Our Elephant mind is located in the middle of the brain around a set of organs that manage our emotions – called the limbic system. It evaluates and stores millions of bits of information per second of our sensory input (mostly visual).
From birth, we are wired to learn. The Elephant stores patterns of information about the behavior of people it encounters. Through a system of mirror neurons that automatically imitate others’ gestures in our body, it learns how others feel. These are stored in long-term memory to be recalled for the Rider so I can anticipate “what will happen next”. This type of “mind reading” is essential to every human exchange.
We not only learn to use words and gestures that everyone around us thinks of as “normal,” but we also learn our culture – what our larger community thinks of as “right, true and proper,” so we can “fit in.” These social patterns, including the style of talk appropriate to our gender, class, age and place in our family, become unthinking habits of response.
So, the Elephant’s decision-making processes are built on costless emotional associations between past and present. Carried out by an organ called the amygdala. It makes a staggering number of “like-don’t like” emotional evaluations per second of all sensory inputs and compares them to what we’ve already learned. It tags each input with positive or negative emotional energy to motivate immediate action or for easy retrieval from the Elephant’s long-term memory banks. And it works quickly – in less than an eye blink. The Elephant can size up a person’s look and intentions – likeability, trustworthiness, and aggressiveness – in 100 milliseconds. Then it floods the Rider with the relevant emotional surges and action-choices before the other has finished speaking.
So most of our thoughts, impression and feelings are presented to us by a mind that’s reading people and situations much more quickly than we can think. In fact, we are more creatures of context and cues rather than conscious choice. Our words and actions are mostly habitual reactions to situations that our Elephant has seen before. We are consciously “out of control” much of the time.
The Elephant’s Drives: Connect and Protect
In his recent book, Social, Psychologist Matthew Lieberman reports experimental data demonstrating the power of our need for positive emotional connection with others. He argues that we seek to fulfill this connection need before anything else.
Given its drive to connect, neuroscientist Gregory Bernsii describes the Elephant’s counter-balancing drive to protect us. It is naturally wired to avoid two things: (1) uncertainty and (2) the learned fear of social ridicule – any threat to our conscious sense of self-worth.
Since our self-worth is built on three open-ended questions, ”Do I matter? Am I competent? Can I influence this situation?” our Elephant constantly seeks answers to them. As Lieberman’s shows, we are rewarded at the level of our neural circuitry by compliments, choice, the chance to demonstrate competence and consideration from others.
This explains why, when our work situation cues up persistently, positive emotional connections with others, our two minds become instantly aligned. Our Elephant mind – the energetic core of all of conscious thoughts and actions – moves our Rider to speak and act with enthusiasm. We become engaged and productive. When the opposite happens, we hesitate – mentally step back – disengage. Our Elephant’s energy is taken up with self-defensive wariness and fear. As Gallup’s engagement data consistently shows this seems to be state of the great majority of employees. 70% of them are disengaged from their work.
The answer may be found in a striking parallel I discovered between neuroscientific and workplace research. Just as Gregory Berns argued that we are wired to avoid uncertainty and any threat to the Rider’s sense of self, Jim Cliftoniii President of the Gallup Organization, stated recently that most employees are miserable because they have managers who can’t clearly communicate two things: (1) what the employee’s job is (reduce their uncertainty) and (2) that they care about them (reduce their fear of social ridicule).
Remember, most our behavior is cued by the situations in which we find ourselves. To understand engagement levels we first have to understand how managers’ Elephants “see” their situation.