Leadership & Neuroscience: Taking Control of Your Grey Matter

2016-2017 Issue 1
Rob-ParisCan understanding your brain make you a better leader? Robert Paris thinks so.
The facilitator at McGill’s School of Continuing Studies not only has 15 years of results-oriented management experience at blue chip companies such as Johnson & Johnson, but he also has a Certificate in the Foundations of Neuroleadership, which uses hard science to transform leaders’ effectiveness in the workplace.
“The modern workplace is often characterized by managers and employees who exhibit behaviours that are self-destructive and toxic to the work culture,” says Paris. As a result, it’s difficult for employees to recognize their own negative behaviours, understand the reasons behind them, and eliminate them. The impact on the individual, supervisors, teams and entire organization can be devastating.
Neuroscientists have confirmed that the human brain is complex and at times does not work in our best interests.  Often this is the result of destructive childhood habits that have become encoded in our brains and translate into negative workplace behaviours.
Paris’ research led him to the book Reinventing Your Life written by psychologists Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko. They call this pattern a lifetrap, which in the book is defined as “a pattern that starts in childhood and reverberates throughout life.” Drs. Young and Klosko prescribe a lifetrap approach that involves “continually confronting ourselves.” When confronting menacing situations in our childhoods, our brains develop short-term coping mechanisms designed to help us overcome the threat at hand. “Our lifetraps are usually developed as children as appropriate adaptations to the family we lived with. These patterns were realistic when we were children; the problem is that we continue to repeat them when they no longer serve a useful purpose.” The key is understanding how we cope with our lifetraps.

Three Lifetrap Coping Styles

“Lifetraps actively organize our experience. They operate in overt and subtle ways to influence how we think, feel and act,” write Drs. Young and Klosko.
We all have different coping mechanisms in dealing with lifetraps. The authors identify three main coping styles that, when reflecting on certain employees’ behaviors in the workplace, managers easily understand:
  • Surrender – “When we surrender, we distort our views of situations to confirm our lifetrap,” write Young and Klosko. “We react with strong feelings whenever our lifetrap is activated. We select partners and enter situations that reinforce our lifetrap. We keep the lifetrap going…Surrender extends our childhood situation into our adult life.”
  • Escape – “With escape, we avoid thinking about our lifetrap. We push it out of our minds. We also escape feeling our lifetrap. When feelings are generated, we dampen them down. We take drugs, or overeat, or compulsively clean or become a workaholic. And we avoid entering situations that might activate our lifetrap. In fact, our thoughts, feelings and behaviors work as if the lifetrap never existed.”
  • Counterattack – “When we Couterattack, we try to make up for the lifetrap by convincing ourselves and others that the opposite is true. We feel, act and think as if we are special, superior, perfect, infallible…Our counterattacks help us cope. But when these counterattacks become too extreme, they often backfire and end up hurting us.”

Robert Paris, MBA, is the facilitator of the Leadership & Neuroscience Insight Series (Brain & Leadership, Authentic Leadership, Complex Problem Solving and Balanced Thinking Skills) offered by McGill’s School of Continuing Studies.


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