I had the privilege to attend a talk by Dr. Mark Fenske this week.  The talk was based on his book The Winner’s Brain.  Dr. Fenske focused on one section from the book about self-control and resilience.

It couldn’t have been a better week for that topic given some of the teams I’m working with right now. Several are in really trying times and need all the self-control they can muster. Well, it turns out there are some simple things you need to remember to stay on top of your game. I’ve shared the ideas with them and thought I should share them with you too.

Your Brain is a Battlefield

Dr. Fenske started the talk by describing the “brain as a battlefield.” Different brain regions with distinct functions compete for dominance and ultimately determine how you react to a given situation.  One of those ongoing battles is between the pleasure centers in your brain and the center associated with judgment and self-control.

He used the example of broccoli and french fries.  When asked “which do you want,” it is likely that your brain will go for the short term pleasure of the fries (and brain scans show what Dr. Fenske refers to as the “hedonic hotspot” being active). When framed as “which should you eat as part of your healthy lifestyle,” another part of the brain associated with self-control gets in the game. When that region is active, you are more likely to choose broccoli.

Framing and attention change which parts of your brain you use and therefore what you do. That’s the amazing importance of attention.

Self-control on your Team

Now imagine the importance of framing and attention to your team.  When someone says something you find upsetting or offensive, do you give in to the temptation to lash out or to get off a nasty one-liner to make youself feel better or do you invoke your self-control by thinking about what would help you communicate better with your teammate?  Do you choose the french fries or the broccoli?

I wrote a whole chapter on this idea in You First.  The chapter is called Start with a Positive Assumption and it talks about the primal, base instincts we have to fight, flight, or freeze.  Dr. Fenske’s talk focused on the other side of the coin—the very basic drive for reward and pleasure.

The questions for you to think about:

  1. Fear: How well do I keep my fight, flight, freeze reactions in check on my team? When they occur, what has triggered them? How can I redirect attention away from threat and toward understanding?
  2. Reward: How often do I choose to go for short-term gain in a way that is detrimental to my team in the long run? How can I frame the situation in a way that will cause me to make better choices?

I’ll be back in my next post with some practical tips for maintaining self-control.

If you’re like me, just hearing Dr. Fenske’s “brain as battlefield” metaphor has you singing Pat Benatar’s Love is a Battlefield and replacing the word “love” with “brain.” Might as well give it a once through or you’ll be fist pumping through the office all week.  Here is the classic tune on YouTube.

Further Reading

It’s Time for a Little Discipline

How Smart is your Team?

Should I get Involved?

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