Battling the Lizard Brain (saying “I don’t know”) in the High Performance Workplace

23 06 2011

I am lucky enough to have landed a great job. The work is rewarding and challenging, the food and foosball are free and the people are smart, incredibly smart, and as such everybody is a high performer.

When you combine this sort of high performance culture with human nature you get some strange behaviour. In particular you get an environment in which free thought, creativity and progress is completely reliant on the individual’s ability to fight the “Lizard Brain” as Seth Godin and others call it. In my workplace I have to pluck up the courage every day to be honest when I don’t understand something. My Lizard Brain says run away (pretend you get it), or attack (blame someone else) whenever we discuss something I don’t understand because it interprets that situation as a threat. Everybody else is smart so if I show weakness I might get blamed, ridiculed, or fired.

But I’ve got to say it, so does everybody else, because if we don’t then the safety harness which allows us to perform so highly and create some awesome things, disintegrates into fear of looking stupid. People start pretending, they start limiting their ideas to “good” ones and the environment stagnates.

That’s why this type of workplace is so hard to find, so difficult to maintain and so important to protect. It is all based on faith, and that is an extremely delicate thing. It only takes one or two people who give into the Lizard Brain to destroy everything. I’ve found that my workplace maintain this culture by being incredibly picky when interviewing, always prepared to fire someone who doesn’t fit and having the patience to grow slowly.

Still it is hard to fight your instincts, often I fail and say nothing at all when I don’t understand or beat myself up because I feel like an impostor. There is nowhere else I’d like to be though, when it’s good it’s an amazing place to be. So, say “I don’t understand” more often, and when someone else says it be sure to embrace it as the lifeblood of your workplace.