A provocative BIFM People Management SIG meeting in November celebrated the new FM of the Year as well as many of his predecessors. Also, in seeking to determine the 'DNA' of a successful FM, mind coach Glenn Mead explained that, inside of our heads, we all have an 'inner chimp' to deal with. Bananas? Not a bit of it, as Martin Read reports.
22 December 2015 | By Martin Read
Scientists, it seems, have established that a human being comprises 96 per cent chimpanzee.
Think about that: Less than a 20th of each one of us can be distinguished from an ape. So perhaps it's not surprising to find that we're naturally programmed to act like a chimpanzee on occasion. Or, indeed, on many occasions - and not in a good way.
Glenn Mead, director of corporate programmes for Chimp Management, explained the workings of our inner chimp at a recent BIFM People Management SIG event. Chimp Management uses neuroscience to improve individual and organisational performance. Its founder, Steve Peters, is best known for his work with Liverpool Football Club and the Olympic cycling team at the 2012 London Olympics. He's also written a book on the topic, The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Programme to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence And Happiness.
"We make this mistake of thinking that we are in control of what is happening inside of our heads, when we aren't," began Glenn Mead, "and this ends up affecting our quality of life when we don't meet up to our own high expectations."
So what is it that we can't control? In certain stress situations, a primitive element of our brain takes control. The brain's frontal lobe is our brain's 'chief executive' component - our 'human mind' - but it comprises just 40 per cent of our total brain space. Although this is the part that best defines us as individuals (it continues to develop until our early thirties, responding to experience), the parietal and limbic lobes also have their say. It's the limbic lobe that keeps us alive, by triggering instinctive fight, flight or freeze responses to stress situations - and it's when these responses are controlling our actions that our 'inner chimp' has taken over.
Our inner chimp is guided by emotional thinking. It sees things as black or white, causes us to be over-optimistic or irrational, and makes us jump to conclusions. Essentially, it's not likely to show us at our best when it's responding to stress. And worse, our inner chimp has an annoyingly quick response to memories. It can wrest control of you if it's triggered by a particularly distressing flashback. (Glenn Mead's example was of a young person in his or her twenties admonished aggressively for poor performance in a given job. Years later, a manager's use of the simple words "can I have a word, please" can easily trigger an irrational stress response.)
What's more, compared with our human mind it takes just 0.02 of a second for your inner chimp to process and respond to a situation. To put that in context, a standard blink of the eyes takes 0.1 of a second - or 50 times slower.
Mead used the example of a driver out with his family in a car being suddenly 'cut up' by another vehicle. It's typical then for the inner chimp to seize control, forcing our 'human mind' to figuratively take a back seat as our instinctive yet narrow-minded inner chimp response, driven by testosterone, has us rant at the perceived slight and put pedal to metal, chasing and screaming at the other driver.
In short, the difference between your human mind and inner chimp response is that your inner chimp, when temporarily empowered, pays no heed to the potential consequences of its actions. It immediately reaches a conclusion and only later searches for the facts necessary to back up its earlier, almost certainly hasty actions. The human mind's response, of course, is to evaluate facts, weigh the evidence, and only then reach a conclusion.
It's important to take the time to consider what things irrationally rile us as individuals, recognising triggers. It's also important to use another part of our brains, our 'computer' component, which keeps a library of responses based on past experience. If we can teach our computer brain to learn a response that can be invoked whenever a particularly stressful situation occurs, that will help. (The 'computer' component of your brain responds even faster than your inner chimp, giving you precious nanoseconds to bring a learned response to the rescue.)
Your inner chimp is part of you, so you need to recognise the situations when it has taken control. What's important is the way in which you respond once your human brain has regained control. Don't leave a problem caused by chimp-induced behaviour unresolved; if you've had a blazing row, apologise straight away; if you've been aggressive, own up to it. Start again as a human and don't leave things to fester. Understanding your behaviourial triggers, and their effects on others, will allow you to respond effectively.
Mastering our inner chimps:
- The 'inner chimp' is the part of our brain designed to keep us alive. It is driven by emotions and paranoia rather than facts, and kicks in much faster than the rational parts of our brain.
- Our brain's frontal lobe is our 'human' component, using evidence to reach carefully considered conclusions. All well and good, but unfortunately it can never win a race with our inner chimp when responding to stress situations.
- Another component of our brains acts as a 'computer', using previous experiences to drive response. Our inner chimp and human mind both look to this part of the brain to process what's happening to us. (This part of the brain is quickest to kick in with a response - 20 times faster than our human mind and four times faster than the chimp.)
- We all need to recognise these components - and we also need to recognise that our inner chimp will often respond more quickly, and more recklessly, than other elements.
Other people's chimps
Of course, recognising when the inner chimp has taken hold of other people is the other side of this coin, and a skill important for all FMs to master.
If they're acting stressed - for example, a project has gone wrong or another team member has caused an issue with the end-user client - then calming them down to reassert their human brain is key to resolving the issue. You do this by asking 'so what?' questions. So what is the impact of this problem? What should we do now to resolve it? It's not about what's happened, it's about what now needs to happen. Using open questions to introduce a sense of perspective to the situation will help your colleague's human mind reassert itself and allow you both to deal with the problem.
FM: chimp aware?
Glenn Mead's excellent presentation was certainly instructional, and what's written here can only be a flavour of the programme, which is well worth investigating. But as I listened to Mead's various coping mechanisms for dealing with the inner chimps of ourselves and those of our family members and colleagues, it occurred to me that FMs in general are already better than many professionals at understanding and managing their own chimps. After all, FMs - more than most other department heads - are dealing with a wider span of hierarchical positions within their organisations, with end-user customers, with suppliers, with more unexpected problems than most other departments are likely to encounter.
It was instructional to listen to new FM of the Year, Alan Russell who, earlier in the same evening, had spoken of his own experience. It's important, he said, to keep your cool, to make individuals accountable for the task in hand, to always have an eye on the possibility of things going wrong, and to have plan to mitigate things if they do indeed go wrong.
Crucially, Russell also spoke about being aware of his impact on those around him, of "bringing your weather to work". He'd discovered that his team had begun gauging his likely mood by the number of sugars he put in his tea, realising the importance of being positive and "taking a breath when the going gets tough".
That all sounds like a typical successful FM - one who is, arguably, well advanced in understanding how best to deploy the human and computer components of his brain to respond best to his own inner chimp. It is, quite literally, in his DNA. (You can find out whether FMs agree by reading our Think Tank report).