Archive for August, 2010

The Brain Works from the Bottom Up

Managers and leaders need to accept the basic design of the people with whom they work.   

Human behavior is a function of the brain’s design, shaped by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.  From our point of view, it’s critical to remember that primitive functions, like involuntary physiological responses, always take precedence over higher order rational processes.  Sure, the ability to think rationally gives us a competitive advantage, as a species and as individuals, but we wouldn’t be around at all if we weren’t hardwired to survive an evolutionary environment that, for most of human history, has been rugged and dangerous.  Physiological responses and emotions trump rational thought every time.

Any kind of stress in the environment – hostile coworkers, sexual harassment, even secondhand smoke -can lead the brain stem to activate physiological responses that make it hard to think clearly.  Most people think of programs and policies that discourage workplace violence and discrimination as a matter of equity or a way of reducing corporate liability, and that’s all true.  But if you’re trying to create an environment where people do their best thinking, they are essential.

The next level up in the brain, the midbrain, is the seat of human emotion.  It too influences our behavior constantly, and has the capacity to preempt rational process.  These emotional reactions are part of the hard wiring that we all share, though the culture and conventions of everyday life tend to mask them.  Emotional reactions are not intrinsically good or bad.  But the stronger the emotion, the more it influences, or distorts, logical process.  These emotions can be both problematic and beneficial for individuals and the company.

Only in the top portion of the brain, in the cortex, do we process logically.  This part can function well only if the two lower portions are not agitated or agitating.  Our goal as managers and leaders is to maximize the work of this top part. 

Systems for managing humans must take into account the design of the human brain much like software applications must be compatible with a computer’s operating system.  Only by starting with a more comprehensive, inclusive view of human behavior can you influence it.  Human interactions are always a blend of instinct, emotion, and rationality.

Tom DeMaio, PhD


A Foundation for Managing and Leading People

As a psychologist and business management consultant I see the need for a framework, for a set of guiding principles to understand people and guide my work with them. Managers and leaders need the same thing, not just a list of tools, tactics, and programs.

I find that too many businessmen and women forget the simple notion that people are (don’t be shocked now) just people.  They are instinctive, quirky, emotional beings, who show up for work to earn a living and do a job.  They are not necessarily rational beings who want to figure out how to do the best job possible for their organization or business. At HerschDeMaio we like to say that there is a myth to the notion of rational process.

Sound pessimistic?  Not from my point of view.  People are just what they are; they have a brain designed by evolution and they have experience that forms a personality.  If you want to work with them you must have a system that takes into account the way they actually operate… not the way you would like them to be.  When we approach people within the framework of how they actually are, we ACCEPT them.  We need to build systems that utilize the unique beings that people are, rather than fight human nature.

Acceptance is not rocket science, but designing those systems that maximize human performance just might be.  For managers, it’s not just a question of compensating for messy instinctive reactions and emotions so people can think clearly and perform well.  You don’t want to do that.  What you want to do is align passion and personality with the goals of the organization.  Then you will have a powerful engine for success.

Next time I’ll say more about why this is true.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

How a Business Management Consultant Views the People Side of Business

As a psychologist and business management consultant the questions that come my way from leaders and managers are usually about why people behave the way they do. The same questions come whether I am providing team-building services, executive coaching, or conflict resolution. They are often specific to an episode or an ongoing personnel problem. 

Human behavior in organizations can be thought of as depending mainly on two factors: the nature of the work environment and the personality of the person. These two components do not operate separately; there is an interaction between the work environment and the worker’s personality.

The goal of any organization is to build a work environment that maximizes the productivity of all the diverse people involved. A key question is to determine what the fundamental principles are for building that work environment. I hear managers getting bits and pieces of advice to do this or that with their employees. Wouldn’t it be useful to have a coherent approach that has integrated principles? And wouldn’t it be necessary for these principles to stem from our latest science and business research?  We think it would be a great benefit if business managers had such a framework for working with their employees. 

This was the goal Lee Hersch and I set for ourselves when we began writing Six Psychological Principles. Understanding how to manage and lead requires a clear notion of what people are and what they need. People principles are not independent; they are an interwoven set of ideas that follow from the basic design of the human being. 

So, I ask you to think about it. What do you consider to be the most foundational notion about people for managing and leading?  I’ll tell you our formulation in my next blog.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

From Psychologist to Business Management Consultant

As a clinical psychologist turned business management consultant, taking the psychological vantage point into the workplace is a fun challenge. This is where the rubber meets the road; where I get to help leaders and business managers understand how their staff works, do team building and executive coaching. 

One might think people are inscrutable, but they make lots of sense to me. Even their emotional states make sense. Through the years consulting I’ve been asked similar questions over and over again. Why do people act that way? Why don’t they just do what they’re asked? Do we need to be more supportive or do we need more rules?

These and other questions led me to believe that businessmen and women need a fundamental framework for understanding their people. Business leaders are trained in a technical field and/or in business management. They do not go to school for a degree in psychology.

But I did get the degree. That’s why my partner, Lee Hersch, and I set out to distill the key principles that every leader and manager should know. We came up with six principles. Now you can find them in our new book, The People Side of Business: Six Psychological Principles.

Given my training and because I hate boring lessons, we decided to write the book as a story that would help provide meaning and context for the six principles. So the book is written about a new CEO who has people problems in his business. He decides to understand the problems and learn the principles simultaneously. Creating the characters and storyline for the book was quite a challenge. I don’t write novels for a living. Interestingly, my joke for years has been that I have been watching/reading people novels 10 pages at a time through my clinical and consulting practice. Funny enough, they are quite realistic.

In my coming blogs, I’d like to share these key principles and the tips that derive from them. I will be interested in your reactions.

Tom DeMaio, PhD