Leadership Series: Understanding the Human Being in the Workplace

survival series

Leadership Series: Understanding the Human Being in the Workplace

Workplace harassment and bullying can be found in every industry and across every culture. There are difficult conversations occurring right now about workplace culture, psychological safety, and respectful work environments. Heightened awareness on mental health and well-being of people is at the heart of many new solutions that are emerging.

In this 3 Part Series, I’ll explore how leaders can uncover solutions to their team problems simply by referencing human evolution. Human beings have behaved the same way since the stone age. We’ll look at how we are hardwired for survival, our biological differences (this might not be what you think!), and the surprising results of my year-long research into this topic.

Part One: Human beings are hardwired for survival

Despite the modernization of society and advancements in technology, neuroscience, medicine, and leadership, human instinct has not evolved beyond the stone age. The human being’s primal instinct is survival. That survival instinct, hardwired within each of us, is the most powerful drive we have. Although our survival mechanisms are ingrained, it is not accounted for in most leadership and management training programs.

Our survival instinct is innate and universal, designed to self-protect and self-preserve. The brain is always on the alert for threats and opportunities—taking no conscious effort on our part. The brain is a machine operating under our ‘awareness radar’, creating neural pathways and patterns of behaviour—anything perceived as a threat, whether real or not, triggers the survival instinct.

You can recognize survival instinct as a ‘me’ attitude instead of a ‘we’ approach. Most people have experienced a team member working against the rest of the team or collective goals merely because they are operating out of self-interest. Many employees have experienced isolation from a divisive leader or team member, and many leaders have been at the receiving end of these complaints from team members. These are typical examples of a team where people are not on the same side—that is, survival instinct is in play. When we don’t account for or understand this human impulse, we don’t know how to first recognize it, then work with it.

Leadership when faced with the survival instinct

‘George’ is an IT manager leading a team of 4 project managers who serve a business unit of 14 team members. He observed friction and what seemed like a lack of cooperation between a PM and a senior leader in the business unit. He noticed the PM was a technical genius with people skills to match, yet appeared highly frustrated with the female lead. George stepped in to moderate a conversation between the two members of the team, only to discover the female leader had concealed a critical piece of information the PM required to set the project up for success. George recognized the human instinct to conceal information was a way of minimizing risk to her project. With instinct driving communication, it was below her awareness. She didn’t intentionally withhold the information; it was brain driven behaviour. Naturally, the PM was equally reacting from instinct to get what he needed to launch the project, resulting in friction and frustration.

How as leaders can you move forward on purpose? Notice where there is tension. Tension is often an indicator of a perceived threat. Look for this strain among your people and in different situations. Paying attention to what you find, ask yourself where you see a potential threat. In other words, where is there a risk? Where do you not feel safe? What can you do to remove the tension?

In part two, we will explore how human beings are biologically wired differently.

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