Understand Your Brain: For a Change – an introduction
Most of us think that we are in perfect control of our thoughts, decisions, and actions. We think that we always act with logic and in accordance with our best interests and the best interests of those people that are important to us. Well, sorry to shatter your illusions, but you are not. Your brain is. You can blame your brain for pretty much everything – the good and the bad. It does your thinking for you, your feeling for you, it controls your actions and reactions … and everything in between. You are even aware of some of the things it does but not many!
Internally, however, your brain is engaging in a number of constant struggles. Here are some of them:
the struggle between reacting quickly out of fear and controlling that fear reaction
the struggle between your conscious thoughts and your nonconscious thoughts
the struggle between your rational thinking and your emotions and feelings
the struggle between how you react when alert and awake and how you react when tired and sleepy
the struggle between your innate biases and socially acceptable behavior
the struggle between different parts of your personality
the struggle between your old habits and new ones that you try to put into place as part of a change
While managing these struggles your brain is being driven by the following dynamics:
threats (real or perceived) of many different types, which are different for all of us
biases and habits
nonconscious irrational thoughts
the stress of many types
and the time of day.
Much, if not all of this, is going on behind our back, as it were. More accurately, it is going in the nonconscious part of the brain.
In this book, readers will learn the neuroscience of what is going on in their brains, what is likely to trigger them, how susceptible they are to those triggers and what they can do about it. They will also learn how to improve their interaction with others so as to become more effective in relationships, for example, with their peers, with their staff, and with their own manager.
We will introduce readers to some essential knowledge of how the brain is structured and how this impacts our day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute, and second-to-second behaviors. We will take a look at all of the struggles and dynamics outlined above – and how, by becoming aware of them we can minimize their negative impact and maximize their positive effect.
Finally, we address another component to how you behave – You!!! We give you an outline of how to think about the various aspects that you and your world of experience bring to every situation you are faced with – for good or bad!!
The background of how the book came to be
Thanks for taking the time to read a little about the background to the book. Starting at Apple in the early days of the 1980s, I have been teaching leadership, doing executive coaching, and helping people and teams go through change for over thirty years. About ten years ago, as part of a Master’s program at Oxford Said Business School and HEC Paris, Phil was exposed to the neuroscience of the brain. And learning about the brain caused him to change the way he helped people at a fundamental level. Over the next year or so, he changed all of his programs, classes, and lectures so that they included the latest research on the brain. He co-authored a paper on the neuroscience of giving feedback. And he founded a company that focuses solely on teaching people to understand their brains so that they can become better leaders, team members, and citizens.
The book has some fundamental approaches.
The first is that we are all different. Yes. We know that it is a cliché to say that. But most books are written without recognizing that. This is different. We hope that, as you start to read the book, you will realize that while the structures of our brains are pretty much the same, and they operate with the same processes, our brains all produce different results. Very different. What happens to our brain as it absorbs life’s experiences makes us all unique. Advice columns, self-help books, and how-to guides rarely, if ever, take those differences into account. Yet, understanding the differences in and uniqueness of your brain and making you into an expert on your brain is what will increase the chance of you changing and possibly increasing your effectiveness, happiness, and health.
The second fundamental premise of this book is that you are operating exactly the way you are designed to operate and the results you are getting are often perfectly aligned with that of your behaviors. Many of our clients work with the assumption that there is something wrong with them because they tend to react to a threat in an emotional manner. If we can sway the “inner critic” from being judgmental to being inquisitive, it opens the door to a more creative journey to effectively understand your brain – for a change!
The third fundamental premise of this book? It is your life, and it is happening now! The only person who can change it is you.
And the results of these three fundamental premises are that when you realize that you are different, that you decide to take control of this life, and that you want to understand and become an expert on yourself, then it will probably result in some degree of change.
Why We Wrote This Book
Phil’s interest in the application of neuroscience to leadership, management, teams, and change started many years ago although he wasn’t aware of it at the time.
After university, Phil attended his first management training program at the ripe old age of 21 and he has been on numerous training sessions since. Yet, with all that learning, one thing always puzzled me. There were so many things that a manager and/or a leader was supposed to know and do. How was it possible for anyone person to be capable of correctly doing them all?
Then, in the early 80s, he started to question why some teams worked well and other teams didn’t. What was the difference between the two? He went to HR, and they didn’t seem to know. He kept looking for something that was more foundational than the theories of leadership and teams that were being taught at the time. He was searching for something that lay beneath all of the skills, attributes, requirements, and competencies. He reasoned that there had to be something more fundamental than all of these competencies and attributes. What was the “secret sauce” or “connective tissue” that lay underneath everything? He assumed that if we cracked that, then maybe we could better understand management and leadership. He started his quest for what he dubbed “The Leadership Genome.”
In addition, he was amazed that the fields of leadership, management, training & development, coaching, organization development – and there are many more areas of study that are applicable – produced thousands of theories, books, and papers every year, but there seemed to have been little improvement in the overall quality of leaders and managers that we were producing.
There’s an old adage that says that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. That was his experience in the leadership development field. We just kept doing the same old thing, or slight variants of it, and expecting different results.
