Unsure

In my last post, I wrote about how the brain handles danger. When we sense danger, we become less creative, more prone to seeing the world as black and white, and we don’t engage our conscious brain as thoroughly as we should. Our brains evolved this way in small groups over thousands of years because it helped us survive in a dangerous and unpredictable world. Today, however, technology and society have changed the human experience and the danger we face is no longer the same. But nevertheless, our brain still holds on to its evolved danger response.

 

In The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier explains that we are biased toward danger thinking. Our brain approaches new situations with our danger sensors turned up. As Bungay Stanier writes, “In other words, if you’re not sure about a situation, you’ll default to reading it as unsafe. And start backing away.”

 

As in the last post, I don’t want to focus for what this means for ourselves directly. I would rather look at how recognizing this should change the way we with those whom we work with, live with, and encounter on a daily basis. In any given situation that is slightly unfamiliar, we are going to default to danger thinking. By focusing on others and understanding the danger that everyone has evolved to feel when taking new steps and taking risks, we can work to better support them and help create an environment that is less dangerous.

 

Within companies, our efforts to boost our egos and dominate a space to be the smartest, most capable, and most important member of the organization cause other people to feel danger. We increase the threat that they may feel and as a consequence, people begin backing away and stop thinking creatively. If instead, we focus on the best outcomes for the team and the company, and we try to minimize the danger and risk that other people experience, we can get more conscious and courageous thinking from the people around us, and ultimately we can have a better and more diverse organization that thinks in new and innovate ways. We can still create environments where competition helps push people to be their best and put forward their best ideas, but the space in which they take risks and put themselves forward needs to be safe to allow diverse views and opinions to be discussed and experimented with. Ultimately, we must take some ownership ourselves for the danger responses in other people, we cannot simply criticize another for feeling threatened and backing away. After all, our brains evolved for this to be our default. To be strong leaders and coaches, we must understand how the brain works and reacts to the world, and we must do our part daily to reduce the danger and threat that others feel and that we push out into the world.

Danger

In his book The Coaching Habit author Michael Bungay Stanier explains that we are more creative when we are in safe spaces and we are less creative when we feel stressed and threatened. He explains that our brain is constantly examining the where we are, scanning the environment, and determining whether we are in a safe space or a dangerous space. Safe spaces allow us to open up and become more detail and nuance oriented. Dangerous spaces seem to have the opposite effect on us. Regarding dangerous spaces and our reactions, Bungay Stanier writes,

 

“When the brain senses danger, there’s a very different response. here it moves into the familiar flight-or-fight response, what some call the ‘amygdala hijack.’ Things get black and white. Your assumption is that ‘they’ are against you, not with you. You’re less able to engage your conscious brain, and you’re metaphorically, and most likely literally, backing away.”

 

This response to danger probably served us very well as members of hunter-gatherer tribes. When we were in an environment where a dangerous animal may have been threatening us, or when we were pushing too far out onto ice in search of a hole to fish from, or when we got too close to a cliff to get some berries, our brain’s fear center would kick in and pull us back and take away any nuance from the dangerous situation. Something was bad and our brains evolved to keep away from the bad thing.

 

In the 21st century where our greatest physical danger on a typical day is the threat of spilling coffee on our pants (if you work in a typical office setting — construction workers and iron smelters may have some more serious dangers to watch out for), this danger warning system is probably a little overboard and can hinder our performance and ability.

 

What I want to write about given this phenomenon, is not how we can think more clearly and face our dangers to perform better, but to think about the spaces we create for others and how we contribute to those spaces. While we certainly can overcome our danger mode of thinking, we should also think about how we contribute to a given environment and if we make the environment feel safe or threatening for others. If we know that dangerous environments make people back away and perform worse, then we should be trying to create more inviting spaces where people can better engage their conscious brain, feel more relaxed, and produce better and more creative work. Whether we are purchasing tickets at a movie, driving down the road, talking to someone at a basketball game, or chatting in our work environment, we can think about how we are treating other people and whether we are making the space we are in feel more like a safe space or a dangerous space. If we are trying to always “win” with our presence and be the most powerful and intimidating figure in a room, then we will drive people back and suppress their conscious brains. We may feel successful, get a lot of material rewards, and even be admired by many, but at what cost to other human beings who we can assume have the full range of emotions within themselves as we have within ourselves? And now that we know the way the brain’s fear center works, is it truly reasonable for us to attack that weakness in others? I think we can all, on the margins, improve ourselves in any given situation and take steps to make the environment we are in a little safer for all those involved. This will open new avenues of thinking and perceiving the world for those we interact with, and hopefully, the rising tide of human consciousness and creativity can raise all boats and improve everyone’s well being. This is not to say that we should not still challenge ourselves and others, but we should not exploit danger for our own gain at the expense of others.

