As we described in the previous articles, meeting our basic physical and social needs, helps us to build our mental energy and capacity. This provides optimal conditions to implement our brain’s foundational functions and capabilities (also known as executive or cognitive functions).
These foundational capabilities are key to our performance and include analytical thinking (decision making, solving problems), focusing attention, self-control (stimulus and emotional), planning and language.
We often use these foundational capabilities to learn and perform higher level skills and competencies like complex problem solving, managing others, emotional intelligence, judgement and critical thinking, etc.
Our brain’s ability to use its foundational capabilties is effected by both our physical needs and our social needs (in the same way). A lack of these needs triggers the elephant’s threat response.
The Elephant’s Threat Response
If you recall from the brain functioning article, the elephant is the non-conscious, automatic system in the brain (system 1 in Daniel Kahnaman’s model). One of the elephant’s key functions is to constantly keep a look out for potential rewards (e.g. food, gratification) and threats (e.g. threat to survival, pain).
The elephant wants to maximise rewards and minimise the threats.
When the elephant detects a threat, his amygdala launches the fight/flight/freeze response. When this response is triggered, there are less resources (like oxygen and glucose) available to the rider.
This means our ability to use our foundational capabilities are significantly reduced (e.g. analytical thinking, creativity, focusing attention, self-control, planning and language) and therefore so is our ability to execute our higher level competencies.
Essentially we become less efficient and effective.
The threat response can be tiggered by:
- Predator or someone physically attacking us
- Lack of physical needs (e.g. Food, Rest, Sleep)
- Lack of social needs (Acceptance, Autonomy, Belonging, Recognition, Respect)
- Uncertainty / Ambiguity
- Past experiences (Nervous, Angry, Afraid)
So the impact on our brain’s performance is the same no matter whether the threat is coming from a physical source (like hunger) or a social source (how others treat us).
This is thought to be in place due to our mammalian social attachment system as shown by Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman. As human beings, we have a long period of need for maternal care and the attachment system that helps maintain this bond, also influences our need to connect with the others that surround us.
Our brain sees our social needs as key to our survival. By becoming more aware of what meets these needs, we can reduce the threat response and maximise our ability to perform.
We naturally seek social settings in which we feel safe. As soon as we enter a room with others, or any form of group, our elephant is sensing whether we are safe, understood and respected, or not.
Vanessa Druskat‘s work has shown that when people feel their social needs are being met, they experience positive emotions and act with pro-social behaviour which increases the groups efficacy.
When the needs are unmet, distress is experienced together with self-focused or self-preservation behaviour. As we have just learned, this is due to our elephant’s threat response being triggered.
An absence of safety could come from: a lack of support, a lack of control/autonomy, a lack of resources or skills, a fear inducing boss, a shouting colleague, a weak contract, a culture focused on individual performance (me vs. you), power inequality, etc.
For example, if we work in a zero failure work culture, we might not feel safe; as a mistake could have serious consequences (losing our reputation, losing our manager’s respect or even losing the job). In such a culture, our elephant’s threat response is constantly being triggered which will mean our brain’s performance will be sub-optimal.
We will have less ability to solve problems, control impulses or be creative. When mission critical is the only way, the related stress can be mitigated with having a very clear sense of purpose and regular short breaks (we will touch on the importance of breaks in the physical needs article).
So feeling safe, is crucial to our brain’s performance. This is even more important where team work is critical as one person’s emotions can impact how the whole group interacts.
A sense of belonging
We all share a basic need to want to feel accepted for who we are and to feel a sense of belonging to a group that makes us part of something greater than our selves. We also want to feel that we are not easily replaced in this group. If we don’t feel accepted or that we don’t belong, we don’t feel safe. Our elephant triggers the threat response.
Building close relationships is also a foundational source of meaning. The researcher Emily Esfahani Smith, in her book, The Power of Meaning: The true route to happiness, considers a sense of belonging to be among the four most significant sources of meaning.
Enhancing a sense of belonging in team can come from a number of factors, although nothing can beat a shared sense of purpose. We detail two more below (autonomy and recognition), although others include providing each other with feedback on a regular basis; sharing successes / failures and respective learning points; 2 min check-in’s at the start of each team meeting.
We have an innate desire to be able to influence our own future and to make decisions for ourselves. Anyone who has experienced micro-management will understand the negative impact this has on brain performance.
At work, even though the WHAT (objectives coming from above) might be fixed in place; if our role provides the ability for us to find the best HOW (how to achieve the objectives), we feel a rewarded sense of accountability and our brain will have the right factors in place to achieve the task. Especially when the purpose is clear.
Recognition and building trust
Receiving recognition helps to build a sense of self-esteem, self-worth and safety for the person receiving the recognition. It also builds respect for the provider of the recognition. A simple but genuine thank you or acknowledging someone’s work goes a long way to building that person’s sense that others see them as worthy and that they are appreciated.
These above factors help increase engagement and ensure that the person’s brain performance is optimal and it can use the Rider’s capabilities to execute the work needed.
Meeting our social needs are just as crucial to our brain’s performance, as meeting our physical needs.
A lack of these needs will trigger our elephant’s threat response and equal, negative emotions, anti-social (self-preservation and reactive) behaviour and ultimately inefficient and ineffective performance.
Establishing an enabling environment that supports the social needs of your colleagues and yourself, can be done by considering the sense of belonging in the team (what could be done for each member to feel more belonging?); the levels of autonomy (do they have accountability and enough decision making power?); and how often is genuine recognition provided, especially by the leader?
When establishing an enabling environment, it helps to identify the different groups and teams that everyone is a part of (both defined and undefined). Clarifying, the different stakeholders that are key to connect with on a weekly basis and identifying how much time to spend together, helps provide the opportunity to build the necessary environment.
Meeting the social needs of the team will ultimately lead to to a more engaged, effective, and happy team.
In the next article in this series we will explore our basic physical needs and the impact they have on our brains.
The other articles in this series: