"Are You Stuck in Your Critter Brain? "Why We Choose Safety Over Excellence (and How to Reprogram)

You may not realize it, but parts of your brain are so focused on keeping you safe and secure that they’re holding you back from true growth and prosperity. Christine Comaford explains how neuroscience techniques can help you reprogram your brain to work in a smarter, and ultimately more successful, state.

Brett is over the moon. He has just received a long-awaited promotion and with it the opportunity to present to his firm’s key clients. But his excitement is short-lived: In almost every client meeting, he freezes up and stumbles over the material despite the fact that he knows it well. Soon, he’s not only wishing he was still in his old position, he’s worried about his future with the firm.

What happened? In short, Brett’s brain “learned” in childhood that shrinking back from center stage would protect him from ridicule. Now, decades later, his neural wiring is still causing him to choose the “safe” route—and, ironically, sabotaging his success.

Christine Comaford says our hypothetical friend is no anomaly. You too are likely a “Brett.” Maybe you don’t choke in the spotlight, but more often than you realize, subconscious reactions to your surroundings trigger debilitating responses.

“You can learn to identify these scenarios and defuse them,” says Comaford, author of the new book SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together. “But the first step is understanding why you do the things you do. Basically, you’re acting in ways that feel ‘safe’ at the moment but that cripple you in the long run.”

The field of neuroscience, which is the foundation of Comaford’s work, has exploded into the mainstream lately. No wonder. Scientists have reams of evidence that show our brains are remarkably moldable, and therefore our long-established neural pathways aren’t our destiny. We can break the mental patterns that harm our relationships, make us miserable, and hold us back.

In the past this has all been theory, but lately we’ve seen some exciting practical applications emerge. Comaford takes the best of these tactics and applies them to the worst behaviors business has to offer—behaviors that squelch productivity and profitability.

In other words, short-tempered leaders can stop blowing up at employees. Confrontation avoiders can step out of hiding. Procrastinators can finally buckle down. Good performers can become great performers. Dysfunctional teams can become powerhouse teams. Best of all, we can retrain our brains and shift our behavior quickly. In a fast-paced global economy, that matters.

Comaford simplifies the human brain into three key parts. The first two, the reptilian and mammalian brains, she collectively calls the “critter brain.” This part of the brain cares only about safety and survival. It prompts us to choose fight/flight/freeze behaviors that keep us from standing out, being put in danger, or feeling discomfort.

Accessing the third part of your brain—the neocortex—puts you into what Comaford calls the “Smart State.” Here, you have easy access to all of your resources, plus you’re creative, present, emotionally engaged, and can envision an exciting future for yourself. In other words, you’re ready to make smart choices and execute them well.

Comaford shares five powerful tips that will help you to leave the Critter State behind and shift into the Smart State:

Learn to ignore shiny objects. (Smart State Accelerator: FOCUS) In its quest for security, the critter brain tends to filter out things it doesn’t want to see, hear, feel, or deal with (like Scarlett O’Hara, your critter brain vows to “think of it tomorrow, at Tara”). Meanwhile, it also has the ability to focus disproportionately on shiny objects that distract you from doing what you really need to do. That’s what happens when you spend all day on a minor project and tell yourself that you’re being productive…never mind the major biannual report you’re “conveniently” neglecting because it’s so overwhelming!

To move out of your Critter State and into your Smart State, you must cultivate the ability to be present in the here and now, to be honest about your current situation, and to accurately identify and prioritize high-value activities. The first step? Identify and understand the parts of yourself that urge you to run away or stick your head in the sand.

Figure out where you’re going and why. (Smart State Accelerator: CLARITY) For the critter brain, ignorance can often be bliss. However, it’s bad to go about your business—personal and professional—with no idea (or at least an incomplete one) of why you do what you do. Just think about the young professional who says she wants to make money—but can’t articulate what she’s going to do today, tomorrow, next month, and (to some extent) next year to fill her bank account. Her goal is unlikely to become a reality.

Buck up and get the job done. (Smart State Accelerator: ACCOUNTABILITY) Yes, it’s tempting to cut corners, mislead others, or throw in the towel altogether in order to make life easier for ourselves. But “making life easier” is your critter brain talking. In its quest for safety and security, it isn’t always considerate of other people (or even of your own true best interests). But when you don’t keep your word—when you lack accountability—your performance and ultimate success will suffer.

Living in your Smart State involves valuing yourself and others enough to buck up and follow through with your commitments even when you don’t feel like it, says Comaford.

Make others feel safe. (Smart State Accelerator: INFLUENCE) It’s no surprise that the critter brain is fundamentally selfish; after all, our animal friends don’t survive by putting their own interests last. (“Here, you take the last acorn—I’ll make do until spring,” said no squirrel ever.) Thankfully, in the modern human world, we don’t have to be so cutthroat. In fact, the greatest successes come from empowering others so that the overall team can achieve more. To do this, you need to be able to understand, empower, and motivate others; in other words, influence them.

Don’t run out of gas. (Smart State Accelerator: SUSTAINABLE RESULTS) Your critter brain is not a “planner.” It doesn’t approach the future with the consideration of a master chess player; instead, it does what it thinks is best for you right now. In other words, sustainability isn’t often a primary consideration. That’s why we can sometimes be really fired up about a goal (like losing weight) at first, but run out of steam quickly. It’s also why so many of us feel completely exhausted by the end of each busy day.

“Once you commit to developing these five skills, you’ll be well on your way to living in your Smart State instead of your Critter State,” Comaford promises. “And while some of them may seem simple, they’re each hugely important. Your ability to focus, plan, motivate yourself, interact with others, and more can often mean the difference between success and failure. Ultimately, in business and in life, your Smart State is where you need to be to lead, to grow, to innovate, and to prosper.

About the Author: Bill Gates calls her “super high bandwidth.” Bill Clinton has thanked her for “fostering American entrepreneurship.” Newsweek says, “By reputation, Christine is the person you want to partner with.”

Christine Comaford is a global thought leader who helps mid-sized and Fortune 1000 companies navigate growth and change, an expert in human behavior and applied neuroscience, and the bestselling author of Rules for Renegades. Her latest book, SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together, will be released in June 2013. She is best known for helping CEOs, boards, and investors create predictable revenue, deeply engaged and passionate teams, and highly profitable growth. Her coaching, consulting, and strategies center on increased accountability, communication, and execution. The results? Hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue and value for her clients. Under her guidance, clients often see their revenues increase by 30-110 percent annually, profits increase by 17-200 percent annually, and sales close 50 percent faster.