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Stay Out of the Brain Stem – Part I

The Effects of Brain Science on Organizational Culture

 Part one of a two-part series in understanding the implications of how our brains perceive social interactions in the workplace

By Troy Holt

Part one of a two-part series in understanding the implications of how our brains perceive social interactions in the workplace

fear-8It has happened to all of us at some point in our work lives – we hear something unexpected and stress-inducing, perhaps limiting to our sense of control, inhibiting our ability to predict what will happen next, or prompting a sense of unfairness.  This causes a cascade of events in our brains that result in a release of chemicals that prompt reactions ranging from diminished performance, loss of ability to deeply think through potential solutions, and even physical damage to our bodies.  The most primal of reactions originate in the brain stem.  Higher level thinking occurs in the cortex.  To maintain high functioning performance and a great organizational culture, we should make sure that our team members stay out of the brain stem.


The Triune Brain

The triune model of the mammalian brain is a simplified organizing theme by American physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean.  In his 1990 book, The Triune Brain in Evolution, MacLean explains that the triune brain consists of the reptilian complex (brain stem), the paleo-mammalian complex (limbic system), and the neo-mammalian complex (neocortex).

The brain stem (reptilian complex) controls basic metabolic functions such as breathing, heart rate, digestion, blood pressure and arousal (being awake and alert).  It controls our primitive instincts and is incapable of emotional complexity or sophisticated thought.  This is where we retreat when our brains perceive a threat — our breathing and heart rate hastens, our blood vessels constrict, our chest tightens, our neck tenses, our pupils dilate, and we can experience tunnel vision.

The limbic system (paleo-mammalian complex) is the base of emotion and memory and is comprised of the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the hypothalamus.  All of our emotions are processed by the limbic system, as is our sense of smell and taste.  This area of the brain alerts us to notice emotionally significant events even when we’re not paying attention.  The limbic system is particularly attuned to negative experiences — an ancient function in our brains that we originally developed for survival.  We share this architecture with other mammals, which allows us to create powerful social bonds with other people, as well as animals like dogs, cats, and horses when we sense their complex emotional range.   It is also the limbic system that perceives threat and sends us into the brain stem for fight or flight behavior.

The neocortex (neo-mammalian complex) allows for advanced cognition, the ability to plan and execute complex sequences, explicit memory, the ability to differentiate between conflicting thoughts, and the ability to determine the difference between good or bad and same or different.

According to Steven Johnson, in his 2004 book, Mind Wide Open, “When we alter our immediate actions because of long-term interests, when we communicate in complex sentences, when we engage in abstract thought – indeed, when we display most of the hallmarks of human intelligence, we’re most often using the neocortex.”  For higher level thinking and problem solving, we want to keep our team members in the neocortex.

Social System and Rejection

Humans have a basic need for social acceptance and inclusion.  David Rock, in his article, Managing with the Brain in Mind, states “Although a job is often regarded as a purely economic transaction, in which people exchange their labor for financial compensation, the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system.”

Why can’t workers develop a “thick skin” and leave their emotions at the door?  While it may be possible to suppress our overt reactions to different stimuli in the workplace, our brains constantly evaluate each situation and develop perceptions of positive or negative consequences.

Our brains perceive social rejection and/or exclusion in the same way they perceive physical pain.  Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman write in their 2003 report, Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion, “When people felt excluded, we saw activity in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex – the neural region involved in the distressing component of pain. Those people who felt the most rejected, had the highest levels of activity in this region.”  In other words, the feeling of being excluded provoked the same reaction in our brains that physical pain might cause.

Why do our brains perceive physical injury and social rejection in the same manner?  Eisenberger explains, in her article, Why Rejection Hurts, “Social connection may have been so important for survival that the painful feelings associated with physical injury were co-opted to ensure that social separation was equally distressing — that individuals would be motivated by such feelings to avoid social disconnection and maintain closeness with others.”

When we experience social rejection or exclusion, our brains react as if we are exposed to physical pain…and thus, our limbic system (always attuned to negative experiences), fires a warning shot to the brain stem.  We lose the capacity for higher level thinking and problem solving, and we are instead propelled into survival mode.  Consider the damaging consequences to organizational culture when one or more of our team members are acting from the brain stem.



David Rock developed the SCARF model of social reward and threats.  In Managing with the Brain in Mind, Rock writes, “If you are a leader, every action you take and every decision you make either supports or undermines the perceived levels of [SCARF] status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness in your enterprise. In fact, this is why leading is so difficult. Your every word and glance is freighted with social meaning. Your sentences and gestures are noticed and interpreted, magnified and combed for meanings you may never have intended.”

The SCARF Model provides a framework for understanding how interactions between team members affect each person in very deep ways.  Part two of this two-part series will discuss how to use the SCARF Model to calibrate your words and actions to foster a positive organizational culture.


Effect on Organizational Culture

An awareness of how our brains perceive social situations and the climate in the workplace is crucial to understanding how to create a positive organizational culture.  Building a team environment where each employee is valued and his/her input is appreciated is essential.  When a team member feels he/she is not a respected part of the organization, he/she may feel the social rejection and pain described by Eisenberger and Rock.  The team member’s limbic system will perceive the rejection, identify a threat, and cause a brain stem reaction.  He/she may become defensive, reactive, less engaged, and as a result will experience a loss of productivity, diminished morale, and inability to engage in higher level thinking.  It is critical that we keep our team members out of the brain stem.

Part one of this two-part series discussed how our brains perceive negative reactions in the workplace.  Part two will examine solutions and strategies for keeping our team members in the neocortex and functioning at high capacity.  Until then, let’s ponder this question – if the pain of social rejection causes a reaction that sends our team members into the brain stem, how might we use the same brain science to reverse that process and induce experiences that cause our team members to elevate thinking to higher levels in their brains?


Author:  ASPA member Troy Holt, MPA, has 24 years of public agency management experience in departments ranging from Police, Public Works, Transportation, Administrative Services and the City Manager’s Office.  He is currently the Communications and Legislative Affairs Manager for the City of Rancho Cordova, CA, the first local government agency to earn the distinction as a Fortune Great Place to Work.  He can be reached via email at [email protected] and Twitter at @TroyGHolt

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