When I heard this phrase from a friend of mine a few weeks back I immediately loved it. I love great metaphors and this one spoke to me in a way that I knew I would have to write about it. Before I did that I thought I ought to research if it had any other meaning in current culture. My friend referred to it as a line from the movie The Fifth Element, where I found a reference to the primal nature of male / female relationships. A bit more digging and found blogs and all sorts of other references that would indicate that cave man software isn’t a phrase normally associated with leadership.
But why let the facts get in the way of a good story? 🙂
I’ve always believed that we retain a fair amount of genetic materials from prehistoric times. I think there are aspects of it in how we show up as males and females (think Women Are From Venus, Men Are From Mars). We see it in our instincts to form communities, a modern-day form of clan or tribe.
However, I think the area we see this that is most relevant to the topic of leadership is in the way we deal with threats to our safety. Our wiring for safety really hasn’t changed much over the years since the threats we faced were things like saber-toothed cats and cave bears, or attacks from neighboring clans. Certainly in some parts of the world some of these threats remain a reality, but in the world of leadership threats are much more subtle and varied.
I think the sense of threats we experience at work are different for each one of us. Some examples might be:
- Being questioned on the accuracy of a report we prepared
- Watching someone else lobby for a position that we would like
- Hearing of a re-organization in our division
- Learning that people were discussing items within our role without us
- Being excluded from a meeting or activity that we feel we should be a part of.
Here’s the thing about these threats. Our brains don’t know how to deal with these threats any differently than the ones our ancestors faced. In effect, our cave man software kicks into play.
I’m not a neuroscientist, but here’s how I understand how it works. The part of our brain that differentiates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our pre-frontal cortex. This part of our brain is highly evolved and is responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision-making, and moderating social behavior. It is what makes us human. However, when we are threatened our limbic system kicks in. It is a more primitive part of our brain that appeared in the first mammals that is involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. Such emotions include fear, anger, and emotions related to sexual behavior (there’s that original definition of cave man software again).
When the limbic system kicks in, it injects a hormone called cortisol into our system. Cortisol is the trigger for our primitive “fight or flight” response to threats, whether that be a raging predator or someone at work telling you that you don’t know what you are doing. What cortisol essentially does is shut down the pre-frontal cortex and passes control to the limbic system. In other words, the cave man software is in charge.
So enough of the science lesson! What does this mean to us in 2014?
The good news is that we can counteract our limbic system. We can rewire ourselves to recognize when we are about to be hijacked by the cave man software. There is a millisecond delay between the threat and the release of cortisol where we can learn to tell our limbic system that there is a false alarm. All is well. No threat here. We simply have to learn to recognize our own signs of when this is happening. For me there is a hollowness in my stomach, a rushing sound usually accompanied by a feeling of anxiety. When we notice these cues, we can ask “what’s happening here?” and quickly recognize that whatever problem we are facing is best dealt with by higher brain function and shut down the adrenalin.
Once we’ve mastered it for ourselves, we can start to watch for it in others. We can’t stop the cortisol effect in others, but what we can do is notice where they are at and work hard to restore a safe environment for them. The book Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler does a marvelous job of describing what to look for.
I think this is one of the most critical things we can do as leaders. That is to keep it safe for our team members to contribute their best and to recognize the best from others. They will only do this when they perceive it is safe to be open and contributory. Otherwise the cave man software will tell them to fight or flee, and keep their resources to themselves.
How do we go about this? I think we go back to what we might want ourselves in such a situation. That can be a myriad of different things, but it probably boils down to knowing that what we want to do is being fully considered as a part of the solution, and that we are treated with respect and dignity throughout the process.
So when we sense any sort of modern-day fight or flight actions on the part of our team members, we would be wise to take a break from pursuing our objective and find out how to restore safety through aligning purpose and respect for everyone.
At the end of the day, no one wants to face a saber-toothed cat. We all want the camaraderie and joy of a tribal feast!