Your Brain on Collaboration

I got interested in your brain on collaboration when Laurie Weingart, in my podcast interview with her, said to think of emotion as a filter through which we listen to others (see episode 13 at http://libsyn.com/podcast). Then I came across a video by Dr. John Medina, author of Brain Rules, in which he says he doesn’t really know what an emotion is even though he gives a definition in his book (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bqh6fpansmg).  He then clarifies that in his book he calls emotions “Post It notes” in the brain to describe their function in attention which really is not a definition. This really got me intrigued. This blog post explores the science of emotion, the brain on fear, and the role of emotion in collaboration. Of course this blog post represents a snapshot of these three topics based on research findings of some talented scientists. This is because there is a very large volume of research on emotion and the brain and the more we learn about the brain, the more we discover about what we still need to learn about the brain.

Fake businessman wearing mask smile rage cavaliers. Business concept. vector

First let’s explore the science of emotion. According to Dr. Jaak Panskepp, author of Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions (2004) and Textbook of Biological Psychiatry (2003), emotion is the name for a system with an associated neuro-structure and neuro-chemistry in our brain (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65e2qScV_K8). Dr. Panskepp also makes a distinction between feelings and emotions. Emotions cause feelings, while not all feelings are caused by emotions. For example, affective feelings are caused by the emotion systems in our brains while physical feelings like touch are caused by neurons in the skin interacting with the somatosensory cortex in the outer portion of the brain (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgV6NIPCV30). Dr. Panskepp has also isolated seven primal emotion systems that exist in our deep primitive brain called the amygdala as follows:

  • SEEKING System which produces the feeling of enthusiasm
  • RAGE System which produces the feeling of anger
  • FEAR System which produces the feeling of anxiousness
  • LUST System which produces the feeling of wanting to engage in behavior required for reproduction
  • CARE System which produces the feeling of tenderness and love
  • PANIC System which produces the feeling of loneliness and sadness
  • PLAY System which produces the feeling of joy

The primal emotion systems of our amygdala produce the affective feelings that tell us what supports our survival and what detracts from our survival. The emotion systems that tell us what supports our survival are called rewarding systems and include the SEEKING, LUST, CARE, and PLAY Systems. The emotion systems that tell us what detracts from our survival are called aversive (or punishing) systems and include the RAGE, FEAR, and PANIC systems. Of course there are affective feelings beyond those produced by the primal emotion systems described above such as boredom, exasperation, and others. Neuroscience shows that these non-primal affective feelings light up other parts of our brain like the cerebral cortex, the part of our brain associated with thinking and planning. In summary, an emotion is a system of neuro-structure and neuro-chemistry in our brain that produces affective feelings that help in our understanding of and functioning in the world around us.

An emotion is a system of neuro-structure and neuro-chemistry in our brain that produces affective feelings that help in our understanding of and functioning in the world around us.

Valerie Patrick

Next, let’s explore the brain on fear because there has been a good deal of research on the primal FEAR emotion system. Dr. Kerry Ressler describes the brain on fear as the following sequence of steps (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9LjXHtLvlY):

  • First, we see something that reminds us, even in the most subtle way, of something frightening.
  • Next, the eyes send the visual signal to the thalamus in the brain.
  • The thalamus sends the signal first to the FEAR System in the amygdala which is below our consciousness but produces feeling and other physical responses and behaviors by our body.
  • The thalamus, within microseconds of sending the signal to the amygdala, next sends the signal to the visual cortex for conscious awareness of the image.

The FEAR System not only produces the feeling of anxiousness but is somehow related to the physical responses and behaviors by our body associated with the well-documented “fight or flight” response to a perceived threat. Dr. Ressler goes on to describe the following five symptoms of the “fight or flight” response that result from activating the FEAR System in the amygdala:

  • The heart pounds faster as the result of stress hormones produced in the hypothalamus.
  • An upset stomach is produced by the brain activating the dorsal vagal nerve.
  • Heavy breathing is produced by the brain activating the parabrachial nerve.
  • The startle reflex, a stiffening of limbs and other parts of the body, is activated by the reticularis pontis caudalis (RPC) neurons in the brain.
  • The tendency to freeze and avoid social contact is activated by neurons from the cortex.

While the amygdala is part of the unconscious processing that produces primal affective feelings, there are many other parts of the brain involved in the predictable physical responses and behaviors associated with these primal affective feelings. In other words, understanding what happens in the brain and body once the primal emotion system is activated is complex. This complexity is surprising because, according to Dr. Jaak Panskepp, the primal emotion systems are shared by all humans and mammals. I would expect such standardization to reduce complexity.

In addition, the complexity of what happens in the brain and body once the primal emotion system is activated brings a whole new perspective to what Daniel Goleman calls “emotional intelligence.” Goleman defines emotional intelligence as the abilities to recognize a feeling as it happens, to handle feelings so they are appropriate to a situation, to marshal feelings in service to a worthy goal, to recognize the feelings of others, and to have effective relationships with others (pages 43-44 of Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ, Scientific Americas, 1994). In light of the science of emotion, “emotional intelligence” should really be called “affective feeling intelligence.” Regardless, Goleman has demonstrated the importance of “emotional intelligence” to success in work and life. Goleman goes on to expand this work into the concept of “social intelligence” which he defines as “being intelligent not just about our relationships but also in them” (page 11, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, Bantam Books, 2006). Goleman also worked with the Hay Group to define the seven dimensions of social intelligence for effective organizational leaders (see https://hbr.org/2008/09/). One of these seven dimensions of social intelligence for effective leaders is teamwork, which at its best, is collaboration. Let’s now explore the role of affective feelings in collaboration.

