Reptilian Behavior and Business
by Russell Giles

Allies Consulting

Marking and guarding territory, establishing social hierarchy through ritualistic displays of dominance, intraspecies fighting to protect territory, hunting and hoarding, immediate retreat from or attack against any foreign object. These are all common traits of reptiles. They are also all too common business practices.

No this report is not a plea for more humanitarian paradigms in our daily commerce. Consider it more an anatomy lesson about what part of the human brain is most often employed at the office. And here's why it might be your executive edge. We do not consciously use this part of the brain; it uses us.

Here's a few Darwinian facts and insights that may begin to explain why most of your direct reports, associates, and clients act so irrationally more than a little of their working hours.

For starters the species around today are not here out of the beneficent nurturing of nature. We're around because we survived in the face of continual rigorous competition. Evolution prizes are simple: win, and you get to keep living; lose, and you're extinct. The game is simple. However, the playing field is a bit subtler. If in its quest to out-survive other species, a dominant species destroys the environment's life-support capacity, that species itself dies.

Throughout the ages a number of biological accoutrements have shown up in the survival game: claws, keen eyesight, venomous fangs, wings, warm blood, scales, even sonar. But none has been more successful than sophisticated brains. The winning edge of brain sophistication is that it provides an organism with more behavior options in surviving any given environment and competing with other species in that environment.

Humans won the environmental dominance game because of their brains.  But as we evolved human thinking did not replace more primitive mental functions.  Rather it got stacked literally around and on top of them.  So we now have three brains: reptile, limbic (mammalian) and human.

What's more fascinating is that while all three work together, they also maintain much of their original function independent of the other's awareness, let alone influence. Fact is the reptile and limbic systems (call them the "critter brain") operate much outside of human consciousness and control. So really, in crazy behavior, the devil didn't make you do it; the lizard and mammal in your head did.

Given the above, it might be useful for an executive to note what are the key drivers and rules of this critter brain lying behind and underneath our human one.

The driving force of the pre-human brain is survival. Scarcity is its eternal assumption; competition, its only rule. Almost all behavior in the reptile brain is genetically programmed, single response seeking air, food and water. There is pain and satiation, but no pleasure.  Aggression, but no anger.  Waiting, but no patience.  Reptile brains don't have options. They don't change. They have no past and no future.  It is all now, in the moment.  And they don't look out for anything but themselves.

Limbic (mammal) brains learn and have basic emotion. Survival is still the paradigm and fear is the driving emotion. But they seek more than food, air and water.  Mammals can know some pleasure, anger, loss. They usually have polar options in behavior--fight or flight, nurture or abandon, obey or rebel. Limbic brains can do some generalization, but they cannot do much with time. And these brains cannot distort.

Human brain function (the frontal lobes) can distort, therefore it can think about a future and alter past experiences into novel new ideas. It can also create symbols (language) to represent reality. So human brains can dream and fantasize.  We can also worry. By contrast, an antelope will not fear the lion that may show up tomorrow. Humans can fantasize beasts that have never existed and fret about it all day long.

But fear, survival and competition do not really seem to be the major motivators of this part of our brain. Some researchers are beginning to believe that self-expression, or at least exploration, is the major driver here. Abundance is the expectation. And this brain seldom deals directly with the environment but rather with its symbolic representations of reality both the positive and the negative.

Words and the memories and anticipations they catalogue can hold tremendous sway in this part of the brain. Creativity and cooperation also reign in this part of our thinking. So, the human part of us can make up many options, incredible numbers of behavior choices in response to situations. Including the choice to forgo competition and survival for a greater good.

Our three brains working together with the human part in control are a very elegant system. They have given us dominion of our lives and freed us from repetitive reaction. However, there is a rub, of course.

Physiologically, the human brain is the furthest away from spinal column nerve centers and the major blood vessels that carry food and oxygen. The critter brain gets first crack at environmental stimuli and sustenance because it is genetically designed for base survival. But much nastier, it can and will respond to fantasy fears and threats the human mind makes up as if they were real. And if the primitive part of our brain thinks survival is at stake, it will take all the biological energy for itself.  Yes, it can grab it all first, and turn off all our higher mental capacities.

Why is this important to you, the executive in business? Simple.  To most of us, work equals money.  Money equals food, clothing, shelter, etc. etc.  So business and our survival are bedfellows.  But when we continually over-emphasize all business activities as life and death struggles with imagined predators and scavengers crawling every square inch of the commercial waterhole, we constantly stimulate our lowest brain functions into their most primitive mode. And, in many cases we cut off the very self-expression and creative options that might assist in growth and survival.

So, the next time you hear your subordinates harping on the business as pure competition to survive. When they talk about dying because the margins are thinning or the market dwindling. When they suggest massive cutbacks and layoffs with no emotional twinge. When all they focus on is scarcity. When they say they have absolutely no choice. When all that is occurring in your company, know what part of the brain is dominating all their thinking and responses. Lizards surround you.

And as an executive, when you can momentarily remove the fear, scarcity and survival, you can engage your staff's best expression and create options. They can choose to work harder, to innovate, to discover. They can cooperate and align. They can choose to be loyal and make sacrifice, if need be. They can build new futures.

Inside us, the self-expressive human mind, not the survivalist lizard brain, might just be your greatest executive edge.

(Russell Giles publishes a weekly e-column called "The Exec's Edge Report".

(NOTE: Allies Consulting Services offers a menu of programs that can help you and your organization operate less out of your "lizard brain" and all of you operate in more effective and brilliant ways. They will meet or exceed your expectations: they are designed to deliver real results. They also leverage our other programs, magnifying your ROI!) 

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