Brain Science and the Tasks of the Manager

By Robert Chapman Wood, Gerald A. Cory Jr., and Osvald M. Bjelland

Ego and empathy—the two great drivers of business—come from distinct sets of elements in our brains. Excellent business performance requires using the two sets effectively together. And a simple discipline can help.

Today, society expects managers to do more than seems humanly possible: to maximize shareholder value, but also to take care of the earth, their workers, and their communities. Fortunately, there is solid scientific knowledge that can help us unify our efforts to improve performance – knowledge from brain science. People and companies can make enormous steps toward the performance we need today by understanding a bit about how our brains function and leveraging that knowledge in management. Doing so can help us excel at two very different kinds of work driven by two different sets of elements in the brain, and balance the two kinds with consistency.

The first kind of work is the more obvious; the pursuit of self-interest – your own and your allies’. We all pursue our self-interests almost all the time because our brains are wired that way. Ancient human brain elements (believed more than 300 million-years-old) resemble elements in the brains of the fish, amphibians, and early reptiles. These animals are (or were) extremely self-interested. When they reproduce, they lay eggs, fertilize them, and then leave their young alone, with seemingly little empathy or love. The elements we share with these creatures drive self-interested behavior. Because such elements are crucial to how our brains operate, any human scheme that neglects our pursuit of self-interest is fighting 300 million years of history.1

However, all human beings have to do another kind of work, too, because humans are not just self-interested. We are mammals, and unlike fish, amphibians, and most reptiles, mammals have modified or newer areas of our brains that are specialized for taking care of families. These areas drive empathy of all kinds and perform key roles in affectionate behavior and related emotions.2 Additional, much newer elements in our brains (and those of other primates) leverage the more ancient elements to give us social drives and abilities.3 Because of them, primates have for millions of years had the ability to relate to each other in complex extended-family groups.

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