Through February we watched from the sidelines, as the Labor Party seemed to spontaneously implode. The thin veneer of unity that had been so tenuously holding the Labor ‘team’ together since Kevin Rudd was deposed by Julia Gillard in 2010 shattered, with federal Labor parliamentarians savagely and publicly attacking each other.
Now that the dust has settled, on this round at least, there is no doubt that the media, the Labor Party and the punters will be asking who is to blame. Neuroscience would suggest that the human brain itself has played a part in the unraveling of the Labor team.
The primary organising principle of the human brain is to minimise danger, maximise reward. Neuroscientists refer to the approach-avoid response, which basically means that for every stimulus we encounter, the brain will tag it as either good or bad and consequently will choose to engage (approach) or disengage (avoid).
We have known for decades that the approach/avoid response is designed to keep us alive, to ensure that the caveman runs from the wooly mammoth, and we keep our hands off the stove. More recently neuroscience has demonstrated that the brain uses very similar circuitry for interacting within our social world. In other words, the brain will treat a perceived threat to your status in much the same way it would treat a threat to your life.
In his book Your Brain At Work, David Rock identifies five domains of social interaction that can trigger approach/avoid response (SCARF model). These are status (where do I fit in the pecking order?); certainty (can I predict the future?); autonomy (am I in control?); relatedness (do I feel safe with others?) and fairness.
Now, let’s go back to the Labor team. Ever since the 2010 overthrow the status of Kevin Rudd and his backers has been threatened. Rudd’s subsequent behavior as an apparent “team terrorist” has threatened Julia Gillard’s sense of being safe within the ranks of her own team. A tenuous hold on a minority government has created a threat to the entire team’s sense of certainty. The ongoing conflict between Rudd and Gillard backers threatens each side’s sense of autonomy. There is a widespread sense that the deposing of Kevin Rudd was unfair.
Here is a team under considerable social threat. Now let’s consider what happens when the brain senses threat.
When the human brain senses threat it sends resources to those parts of the body needed for ‘fight or flight’, which reduces the resources available to the neocortex, or thinking part of the brain. Daniel Goleman referred to this as an ‘amygdala hijack’, and reported how this can lead to emotive and irrational responses.
When the amygdala is activated less oxygen and glucose flows to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for working memory. The subtle signals required to solve non-linear problems and gain insights are not perceived by a brain busy warding off threat. There is a tendency to generalise more, and to err on the safe side, missing opportunities.
If you have felt over the last 18 months that the Labor team has made foolish decisions and reacted recklessly, this is not because they are stupid but because they are operating with their brains in a state of constant threat. If you feel that the vitriol of the last 10 days has been idiotically self-destructive, this is because the threat has become so great that many are reacting with their primitive brains, not their thinking brains.
It is easy to sit back and say ‘that’s politics’, but the truth is that what happened to the Labor Party can and does happen to many teams. However, the good news for team leaders is that our increasing understanding of the brain enables us to manipulate the drivers that trigger the approach/avoid response.
Knowing that a loss of status will trigger a threat response, a leader can consciously work to minimise loss of face. Understanding when a team member has had an amygdala hijack, enables a business leader to react appropriately rather than meeting emotion with emotion. More positively, understanding what drivers activate a reward response, a leader can reduce their reliance on financial reward and tap into internal rewards.
The brain may have caused mayhem within the Labor team, but it has the potential to deliver exceptional team performance. Neuroscience has not just demonstrated the negative effect of threat, it has also shown that a team experiencing positive “reward” emotions will see more options, solve more non-linear problems, collaborate better and perform better.
Julia Gillard, and every other team leader, would be well advised to think about the brain’s reflexive response to threat and the impact it may be having upon their team. Then think about what can be done to shift the brain into a more positive and productive setting.
Graham Richardson is director of coaching and mentoring consultancy Horizons Unlimited: www.horizonsunlimited.com.au