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