The good news is that such human troubles are quite often due to activation of hard-wiring in the brain as opposed to more intractable personality issues, lack of skills, or even deep cultural dysfunction.
And, the hard wiring is malleable. Here are some principles based on neuroscience research (see references below).
- An overarching principle in the brain is to decrease danger.
- Perceived physical dangers and social dangers activate the same neural networks and involve the limbic system.
- These neural networks evolved earlier for survival and are faster, last longer, and are harder to impact than pathways for higher cognition and judgment.
- Activation of these survival pathways decreases activity in higher brain centers for cognition and judgment, especially the prefrontal cortex (PFC). As a result, when in survival mode, quality of perception, thinking, and decision making are diminished and we may not even be aware this is happening.
- Survival pathway activation leads to strong emotion, leaps to faulty conclusions and interpretations, and behaviors which are at risk for disrupting work partnerships.
A few principles for management:
- We are also hard-wired for social harmony—we can overcome our personal survival instincts for the good of the group. The opportunity for influencing and connecting positively to others socially is built-in.
- By consciously activating higher cognition centers in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), activity in the survival pathways of the limbic system is decreased.
- Using the higher centers of the PFC is energy expensive. It is easy for the PFC to get overloaded.
- So, it is important to focus attention on just a few issues or priorities repetitively--work environments are generally complex, stressful, and constantly changing so survival pathways will be constantly re-activated.
Actions likely to help activate higher centers:
(based on linking neuroscience with research and experience in psychology and organizational development)
- Commit to a practice of reflection to learn the types of situations which trigger your reactive states and signs of reactivity in your emotions, thoughts, and behavior. See the article Are you leading from reactivity or creativity?--four steps to see your blind spots.
- Label thoughts, emotions, and behaviors Just naming them reduces limbic arousal.
- Reinterpret and normalize your own and others' states of mind and behaviors.Even the most skilled people can be quite reactive at times.
- Refocus on what you what to accomplish and on your highest values. See the post From reactivity to creativity: a first step.
- Adjust expectations to what is doable from a mutual perspective with others. For example, when caught in reactivity, a step forward might be to simply decide to have another meeting when things are calmer.
- Find any way to diminish the risks of perceived social threats via understanding, empathy, and respect. See the post Respect: an ongoing practice. Also see Two ways to capitalize on positive actions and experiences.
By getting to know our own personal signs of limbic system vs. PFC activation, we create the ability to choose the way we deal with human troubles as opposed to just reacting. The clues to which of our pathways are activated at any given time are in our physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. By steady observation and self-reflection in tough situations, we can learn to literally shift the brain pathways from which we are operating.
(Based on David Rock Your Brain at Work, 2009 and Matthew D. Lieberman Social: why our brains are wired to connect, 2013)