The Reptilian Brain

Be Thoughtful

Are you frustrated because you can't get the cooperation you need from family members, friends, clients, co-workers or management? Are you angry because they don't seem to understand the importance of what they are doing and act irrationally? Do your clients get angry and attack you about trivial issues? Do the people you work with behave like brainless creatures acting on impulse rather than logic? Such behaviour may have a simple explanation.

You may be working with reptiles, both literally and figuratively. No, I don't mean you work with snakes in the grass. Your co-workers' Reptilian brains may be controlling their behavior.

According to the triune brain theory developed by Dr. Paul MacLean, chief of brain evolution and behavior at the National Institutes of Health, you have three brains, not just one. That theory may help you explain some of your behavior, your co-workers' behavior, and the behavior of people you encounter.

The brain stem is the Reptilian brain. It is a remnant of our prehistoric past. The Reptilian brain acts on stimulus and response. It is useful for quick decisions without thinking. The Reptilian brain focuses on survival, and takes over when you are in danger and you don't have time to think. In a world of survival of the fittest, the Reptilian brain is concerned with getting food and keeping you from becoming food.

The Reptilian brain is fear-driven and takes over when you feel threatened or endangered.

A second part of the brain is the limbic stem or mammalian brain. The limbic stem is the root of emotions and feelings. It affects moods and bodily functions.

The third part, the neo-cortex, is the most evolutionarily advanced part of your brain. It governs your ability to speak, think and solve problems. The neo-cortex affects your creativity and your ability to learn. The neo-cortex makes up about 80 percent of the brain.

In the Industrial Age, the Reptilian brain was honored and needed. Companies expected assembly line workers to take orders and work without thinking. Industrial Age management performed the functions of the neo-cortex. Management did the thinking, and workers did what management told them to do.

In the Information Age, that arrangement no longer works. Today, workers must think, make decisions and use their creativity. In the Information Age, Reptilian behavior is a disadvantage and a hindrance. Yet, Reptilian behavior still exists.

According to the triune brain theory, people up-shift and down-shift to use different parts of their brain depending upon their situation. When you up-shift, you use your neo- cortex. A safe environment is necessary for up-shifting. Consequently, creativity, learning, and thinking happen when you feel safe, secure, and protected. Praise and security promote up-shifting.

Conversely, you down-shift when your Reptilian brain takes over. People become Reptilian when they are afraid and concerned with survival. Criticism and fear promote down- shifting.

Learning Principle: a person or an organization can't evolve if it is primarily concerned with survival.

What you can do about the reptiles in your life? Besides physical survival, we must overcome two basic fears in the workplace:

1. fear of embarrassment, and 2. fear of failure.

If people are afraid they will be embarrassed or treated as failures, they will not take risks. A prime task of management is to create a work environment where people are not afraid of embarrassment or failure.

How can you use this theory?

If your clients, co-workers, staff or upper management are acting like reptiles, their behavior may be fear- and survival-based. The Reptilian brain governs fear-based action. You improve working relationships by reducing their fear, and by improving their perceived odds for survival. I emphasize the word "perceived." Fear is often irrational. Although you may not consider a situation threatening, the people you work with may perceive a threat. Their Reptilian brains take over, and fight or flight become their only perceived options.

How do you deal with people governed by their Reptilian brain? (No, a lobotomy is not the answer.)

Show them they are safe and assure them they will survive.

Actively listen by reflecting back both the content and the feelings they are expressing.

Let them vent and get their feelings out.

Do not counterattack. Responding in kind only escalates the situation.

The best approach, though, is to be proactive and create a safe environment where we do not simulate the Reptilian brain.

Don't cuss those brainless reptiles you call bosses, clients and co-workers. They are using their brains...the wrong part of their brains.

Help stamp out irrationality in the workplace by creating the conditions where your co-workers feel comfortable using the higher part of their brains. them to up-shift and to "be thoughtful"


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