The complexity of what happens in the brain and body once the primal emotion system is activated brings a whole new perspective to what Daniel Goleman calls “emotional intelligence.”

Valerie Patrick

Now let’s explore the final topic of the role of emotion in collaboration. Recall that emotion is a brain system that produces affective feelings. Furthermore, there are both rewarding and aversive (or punishing) primal emotion systems. There is a body of research to support the role of key rewarding primal emotion systems to improve collaboration performance. For example, the role of the SEEKING System in knowledge teamwork (see http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation?language=en), the role of the PLAY system in enhanced creativity (see http://competent-collaborator-blogpost-1), and the role of the CARE System in reducing stress among team members (see http://competent-collaborator-blogpost-2). However, it is important to understand the role of both key rewarding and key punishing primal emotion systems in collaboration to achieve peak workplace performance. Through the Science of Success: Social Secrets podcast, I have learned about research on the role of conflict in collaboration (see Episode 13 at http://scienceofsuccess.libsyn.com/podcast). Conflict, when not helpful in a work setting, activates the RAGE primal emotion system.

It is important to understand the role of both key rewarding and key punishing primal emotion systems in collaboration to achieve peak workplace performance.

Valerie Patrick

Dr. Laurie Weingart, Carnegie Bosch Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory and Senior Associate Dean of Education at Carnegie Mellon University, has found that conflict in a team or work setting is helpful when three conditions are present. The first condition is that the conflict is about ideas or processes that are helpful to work goals. This type of conflict is called task conflict. This type of conflict is distinguished from conflict about people which is also called interpersonal conflict. Therefore, task conflict is helpful in a work setting while interpersonal conflict is not. The second condition is that the conflict is expressed as a constructive debate rather than as a destructive argument. This condition is about the affective feelings of the person expressing the conflict. The third condition is that the conflict is expressed in a clear and direct manner rather than indirectly. Indirect expressions of conflict are not helpful because they lead to feelings of confusion and frustration. Dr. Weingart’s research also identifies the most effective way to bring different perspectives together to support work goals. The most effective way to bring together different perspectives in support of work goals is to establish a climate supportive of a learning environment, seek cognitive integration, and seek affective integration. A learning environment means that participants value learning from each other which requires an open mindset and excellent listening skills. Cognitive integration means that participants take the interest and time to understand how they each approach the topic, to clarify the different “jargon” they use, and to understand how they think about problems in general. Affective integration means participants commit to building trust, respect, and liking amongst each other. Liking in a work context doesn’t mean you need to be best friends, it means you enjoy each other’s company enough to spend time working with each other.

In summary, the science of emotion shows that there are brain structures and brain chemistries behind feelings like joy, enthusiasm, anger, and fear. While the ability to trigger primal feelings resides in the brain’s amygdala, there is a complex set of brain chemistries and brain activity that gets other parts of the brain and body involved in a response to the trigger. This suggests that the science of emotion is more complex than the science of thinking. There is a growing body of research to show how the primal emotion systems influence thinking with others or collaborating. As might be anticipated, the rewarding primal emotion systems (like SEEKING System for enthusiasm, CARE System for tenderness, and PLAY System for joy) are supportive of thinking with others. The punishing primal emotion systems (like RAGE System for anger, FEAR System for anxiety, and PANIC System for loneliness) can be destructive to thinking with others or can be addressed to unleash new levels of performance. Your brain on collaboration is about effective management of your brain’s emotion systems on your thinking and on your interactions with others who are also impacted by their brain’s emotion systems.

Your brain on collaboration is about effective management of your brain’s emotion systems on your thinking and interactions with others who, in turn, are impacted by their brain’s emotion systems.

Valerie Patrick

Fulcrum Connection believes that barriers to working together can be eliminated to unleash high performance in any group or organization. The way Fulcrum eliminates these barriers is to understand and apply behavioral science and cognitive science findings to real-world organizations. Fulcrum provides content, tools, techniques, and services based in science and on results achieved in organizations to achieve peak performance. Contact Fulcrum Connection LLC to learn more (valerie.patrick@fulcrumconnection.com or 412-742-9675; ask about our first-time client offer.) Fulcrum Connection LLC provides training, coaching, and professional facilitation services using structured and proven processes and tools to help technical business professionals drive strategy development, sustainability, innovation, and problem solving. Fulcrum’s expertise is the people engagement part of technical project management.

Sign up for Fulcrum Connection’s Quadrant II newsletter to receive a white paper on five ways to improve creativity for innovation (https://fulcrumconnection.com) and stay up-to-date on Fulcrum Connection’s blog posts, podcasts, new product offerings, and new service offerings. Plus, get a copy of findings from a recent social skills survey by adding your input here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/r/PWRZ6GX. You can also get added insights on social skills for the workplace by listening to the Science of Success Podcast on i-Tunes (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/) or Stitcher Radio. To learn more, please contact Valerie Patrick at Fulcrum Connection LLC (412-742-9675 or valerie.patrick@fulcrumconnection.com).

Categories