You probably know that your conscious rational thoughts come from your prefrontal cortex. That’s the bit of your brain you’re thinking with when you consciously think about something – just like you’re doing right now. But your prefrontal cortex only accounts for a tiny portion of your brain (about 5%). There are lots of other bits of your brain that are merrily chugging away below your conscious radar doing stuff that you don’t need to bother yourself with like controlling your body temperature, not falling over or driving your car for you while you’re fretting about what happened at last night’s office party. But the interesting bit when it comes to the rational thought issue is your limbic system. The limbic system deals with a whole range of issues that were of fundamental importance to us when we were living in the jungle such as ‘behaviour’ and ‘emotions’.

Back in the good old days (about 1 million years ago), survival and procreation were top of the brain’s ‘things to do today’ list. Those who didn’t survive didn’t stick around long enough to pass their genes on to the future generation. So those that did were the ones who developed more positive ‘survival’ traits and over many generations these traits were eventually hardwired into their brains. ‘Survival’ in those days meant trying to stay the right end of the food chain long enough to formulate a meaningful relationship. That meant seeking protection and companionship in a group of like minded friendly folk called a tribe. Successfully being part of a tribe was of paramount importance and therefore having the right social skills and values to get into a tribe and stay there was equally important.

Two important primal values are ‘status’ and ‘fairness’. If you failed in either of these then you were probably pissing someone off bigtime: you were out of the tribe and straight onto the menu del día of the local carnivores. The salient point here is that these primal values have been so important for so long they have a constant presence in our subconscious thought process and our nonverbal communications even (and this is the really, really important bit) even when you think they don’t.

Just to make sure we understand the same thing – Status is NOT about superiority, it’s about recognising and respecting a person’s achievements, age, contribution, rank, experience or whatever while fairness is about social justice. It’s why things like nepotism, missing your turn and getting cut up in traffic provoke such strong feelings of antagonism.
So, when you have a conversation with your boss, subordinate or peer, both of you are running subconscious programmes that monitor and evaluate your interactions for signs about status and fairness. These visceral values are always present and they have a high psychological value that should not be underestimated. If someone feels that you are infringing upon one of these values, you might find their reaction to be rather strong which might be completely baffling to the you, especially if you have a different perception of what the situation is (like when you mouth off to the new guy who’s just turned up in your department who turns out to be your new boss).

When we are ‘wronged’ in the primal value department our rational thought process is hijacked by our limbic system. Tact, patience and empathy are not part of its vocabulary (though there’s a whole range of colourful expletives that definitely are). As your limbic juices get flowing they can cause strong waves of negative emotions that swamp any form of logic or reason causing us to behave highly irrationally sacrificing health, wealth and happiness (sometimes even our own life) in order to ‘set things right’.

I once worked with a colleague who was hardworking, intelligent and keen to progress. The problem was that he generated a superiority field around himself that could be felt 50 feet away. This irritated everyone else – to put it mildly. Despite his hard work he was frustrated that it was difficult to get on in the company both in a social and promotional sense. He was unable to socially ‘bond’ and was often treated with disrespect by his co-workers. Unaware of the waves of condescendence he was emitting, he blamed everyone else for his frustrations (after all he felt he was the perfect employee) and eventually left the company feeling frustrated and unfairly treated. It was a lose/lose situation all due to the contraventions of primal values.

Of course in today’s modern era we should be above such primal values and emotions but that’s easier said than done. Your limbic system has a mind of its own (literally) and if it says that you like chocolate and dislike broccoli then it is a monumental task you have ahead of you if you want to persuade it to think otherwise. And that’s if you actually want to change your feelings – which most people don’t.

Given two equally qualified and experienced candidates for a promotion your boss will give it to the one they ‘like’ best: the one that gives the best ‘feeling’. Is that fair? Not for the one who doesn’t get it. Whether it’s fair or not, infringing on other’s primal values is something you might do more often than you think. Before engaging in your next important conversation there are two things you can do…

The first is to briefly remember those core values and think of how these can be addressed. What information might be missing? Are you being observant? During the conversation are you getting any reactions from the other person to suggest their primal values are being breached? If someone is offended, you have to address the issue straight away. You can’t argue them into calming down. They might not even be able to hear your words as their negative emotions block rational thought. The only option is to try to understand and show that you are trying to do so.

The second is to be aware of your own emotions: recognise any negative feelings such as annoyance, frustration, defiance or resentment that could try to hijack your behaviour, permeating and polluting your verbal and non verbal communication. When your primal values are being infringed part of your limbic system called the amygdala quickly produces a whole host of neurotransmitters (such as adrenaline and noradrenaline) that get you all worked up and ready for battle before you even realise it. The simple act of identifying these emotions can give your prefrontal cortex those vital few seconds it needs to regain control in order to avoid you making the faux pas of your career.
If you want to be happier in the corporate jungle you have to understand the primal values of status and fairness that we all have hardwired into our brains and how important they are. By recognising their existence and understanding their importance we can take them into account when dealing with others. We can monitor for any visceral reactions from others as well as improving our own self awareness, identifying our own negative emotions and heading them off at the pass before they can become too much of a problem.

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About Ian Gibbs

Personal & Business Coach and Company Director

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