Our brains are up to more than we think and they are affecting our bottom line.​​​​​​​

There’s a hidden part of your brain, a hidden part of your employees brain, a hidden part of your colleague’s brain, even your wife or husband’s brain that is always lurking in the shadows influencing all of our behaviour, impacting on every emotion we have and fuelling every motivation that drives us.

This hidden part of the brain affects everything in business, from the bottom line to workplace efficiency, productivity, even staff turn over.

The new edge of leadership today is, and always has been, right under our noses, available for the taking. We’ve already reaped the rewards of better processes, better technology, faster communications but now it’s time to truly understand the ‘people’ at the heart of business and unlock further potential for use in our teams and our clients.

We have heard ‘our value is our people’ so often that it’s an overworked cliché, which few now believe. However there is a whole new level of productivity improvement that can be unleashed as a result of people understanding what is really driving their own behaviour as well those they interact with. That is where the hidden brain comes in.

So what is this hidden part of the brain?

The Unconscious….

Not a term that you would associate with the cut and thrust of business but it explains some of the most important aspects of human behaviour in business.

As the oldest part of our brain, the unconscious evolved when we were but lowly reptiles millions of years ago. It is a part that reacts much faster and more instinctively than our rational brain. It’s primary role is to keep us safe, to decide if it is flight or fight. It reacts quickly without relying on our higher functioning, more rational but much slower consciousness.

The unconscious effectively runs our lives, although we are mostly unaware of it. And unless we understand its workings, we would never admit to it. We think of ourselves as logical creatures with complete control over our every behaviour, thought and action, when in fact most of our thought and behaviour patterns are on automatic, laid down in the unconscious before the age of 5.

Imagine driving a 20, 30 or 40 year old car because psychologically that is what most of us are doing. Operating on unconscious patterns that we learnt when we were children. The reality is our ‘child’ learnings are playing a great part in how we run our businesses.

Our unconscious doesn’t judge whether it is being logical or not, it just believes it is right and that others should and do think, feel and do the same as us. Rationally we know this is not possible but it doesn’t stop us feeling irritated and frustrated when other people don’t agree with us or behave totally differently.

Usually it is only after we have had a fight or experienced tension that we become consciously aware that others don’t think like us. We can blame our unconscious for this because it believes it is right and it wants instant action, instant resolution.

Often when there is frustration and anger our conscious awareness gets bypassed until we slow down and think about what is happening. This is seen clearly with road rage, a driver cuts us up and we feel huge anger. That’s the unconscious at play. If we think rationally we would conclude that the other driver is not deliberately out to get us, most probably they are totally unaware of their poor driving. 

While our unconscious is often hidden, it is nonetheless a magnificent part of our brain. It can process up to 11million pieces of information per second, while we are only conscious of about 40. It is how we are able to drive a car while watching traffic, holding down a conversation and thinking about what time we will arrive. It operates like a hard drive storing all our past information and plays an executive role in our mental lives by gathering and interpreting information. It sets goals in motion, quickly and efficiently.

However, our unconscious has one very significant drawback, it has no powers of critical evaluation, so it believes there is only one truth, its truth.

The underlying cause of all workplace politics stems straight from the unconscious and our need to protect our 3 S’s – survival, safety and our security. Our survival is very basic, having food, water, and shelter. Our safety rests on maintaining our job and our security comes in knowing we have superannuation and are paying off the mortgage.

Our unconscious got programmed from the moment we started life. All our early programming from our parents was dropped into the unconscious, which with no powers of critical evaluation believed everything as truth. This meant our belief systems were largely set by about five years old. It was only at about the age of 4 or 5 that we develop our neo-cortex, which enables us to make rational decisions. However by the time our neo-cortex has developed, our unconscious was long since programmed by all that we heard and saw as young children. While today we can change those, it generally takes conflict or disharmony to force us to reevaluate.

We all want to believe we are ‘good’ and don’t do the ‘bad’ stuff - the blaming, lying, stealing, manipulating etc. Yet we are quick to see others engaged in this type of behaviour and quick to point it out and criticise it. If we draw attention to the ‘bad’ in others, we unconsciously hide the ‘bad’ in ourselves.

