WATCH: The Neuroscience of being a Player or a Pawn

We all make our own reality.  Even in these unprecedented times. Whether you believe this or not, you are always right!  Your brain simply selects specific evidence in your experiences of others, or of a situation like the current pandemic, as proof for your beliefs.  We only see what we believe, and this is usually done way below our conscious awareness.  This means our beliefs can help or hinder our ability to respond effectively, because no matter what our situation, we tend to see ourselves as either a Player or a Pawn.

Your brain is constantly analysing incoming data and sending messages throughout your neural networks.  It zips at lightning speed along well-trodden pathways.  However, some of these pathways were created a very long time ago in a very different context.  Perhaps when you were a teenager, in the playground at school or when you were initially rewarded or scolded for a particular behaviour as a toddler.

I know Managing Directors who feel like a Pawn because the demands of their clients, cash flow or staff constraints inhibit them from making choices.  They feel like they have no choice.  Yet I see others who recognize the opportunities in any situation no matter how grave and identify a number of options.  They know there is always a choice, even if it is to do nothing, they know they are a Player.

Dodgy neuro-chemicals

While most readers of these articles are Directors and Managers, this stuff has nothing to do with your level of seniority in a business.   It has to do with how you choose to see yourself and your situation.  Many people at work complain about how they feel dictated to or forced to do something and that they are trapped or stuck (i.e. they have no choice).  When I suggest that one choice they always have is to leave, I frequently see a significant shift in body language; they relax their shoulders, let out a deep sigh and the tension leaves their face.  Just having that choice enables them to take back some sense of control.  This in turn enables them to think more creatively and find solutions that were not available to them while their body was pumped full of dodgy neuro-chemicals like cortisone and adrenalin.

Having a choice is a fundamental human need.  The reason for this has been researched by Neuro-scientists like Steve Maier at the University of Colorado.  He says that the degree of control we have over a stressor determines how much we are affected by it.  His findings indicate that only uncontrollable stress is destructive.  If we have some choice in the matter the same stress is significantly less harmful or debilitating.

When our perception of choice is thwarted our brain sees it as a ‘Primary Threat’.  This means the limbic brain (the old mammalian brain) is activated.  Unfortunately, when this happens you are no longer rational; you view the world as very threatening and dangerous, you become very defensive, pessimistic and make ‘accidental connections’.  These accidental connections are based on assumptions not reality.  They are based on your interpretations, not what actually happened.

It’s all about Autonomy

Seeing yourself as a Player rather than a Pawn is very empowering.  It is all about having some autonomy.  Autonomy, or even a perception of autonomy, reduces stress and raises your sense of status with all the benefits that come with it.  For example, it gives you access to your inner resourcefulness by increasing the number of new connections made per hour in the brain.  This in turn means better awareness of others and better access to the subtle neural connections that can make us more intelligent, more creative and help us live longer.

Now let’s take a look at your management style . . .

Do you create or destroy autonomy for your people?  Is your behaviour making them feel like a Player or a Pawn?  Do you help them to see options and make choices for themselves or do you tell them how it is?  The more you control them the less autonomy they will have.  The less autonomy they have the more stressed, disengaged and demotivated they will become.

There is some very interesting research from Cornell University that looked at 320 small businesses, half of which granted workers autonomy, the other half relying on top down direction.  The businesses that offered autonomy grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented firms and had one-third the turnover of staff.

What are you doing about this?

A lot of managers complain that people are not ‘taking responsibility’.  Responsibility means ‘ability to respond’ and it is created by having a choice.  That means having the autonomy to make choices in the way work is progressed or organised.  The brain research shows that this is fundamental for positive motivation and that autonomy generates a ‘towards’ response because the brain releases doses of dopamine and serotonin, the hormones that make us happier.  In fact Cortisol levels, a marker of stress, go down and Testosterone levels go up, helping you to feel strong and confident.

Autonomy is so powerful because by making choices we increase our ability to respond and adapt.  This has important implications for performance at work.  What are you doing about it?

You may want to consider how you can create opportunities for your people to make decisions at a level appropriate to their role regarding:

  • The task: – E.g. consider job swapping, so people can see their tasks from a different perspective and make choices about how they can adapt in order to help others.
  • Time: – E.g. ask them to estimate and measure the reality of how long things take and ask for suggestions for what will make it more efficient and effective.
  • Technique: – E.g. ask for their ideas about how to improve the way things are done.
  • Team: – E.g. consider setting up small teams of volunteers from across the business to explore problems and come up with solutions.

Becoming more alert

The key to success is all about ensuring that you are managing your brain and able to think about your thinking.  It’s important to recognise when you have a feeling of reduced autonomy creating a sense of threat.  Become more alert to it and recognise it for what it is; your old mammalian brain at work.  Then find ways of creating some choices and a perception of autonomy whenever you can.

If your people are getting stressed or defensive explore how you can help them to see that they have some choice and increase their perception of autonomy.

By raising awareness you can respond more effectively to what is going on rather than just reacting to a surge of neuro-chemicals and old emotional triggers.

Many readers of these articles are accessing a better way of thinking about their thinking, and increasing what is becoming the key to success in management today; increased self-awareness and mindfulness.  They have downloaded our Basic Relaxation exercises and are reporting how listening to them is helping to get things into a better perspective and revitalising their inner resourcefulness.

Access your inner Director

In his book ‘Your brain at work’ David Rock explains how the latest research in neuroscience demonstrates the limitations of the brain and how we need to develop the skill of ‘thinking about our thinking’.  This involves acquiring ‘mindfulness’: the ability to pay attention to and be fully aware of what you are experiencing in the moment, with an open and accepting mind.  This gives you more mental flexibility, helps you to avoid triggering your limbic system and observe what is really happening, rather than what you are making it mean.  Rock refers to this ability to think about your thinking as ‘accessing your inner Director’.

Having access to your inner Director means you can identify how your brain is responding to different situations and avoid over-reacting.  But the ability to do this requires a ‘quite mind’.  The quicker you can notice that you are being triggered by a lack of certainty the more you have a chance to calm yourself with a few relaxing breaths and regain access to your pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain that does your intuitive thinking and creative problem solving.

Learning to relax using your breath is a critical skill and a great place to start is with a Body Awareness Meditation where you take a few minutes to observe your breathing and then systematically relax your toes, feet, legs and body all the way to your head.  Doing this on a regular basis will enable you to become even more aware of what you are experiencing and what is really going on around you.  With raised awareness you can respond more effectively rather than just reacting to a surge of neurochemicals and emotional triggers.

I have recently had two versions of this basic relaxation meditation professionally recorded with an ambient soundscape and it will be freely available to readers of this article for a limited period.

If you are interested in improving your wellbeing, and accessing the power of raising your awareness with deep relaxation and mindfulness just follow the link below and follow the instructions.

If you would like to know more about mindful leadership and how to improve communication, or learn about our robust yet practical system for avoiding common problems and driving performance during uncertain times please click here to book a no-obligation call to discuss your needs.

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Remember . . . Stay Curious!


With best regards,

David Klaasen 

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©David Klaasen – 2014