Reptilian Behavior and Business
by Russell Giles
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
us, the self-expressive human mind, not the survivalist
lizard brain, might just be your greatest executive
Giles publishes a weekly e-column called "The Exec's Edge
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,
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