The Two-Brained Monster

Busting-the-Left-Brain-vs-Right-Brain-Myth (1)

It sounds like a horror movie from the 1950’s, but the truth is, I’m talking about your mind. The human brain, a beautiful and complex organ, is built to process, organize and think. It’s also the source of our most base, animal instincts. So sometimes, I think of us as having two different brains in our head. There’s the “slow” brain that allows us to thoughtfully answer Susan’s question in the Tuesday morning meeting. There’s also the “fast” brain that pumps adrenaline through our bodies, developed so that our ancestors could run faster, out of the range of a hungry lion.

There aren’t any actual hungry lions in your office. But the “fast” part of your brain built to protect yourself from danger doesn’t necessarily know that. It’s a reactive, instinctual function of your brain that has helped the human species survive a whole host of catastrophes throughout human history. But be aware: The fast brain can malfunction, perhaps even interpreting Susan and her question in that meeting as a possible threat.

That’s why we must be as conscious as possible of how our brain works and how it can impact our actions and behaviors.

Breakthroughs in neuroscience and the mapping of the human brain have revealed what we have instinctively known for a long time about the fast brain.

  • When we react from instinct and impulse, we are more able to protect ourselves: This is GOOD.
  • When we react from instinct and impulse, we sometimes make decisions that are influenced by deeply engrained–even hidden–biases: This can be BAD, especially in the workplace as a manager.

Inclusive leaders try to be conscious of this instinct. They become aware of what their impulsive brain is telling them and take a few seconds to change course and act with intention and control.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains that the same fast brain, or system one thinking, which allows us to leap to safety from a speeding car, can trigger our biases at work. The amygdala, which has no doubt evolved from protecting us from attack by animals, gives us signals about other humans. When the other person is “different,” or when they trigger negative past associations, the inadvertent impact is to exclude that person.

Slow brain, or system two thinking, is the home of our intention to be fair, impartial and inclusive. It’s where conscious decision making resides. It’s where “meta-cognition” lives, the ability to think about our thoughts. We are the only mammals who have this ability.

The good news is that we are able to strengthen the bridge that connects these two brain functions.

Slow Brain Inclusion Practices

  • Take 5 conscious breaths before giving feedback to your team members. This “clears out” some of the fast brain chatter and stress and allows you to be more present with your colleagues.
  • When you feel really certain about any decision, especially involving team members who are “different” from you, consider that this is a great time to practice “deliberate disruption.” Ask yourself: “How might my biases be influencing this decision?” Consult a trusted ally who sees the world differently from you to see if they detect any unfavorable or “like-me” biases driving your choices.
  • Become a student of your unconscious bias by being a frequent visitor to the Project Implicit website, (www.ProjectImplicit.org) hosted at Harvard University. Take the tests on the site and consider sharing your results with your confidantes at work. This will help you build your critical self-reflection muscles.

Remember: Your unconscious and subconscious mind is malleable, but real change requires you to recognize your automatic impulses and slow down with intention. Don’t be a two-brained monster: Be an intentional manager.

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