Enter the concept of ‘projection’ one of the unconscious minds’ greatest pastimes…

Projection has been around for thousands of years but until now has been little understood.

It is the key to understanding how we operate. When it is acknowledged, and embraced the workplace transforms. Harmful politics subside and people take more responsibility for their part in all interactions. In every relationship, most of us are projecting all the time. Not only are we not aware of projection but we have no idea what we are projecting. Understanding the concept enables a profound shift in all our relationships.

Projection originates from the unconscious and is a mechanism designed to keep us safe…in the short term. We initially used it as small children to avoid being criticised by Mum and Dad. As kids, we didn’t consciously set out to do bad things but we quickly learnt that it was safer to cover our bad behaviour by lying, denying, blaming, justifying or manipulating, to name but a few. Imagine Joe, as a young child sneaking into the pantry, eating all the chocolate and then blaming his brother. As Mum berates the brother, Joe wipes all trace of chocolate from his mouth.

Nothing much has changed, except as adults except we mask our behaviour more subtly and pretend we don’t have these very human characteristics. We just project them on everyone else, distracting attention so we feel good because others are ‘bad’. This ingenuous mechanism enables us to deflect our own inadequacies and we get great delight in seeing other’s faults.

The worse a relationship gets, the more failings we see in the other. Soon we find endless flaws. Concentrating on what is wrong with others allows us not to think about our own faults or what part we play in each of our difficult relationships. Conveniently we have a vested interest in seeing other’s failings. It makes us feel a lot better about ourselves. However, while we momentarily feel better about ourselves we are setting ourselves up for long term disaster.

Furthermore, it takes a great deal of our precious energy to hide, camouflage and ignore what is essentially human behaviour emanating from a more primitive part of our brain.

When we don’t recognize projection, trouble starts. Office politics set in and destroy our workplace, our minor disputes turn into major tiffs, morale, productivity, efficiency decrease - the bottom line suffers.

The key is to simply recognize that we too are capable of the ‘bad’ behaviour that gets us so riled up and annoyed. Unless we admit that to ourselves we will inevitably project it onto others.

Projection ultimately destroys relationships. When we blame others, and find fault with them we don’t take responsibility for the part we play. Yet, uncomfortable as it is, we are 50% responsible for the dynamic in any relationship, for helping create the dynamic, for maintaining it and for allowing it to go sour.

We need to understand that when any situation is reactive that there is substantial energy invested in denying certain characteristics that are alive and well in us, but deeply hidden. A good rule of thumb is that ‘if you spot it, know you’ve got it’ or at least tendencies towards it. While your argument may be that just because we recognize murder, it doesn’t mean that we are murderers is very valid, it is nevertheless helpful to acknowledge that if necessary we too are capable of taking a life, even that of a mosquito.

In the workplace, common incidents of projection occur all the time. The fact that we work in hierarchical organizations automatically means that at an unconscious level we assume our boss is Mum or Dad with all the built-in complications of our parental relationships. These can include sibling rivalry when we resent the attention another employee may be getting from the boss and we feel we are missing out. Other common behaviour patterns include, withholding information, competition, aggressiveness, manipulation, withdrawal of recognition, frustration at not being heard, perceived favouritism, territorial empire building and the list goes on to cover almost every behaviour found in companies.

By understanding projection, we can check out our assumptions of others. For example, we may think we are being criticised, but we can ask the other, “Are you criticising me?” If the answer is no we know we were projecting. We thought they were critical but that wasn’t the reality.

We also need to recognize that others project onto us as much as we project onto them. So, we may be reacting to another’s projection, which is not the reality. When we understand, and accept projection, conflict is minimized, disappointment reduced, relationships improve and we create a win-win environment. Today’s leaders will build tomorrow’s companies by embracing this knowledge.

All easily done by educating people about the power of their brain and the power of the brain they didn’t even know they had!

Article written by Gail Pemberton