Is it possible to fool your primal instincts to overcome challenges at work?

by Neil Rosenbaum

Since the beginning of time, humans have been directed and controlled by evolutionary forces that allowed our species to survive and thrive. Today, those instincts serve us well in many instances and hinder us in others.

The fight or flight instinct is a great example. We all have had many instances when we lost the struggle to maintain composure in emotional situations and we had to either fight or flee, literally or figuratively.

Our brains can’t tell the difference between encountering a deadly snake or intense challenges at work.

When faced with either one of these instances, our primal brain – responsible for instinct – takes over and our modern brain – responsible for higher-level thinking and problem-solving – shuts down. This serves two purposes: it saves energy because thinking takes much more energy than acting on instinct, and it helps us avoid pain, whether physical, mental, or both.

This natural desire to avoid pain can have unintended consequences in the business environment, and many important books like Habit, Quiet Leadership, Think Fast and Slow, and Blink illustrate the importance of shifting our actions to a more calculated, thoughtful, less instinctive form.

There is no denying that we all attempt to avoid pain in our working world. Pain can come from confronting challenges at work, taking risks, making mistakes, dealing with difficult bosses or coworkers, and facing competitive challenges. Sometimes our solution is to avoid these painful situations or individuals whenever possible, but this reality presents us with an issue: limiting risk, playing it safe to avoid mistakes, avoiding challenges at work, or thinking about how to deal with difficult bosses are counter-productive to our ultimate success because they take away our opportunity of becoming truly happy with our work. Even more important, I believe, is the “head in the sand” mentality of looking inward instead of outward at your competitors and customers.

As Jack Welch said: “When change on the outside is faster than change on the inside, the end is near.”

Taavi Katka, former Chief Information Officer of the Country of Estonia, in a podcast created by the social innovation organization Civila, tells us: “Nothing happens without pain.” Estonia is the first “eCountry,” where all citizens have access to the internet and all government services can be accessed electronically. (Think of being able to send a text to get a fishing or hunting license!) The “pain” that Estonia experienced is that when they become independent from the USSR, there were literally not enough people to SERVE the people. Digital systems were the only option, but certainly not an easy one to implement.

To tackle this inclination to avoid pain, it is essential that a leader paints a compelling picture of the team’s vision and creates “buy-in.” Identifying pain points, clearly communicating them, and creating an environment of open dialogue will allow team members to accept the potential pain as a tollgate to achieving successful outcomes and being happy with them.

In an article in Psychology Today, Amy Morin reports that:

“Pain isn’t pleasurable, but relief from pain is. Studies show that when pain goes away, you experience increased happiness, above and beyond the level of happiness you’d experience if you’d never had any pain at all.”

When a leader creates a compelling vision, the team CAN fool instinct and accept the pain that leads to the intense pleasure of achieving goals. This, then, will lead to the resilience required in our ever-changing business world.

To Learn More:

Fight Primal Instinct to Overcome Challenges at Work

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