The following is an excerpt from The Respect Effect: Leveraging Culture, Emotions and Neuroscience to Build a Better Business by Paul Meshanko.
One of the most fascinating perspectives I’ve read recently was in Daniel Goleman’s book, Primal Leadership. Goleman refers to human beings as “open loop systems.” From an evolutionary perspective, our species is more connected to each other than we realize. Over the course of our evolution, human beings developed highly specialized brain circuitry that monitors other people when we’re in their presence. In psychology, it’s referred to as Theory of Mind, the ability to identify mental states such as beliefs in ourselves and others, and to realize those beliefs can be different from ours. Our brains can then do their best to understand other people’s intentions. At a basic level, think of it as each of us having our own, personal threat detection system.
“The emotional brain responds to an event more quickly than the thinking brain.”
– Daniel Goleman
From an evolutionary perspective, this makes complete sense. The ability to predict accurately the peaceful or hostile intentions of new people or animals, literally, promoted the longevity of our species. What is fascinating about this circuitry is that it’s forever in the “on” mode. What this means is that we’re always monitoring other people around us and they’re doing the same. Our conclusions about the intentions of others have a profound effect on how the rest of our brain functions. Informed by inputs from our five senses, our brains perform a delicate and instinctual dance every day in the name of self-preservation.
Armed with this complex warning system, the human brain is the world’s most sophisticated survival computer ever developed. Whenever our senses pick up cues that could indicate that we are or could be in the presence of danger, ancient neural pathways activate to get us out of harm’s way as quickly and effectively as possible. This is the realm of fight or flight. So powerful are these impulses that they literally commandeer the brain and order all other non-essential thinking functions to go dormant. This means that all of our higher-order brain capabilities, such as problem solving, reasoning, evaluating alternatives, planning, socializing and empathizing are subordinated to protecting ourselves in the presence of perceived threats. This includes more than just physical threats; it also includes threats to our emotional well-being, social status, financial security and future opportunities.
Conversely, when we interpret cues from others to mean that we are safe in their midst, our higher-level thought processes go back on-line and we return to a normal level of thinking and intellectual/operational output. This “all systems safe” mode of brain function is hopefully where most of us spend the majority of our waking hours getting things done for our employers, families and selves. From a workplace perspective, there is a mode that’s more beneficial and desirable than “all systems safe.” It is the mode in which we function when we perceive ourselves to be free from danger and in the presence of those who appreciate us, value what we contribute and deem our best effort as being essential to the overall success of the group. It is also the mode in which we are constructively challenged, given opportunities and resources to be successful, and can share in the rewards of our collaboration with others. When we operate in this type of rich, stimulating and emotionally nourishing environment, our brains are more productive than normal. They release powerful neurotransmitters that stimulate our creativity, desire to work collaboratively and allow us to find deep personal satisfaction in our work. This is the Respect Effect.