to think and solve problems creatively, and move the work of the hospital forward.
I like the way that Deb related the green line (“bonding continuum”) to the style of a network. Every network has a purpose, and it is in sharing the purpose of the network that bonds people toward action. A great lesson for network builders and weavers.
Next time: Neuroplasticity