He was looking for something completely different. In 2009 and 2010, he was studying for his Master’s degree and, for the first time, was exposed to the neuroscience of the brain. He was immediately fascinated and realized that, just maybe, this was the “Leadership Genome” that he had been looking for. The brain! The organ that underlies it all.
We have become convinced that a possible solution to the frustration that Phil and many others have voiced about the failure of the leadership development industry may lie in the failure (or absence) of teaching leaders about the neuroscience of the brain.
Since those early days, we have spoken to many audiences and teams using the brain as the basis for discussions. Many times, people would come up after the session and ask for the name of a book that covers the material that we had presented. While we could (and did) give them many references, there were no books that we could find that fully aligned with our approach. Some had too much detail and others not quite enough. None blended the neuroscience with practical application to day-to-day situations.
So, this is another reason that we decided to write our own. In this book, we hope to have redressed that balance between not enough detail and too much.
There’s an additional reason why the brain is the focus of the book. Everything we do, everything we think, every action we take, every reaction we have...they all start in the brain. Every act in humankind’s history, for good or bad, has started in someone’s brain. Every act you take as an individual, as a partner in a relationship, as a peer at work, as a boss, as a subordinate, as a member of a team, or as a leader of an organization...they all started in your brain. We think it worth studying the impact of such an impact organ.
So, what about the change aspect of the book? Why not just write a book about the brain? Phil has been fascinated with what makes people change for many decades. His research and thesis in his Master’s degree were about the factors that cause managers to change after they have received feedback. In addition to that long desire to understand change, there was a recent set of articles in Harper’s Magazine ([i]) that caught our attention and summarized a predicament that we face today in our world. Here are the first few sentences of the article:
“‘Progress is impossible without change,’ George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, ‘and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything. But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the political divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting world views. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs – and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.’”
The series of articles then go on to examine what activities might bring about a change of mind. Violence? Protest? Reason? Money? Music? Loved ones? Data? These were the eye-catching headlines on the front cover.
The thoughts expressed in that introductory paragraph frightened us …
“… persuasion has never been harder to achieve.”
“… it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise.”
We hope that we might do our little bit by writing about what goes on when we are faced with a change and, just maybe, increase the chance of you changing your own mind or finding what to say to help change someone else’s mind.
And it’s not going to get any easier. In the 1920s, Max Born, a scientist of the same standing (but less well-known) as Einstein, predicted that “we had reached the end of certainty.” ([ii]) His thinking and predictions proved to be amazingly prescient.
In addition, I think that we are going to need to face change at an increasingly rapid rate. In his book, ([iii]) Bob Johansen, the CEO of the Institute for the Future, states it very clearly:
“The VUCA World of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity will get worse in the future.”
As you will come to see, the brain hates those conditions. It wants predictability, not uncertainty. It doesn’t like ambiguity. It likes simplicity. Maybe if we can understand a little more about why the brain has these needs and the impact of a VUCA world on the brain, we might be better equipped to face our individual and collective futures.
What do we hope that you, the reader, will get out of the book?
We have one main objective for you as a result of reading this book:
By getting to know your brain, you will be in a better position to get in touch with what motivates all of your thoughts, actions, and reactions so that you can become more effective, happier, and maybe healthier.
In order to do this, we believe that you need two things:
Just enough knowledge about how brains work, in general, and how your brain works in particular.
An understanding of how to apply that knowledge to your life and its inevitable challenges and changes.
We have attempted to write this book, and the rest of the series, with just the right amount of theoretical knowledge about your brain so that you can apply what you are learning in a practical way to your daily life, both work and social.
Table of Contents
A. A Few Notes Up Front to Set the Stage
Getting the Most Out of This Book
B. Understanding Your Brain
1. The Brain – What’s It Made Of?
2. Five x Five x Five of the Brain
a. Five Brain Principles
b. Five Brain Dynamics
c. Five Driving Forces
d. Your Personal Threat Context
3. Facts and Myths About the Brain
5. Care and Feeding of the Brain
a. The Brain and the Gut
b. The Brain, Heart, & Lungs
c. The Brain and Sleep
d. The Brain and Food
e. The Brain and Exercise
f. The Brain, Love, and Sex
g. The Brain and Spirituality
h. Attitude and the Brain
i. The Brain and Family
j. The Brain, Meditation, and Mindfulness. The Brain and Music
k. Training the Brain
m. The Brain and Technology
n. The Brain and Growing Older
o. The Brain and Ethics
C. Understanding Your Self
a. Your Personal Threat Profile
b. Your Personal Threat Context
c. Your Brain Profile
d. Your Chronotype
e. Your Conversational Focus
f. Other Personality/Behavioral Profiles
g. Your Leadership Style
2. Your Tendencies
a. Biases and Habits
b. Patterns of Behavior
d. World View and Personal Paradigms
3. Your Influencers
a. Cialdini’s Big Six
b. Others More Specific to You
4. Your Context
a. Your Past
b. Your Future
c. Your Present
Appendix A: Biases
Appendix B: Influences
Appendix C: Some Items in More Detail
[i] FORUM: The Minds of Others: The art of persuasion in the age of Trump. (2018, February). Harpers Magazine
[ii] Greenspan, N. T. (2005). The End of the Certain World: The Life and Science of Max Born. Basic Books.
[iii] Johansen, B. (2012). Leaders Make the Future: (2nd ed.). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.