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There Are Sabre-Toothed Tigers in Your Office

An ancient part of our brains that existed to keep us alive in a world of danger has evolved. But rather than evolving by toning down its power to cope with the much safer world of today, it has found new threats and elevated them to the same level of danger as a sabre-toothed tiger. By doing so, our brains are responding to these threats constantly, affecting our ability to make good decisions and impacting the performance of our teams. And we probably don’t even realise it.

Fight or Flight

Most people have heard of the ‘Fight or Flight’ response – the primal, instinctive response that our brain makes when faced with mortal danger. It is controlled by the Limbic System – a part of our brains that evolved millions of years ago in order to help keep us alive in a world of dangerous sabre-toothed tigers and poisonous berries. The Limbic System scans our environment multiple times every second, looking for threats and responding to them quickly. In doing so, it uses all the resources it can, robbing them from the other parts of our brains.

The good news for us today is that there really isn’t any need for the Limbic System to be on such high alert. Most of our offices are free from sabre-toothed tigers, and we seldom require life or death responses. We can concentrate our energy on the analytic and creative parts of our brain.

So you would think the Limbic System lies dormant most of the time? But, it turns out it doesn’t.

The Limbic System Evolved

Around the end of the last century, social neuroscientists were learning a lot about how humans behave and the brain chemistry that controls those behaviours. In their research two key themes emerged:

  • Much of the motivation driving social behaviour is still governed by the overarching principles of minimising threat and maximising reward.
  • Secondly, that the brain networks being used to do that were exactly the same ones used for our primary survival needs

In other words, as far as our brains were concerned, the parts that evolved to protect us from vicious predators and find delicious food are still needed. The difference is that the nature of the predators has changed  – our brain has found some other threats that make us react as quickly and as powerfully as if a sabre toothed tiger had arrived in our office.

And that’s important, because the brain perceiving a threat means that the limbic system has taken control, and that affects our cognitive ability:

  • We become poorer at complex and non-linear problem solving
  • We make more generalisations and come up with fewer options when problem solving
  • Are more likely to react defensively and treat small stressors as of they were big stressors
  • And are more likely to err on the safe side, be less innovative, creative and bold.

What Are Today’s Tigers?

In 2008, David Rock published a paper: “SCARF: A brain based model for collaborating with and influencing others”.

In it, he identified 5 domains of human social experience that can activate the very same threat and reward responses in social situations – in other words, he identified 5 types of tiger and gave them the acronym SCARF.

These 5 things activate those primary reward and primary threat circuits and cause our brains to respond in exactly the same way they would have 10,000 years ago. They fire up the Limbic system and deplete the cortex of resources and energy it needs for those high cognition tasks – leading to reduced cognitive performance and poorer decision making.

The 5 domains of human social experience identified by David Rock are:

STATUS – our sense of relative importance to others

CERTAINTY – our ability to predict and be certain of the future

AUTONOMY – our sense of control over events

RELATEDNESS – our sense of safety with others – friends not foes

FAIRNESS – our perception of fair exchanges between people

Each of these domains has the power to activate our threat responses, inducing stress, producing adrenaline and depleting our cognitive ability. But can also trigger our reward response, creating dopamine and making us feel good. They are also frequently triggered in our daily work life, and while being in a good agile team can help, it can also be a negative thing.

What Can We Do?

These responses are buried deep within our brains and difficult to control. However, by understanding these triggers in ourselves and in our teams, we can mitigate their effect. Since they are environmental factors, we can also adapt our environment, our behaviours and our knowledge in order to increase the chances of reward and reducing threat. 

The first step is to be aware of them, and notice them what they happen to ourselves or our teams. The next article describes David Rock’s 5 domains of human social experience in a little more detail. We discuss how agile teams can trigger both reward and threat, and what we can do about it.