There is a great deal of new knowledge about the way that teams operate, not only from the field of psychology but also from anthropology and neuroscience. In these fields there have been major advances due to breakthroughs in technology. For anthropologists the discoveries from DNA have shown that all modern humans originated in Africa, and that all other modern non Africans stem from a single tribe that left African about 80,000 years ago. For neuroscience, more has been discovered about the brain in the last few years through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology, than was known in the entire history of the science. These two fields of science have extended comprehensively to give us a better understanding as to how the various parts of the brain function regarding teamwork.
Whilst many find the notion of accepting models, such as Patrick Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions of Teams (1), as natural, there are those who look for more validation of the concepts underlying them. This paper is aimed at those people, and tries to uncover some of the mysteries behind the many models of teamwork that have emerged in the modern business literature.
Anthropologists now know that the modern human species in their perilous journey out of Africa, progressed much faster along a coastal route, successively establishing successful communities, and then splitting when they became above a critical mass in size. This inexorable splitting process starting at the Red Sea led to the inhabitation of Australia long before humans colonised central Europe. Clearly this splitting process is a fundamental part of the human tribal behaviour and understanding this is key to unlocking the working and mechanisms of the human tribes and their social interactions.
We can understand more about the way that the brain works by considering a simple model proposed by Paul Maclean (2) called the “triune brain”. There are three parts to the brain corresponding to three stages of evolution. This model is a simplification, but is useful to explain the basic operation and useful deductions can be made from it.
First there is a reptilian part of the brain which governs primitive functions, often referred to as the four fs, fight, flight, feeding, and sex (well three fs if we are avoiding expletives). This part of the brain is called the brain stem and it never sleeps, which is just as well because it controls our breathing.
Second a part of the brain, known as the “Limbic brain”, evolved in mammals and is where consciousness and emotions are handled. Think of this as “being” because it is the part of the brain that controls how we feel. It has access to all of the five senses, and processes what we see in real time.
Thirdly there is the part of the brain which much more highly evolved in humans and which processes logic, language, planning and abstraction. This is the “thinking” part of the brain and it is called the “neocortex”. This is the part of the brain that has allowed us to make I-Pads, study theoretical physics, design training courses and also enables our audience to day-dream about other things while we’re boring them with powerpoint slide shows. You are using it now to read this.
The neocortex also works much more slowly than other parts of the brain and when other parts of the brain are activated, it can be effectively turned off leaving other more “primitive” parts to take over. If you’ve ever done something “in the heat of the moment” then that is what happened. It is also what Nobel prizewinning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman (3), calls System 2 … the slow brain, whilst he refers to the Limbic Brain as System 1 the fast brain. His work has shown through a multitude of repeatable experiments how the two “system” in the brain compete to make decisions, and he highlights the bias that these decisions are based upon.
Daniel Kahneman tells us that most of the time we like to think that this logical part of the brain runs the show, but often people make decisions on an emotive level and then rationalise it. In fact the logical brain is fairly easy to distract, has a short attention span, and consumes a significant amount of glucose to fuel its operation, making it prone to laziness. As an example of how it can become disengaged, if you have ever driven somewhere and can’t remember the journey it was it was your limbic brain, and not your neocortex, that was doing the driving.
The limbic system is often much more in control than we think. We share this part of the brain with other mammals. It is why many mammals such as cats and dogs have such mutual love and affection with humans. This part of the brain gives us joy, fear, and love. It works very fast compared to the neocortex, takes much less energy, always comes up with an answer to questions we are presented with (even if wrong). This is why the exercise of reframing and re-assessing (counting to ten) can help our logical minds influence the outcome.
This model of the brain is used to explain how emotions can overide a person, to explain panic attacks (and how to overcome them) and in our field was used by Daniel Goleman to explain why emotional intelligence is so important. Goleman focussed on the role of a part of the Limbic brain called the Amygdala, which controls our emotions, but for teamwork we need to look at a different part of the limbic brain.
British anthropologist Robin Dunbar (4) has established that the size of the neocortex is directly linked to the largest social group size that any primate can sustain (Dunbars number) . In the case of humans this is 150 people, a much larger number than any other primate. By way of confirmation it has been shown that the average population size of villages in the Domesday Book was 150 people, and this continued for village size through to the 18th century. Dunbar discusses the way that this relates to modern networks of people in this video (5). The mechanisms that operate between these social groups are essentially the mechanisms that need to be optimised for teamwork. It is also the size of tribe that seems to have triggered the splitting process mentioned earlier which drove the human colonisation of the planet.
The most crucial part of the brain for social interaction is the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is positioned at the front of the brain and its function is to decide between the powerful emotional urges of the limbic brain and the logical deductions of the neocortex.
When we wrestle with complex tasks we use this logical part of the brain, and we tend to present the business case for change using arguments which impact this part of the brain only. This means that leaders, communications and trainers present information, try and convey data and make logical arguments but often fail to connect with the part of the brain that actually most influences the decisions. The PFC plays the key role in the arbitration between the two systems and because it sits between the two it is accessible to logical training and intervention aimed at improvement in what we know as teamwork, much of which sits below the level of consciousness.
We first noticed the importance of the PFC because of an extraordinary accident in 1848 to a man called Phineas Cage. In short he lost his PFC due to an explosive accident on the railroad construction. Strangely he was still able to function, in most respects, but was lacking in any ability to balance the urges between the animal (limbic ) system controlling base emotional responses and the more logical responses coming from the outer cortex. Effectively Phineas became isolated and unable to work with others, although his intellect remained intact. It is this balance or mediation that is the function of the PFC and is the basis of high performance behaviour in teams.