How Close Together Success and Failure Can Be

Ta-Nihisi Coats, author of Between the World and Me, reflects on his childhood and how close he was at many points in his life to stumbling down the wrong path. Coats grew up in a rough part of Baltimore and had to make daily decisions that could push his life in the wrong direction or help him stay afloat. As a young black man Coats remembers the challenge of making these daily decisions and describes how these decisions physically manifested in his life. Making the right decision was not always clear, and making the wrong decision (or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time) often resulted in physical harm. The challenge for Coats was that the right and wrong decisions were never clear. Many times the wrong decision led to physical harm and pain, but oftentimes, so did the right decision.

“What was hiding behind the smoke screen of streets and schools?” Coats asked. “And what did it mean that number 2 pencils, conjugations without context, pythagorean theorems, handshakes, and head nods were the difference between life and death, were the curtains drawing down between the world and me?”

Coats described the importance of being tough and understanding how to navigate the streets where he grew up. Even well intentioned children could unintentionally cross the wrong child or the wrong person on the street corner, and even worse, if their parents had issues with dangerous people in the neighborhood, then so did the children. Not shaking hands the right way with the right people and not being able to give the right head nod to the right guys could place ones life at risk, no matter how well one did in school. With such an imminent threat of danger in the streets, the world of number 2 pencils, abstract education principles, and distant payoffs from education were too hazy to be taken seriously. Survival became the main goal, and survival required a set of skills that did not align with the world of education created by the people outside the ghettos.

All of this created a world where Coats and his friends constantly had to walk a fine line between success and failure. The inability to focus in class and build the mental skill set needed to find a good job later in life put their futures in risk, but at the same time, the inability to understand the streets and protect oneself put ones current life at risk. Few could ever navigate this world by shutting out the negative of the social world around them to excel in school, but all were expected to do so, and many would go on to be criticized for not successfully navigating such treacherous terrain from elementary through high school. A wrong step, a few bad grades, an unintentional insult to the wrong person, and success (or even life) could be taken away from Coats and the children he grew up with.

Music, Fear, Culture

Ta-Nehisi Coats discussed growing up in America as a black man in his book Between the World and Me and two of the ideas he continually returned to were fear and not having control of ones body as a black man. Coats described the way that fear made its way into his daily life and manifested in the decisions he made, in the dangers of the places he went, and in the possibility of his future being taken away at any moment. By describing his understanding of the relationship between black people and police he described the possibility of other people using his body to control him. Combined, these forces shaped the culture around Coats as he grew up in ways both implicit and explicit. He never felt truly secure, and he never felt that there was anything physical that he had control over.

 

Born out of this culture, Coats explains, was music and attitudes that other people condemned. Describing his peers and their adaptations to these pressures Coats writes, “I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew,  the music that pumped from boom boxes full of grand boast and bluster. The boys who stood out on Garrision and Liberty up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters of their own lives, their own streets, and their own bodies.”

 

The rap music so frequently reviled by people outside of the black community, when put in context, becomes more than just music with violent and explicit lyrics. It becomes a response to a world that pushes black people to live in fear and to live without control of even their most basic possession, their body. When police go out of their way to stop black people, search their person and property for drugs, and beat or use deadly force at the slightest sign of danger the boastfulness and power inducing feeling of rap music and gangster culture becomes more understandable. We live in a world where very few people are outwardly racist and where most people understand the danger in racist thinking, but nevertheless, racism continues with us thanks to our tribal brain. It exists not in individuals and their actions, but in systems, processes, and policies that appear race neutral but impact different racial groups in different ways. Racism today does not express itself directly, but is supported indirectly by those advantaged groups who do not want to see the status quo change and who hold up merit and colorblindness as evidence of a lack of racism, despite clear disparate outcomes for racial and minority groups.

 

The moment we meet another person we make snap judgements about them, about who we think they are, about whether we think they are like us, and about whether we can trust them. Colin Wright in his book Considerations spends a lot of time looking at these implicit biases and encourages us to become aware of them, and to become aware of times when we are pushing others away from us or withdrawing from situations where we are surrounded by people we deem to be others. Without realizing it we have perpetuated racism through implicit bias and through stories of colorblindness. Studies show that our implicit bias is to see black people as larger and more threatening, and that we will be more likely to expect crime and violence from black people, even if we are well intentioned.

 

Seneca wrote that even the most self-sufficient man could not live without the society of man, but when that society thinks you are a criminal, threatens you, and takes control of your physical body, your existence can never be fulfilled. Coats throughout his book describes the way that black people have their future robbed from them because the society they depend on does not care about their success as much as their punishment and their restriction. None of us actively act to put black people down, to instill fear in the minds of black children, or to control the bodies of black people, but we still have organized ourselves and throughout history have disadvantaged black people in a way that limits the aid and acceptance that society provides. At the same time, we demand that we ourselves are judged on a merit basis and we view our own success as coming from entirely within. We do not see the way in which we rely on the society of man for our existence. Like someone riding a road bike, even with a wind to our back, we still feel wind in our face, making it seem as though we are being pushed back, despite the fact that a strong wind propels us forward. Recognizing and understanding our dependence on society and how our society pushes back against black people can help us understand the culture and attitudes of black people in America today.