The term that psychologists use for functions carried out by the PFC area is “executive function”. Executive function relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, and also social "control" (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable or suboptimal outcomes).
It seems therefore that the PFC builds a pattern relating to the team over time that helps the individual adjust behaviour when functioning as part of that team. This is a natural process, and has been observed in Bruce Tuckman’s (6) work characterised by the FORM, STORM, NORM and PERFORM sequence in which a team adjusts to achieve a level of improved performance over time. During this time the prefrontal cortex sets up patterns of behaviour which modify each persons behaviour to a more optimal team model. This is stored as a shared pattern in the brains long term memory and is evoked automatically when the team is together. However this natural process can be enhanced and accelerated further by focussing interventions to improve on the natural result.
Becoming more aware of the processes happening in the PFC allows us to improve our ability to use the strengths of others, to motivate them, trust them and communicate effectively together. Because this part of the brain operates very much under the logical control of the individual we know that a conscious effort to use best practice and habits applied to this part of our behaviour can yield improved results. For example neurological studies on the prefrontal cortex have shown that trusting somebody inspires them to trust back in a reciprocal manner. This is driven by brain chemistry in the prefrontal cortex (7), and is therefore a technique which will almost always work to build trust.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the prefrontal cortex is its slow development. It is the last part of the brain to mature and is not fully mature until a person is in their late 20s. This is now the focus for a significant amount of work in how to mentor and develop teenagers, and provides an explanation of many adolescent traits (8).
Several researchers have attempted to characterise the way that the PFC reacts to the social interaction spectrum, particularly which things send the PFC into a state of perceived threat, and which things bring a sense of reward. For example David Rock’s SCARF model (9)(10) is one that builds upon the neuroscience concepts and provides a potential correlation to Lencioni’s 5 dysfunctions. The elements of SCARF each represent a set of conditions which the brain has been tested, and shown to react to in a social context both from reward (positively) and threats (negatively). These elements are:
- Status – not just position in hierarchy but the way in which one is respected by others and in the way that feedback is interpreted
- Certainty – a feeling of familiarity and predictability leads to a feeling of safety and comfort, and a lack thereof leads to the opposite
- Autonomy – freedom to work in an unconstrained way reduces the threat in the brains perception
- Relatedness – a feeling of mutuality and trust promoted by the hormone oxytocin
- Fairness – this creates a positive feeling of trust, and the opposite creates a strong automatic defence mechanism in the brain
These have been researched as the collections of general characteristics which we observe to have key influences on the PFC, and its easy to see how they relate to Lencioni’s 5 dysfunctions which were independently derived from heuristic observation. As Robin Dunbar observed, at some point a social group size above 150 the balance of these interactions becomes more of a threat than a reward, and triggers a splitting of the tribeas we observed earlier. But for our smaller teams in a business context, by knowing the drivers, we are better able to design interactions with people to maximize rewards and minimize threats and these comply fairly closely with the Lencioni model:
- Status: Safeguard others’ status by what you say and do ( Inspire Trust)
- Certainty: Be as clear and as consistent as you can be (Accountability and Fear of Conflict)
- Autonomy: Stay clear of micromanagement. Genuinely engage others in decision-making (Gain Commitment)
- Relatedness: Strive for inclusion and connectedness (Sharing of Results)
- Fairness: Demonstrate transparency (No fear of conflict and Accountability)
The payback in terms of a beneficial performance effect on the brains performance for a positive team environment is also clear from neuroscience. There are different behavioural consequences associated with threat and reward:
- The brain has reduced working memory
- The brains span of attention and field of view is narrowed
- The decision making processes become biased on the side of pessimism
- More cognitive resources
- The brain has more access to insightful associations and patterns
- The brain activity is increased
- There are fewer perceptual errors
- A wider field of view
There are therefore some logical explanations of how some techniques such as reframing, can help the function of the prefrontal cortex in adapting behaviour in a way which enhances teamwork. As people looking to get the best out of individuals and teams, we need to be aware that those around us (face-to-face or virtually) are always reacting (mostly unconsciously) to our behaviour in terms of these factors either positively or negatively depending on how the PFC regards them as a reward or threat. Your own experience of teamwork has probably given you a perspective on this, and (for some at least) it is helpful to know that it has a scientific basis.
- “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” Patrick Lencioni; (2002); Jossey Bass
- “The Triune Brain in Evolution” Paul MacLean; Springer (1990)
- “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman; Penguin Books; (2011)
- “How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks”, Robin Dunbar, Faber and Faber Ltd, 2011
- Video link http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2010/mar/14/my-bright-idea-robin-dunbar
- "Developmental sequence in small groups". Psychological Bulletin 63 (6): 384–99; Bruce Tuckman (1965)
- Neuroactive hormones and interpersonal trust: International Evidence” Economics and Human Biology; Vol 4 Issue 3December 2006 p 412-429; Paul Zak and Ahlam Fakhard
- The Amazing Adolescent Brain, Linda Burgess Chamberlain PhD, MPH
- Learning about the brain changes everything: David Rock at TEDxTokyo
- “Coaching with the Brain in Mind: Foundations for Practice” David Rock, Linda J. Page; Wiley; (2009)