William Golding in his book Lord of the Flies shows how a group of high school boys, stranded on an island, slowly lose their civilized mores and turn into a group of bloodthirsty savages. It is easy to dismiss his book as just a good story or even as an allegorical tale that adapts parables from the Bible to comment on human nature and the then just-concluded World War II.
As the father of two teen girls, I have a front row seat on the travails of adolescence. The boys in the Lord of the Flies appear outright tame compared to some of the games adolescent girls seem to play. The pitched battles that young teen boys have, often quite physical, on the playground and elsewhere are all too often forgotten by the time a new game begins, or at worst, by the next day. The less visible, but just as vociferous, battles that teen girls seem to engage in last months, even years.
Other parents, psychologists and child development experts all assure us that adolescence is a passing phase and that eventually well-adjusted young adults, for most part, emerge. I know that I’d like to believe them, especially as a parent. To be safe, I continue to pray each night that they are right.
Yet, when each of us first showed up as a young adult at our first jobs, there was a sense of deja vu. The things we reckoned we’d left behind in high school -- the backbiting, gossiping, shoving to get ahead, stealing credit for what someone else did -- were still with us. Unfortunately, the tools that served us well on the playground or the cafeteria in high school are not a real option -- at least not without risking arrest -- at the workplace. So how do we handle the bullies, insecure idiots, jerks and misfits we encounter in the workplace?
Earlier, in this column, I had spoken of John Cowan and his reminder to being human at work. While definitely worth keeping in mind, it only ensures that you are not the jerk or problem, but does not really help if you have a toxic boss or back-stabbing colleagues.
Dinosaur Brains: Dealing with All Those Impossible People at Work by Albert J. Bernstein and Sydney Craft Rozen is intended, in the authors’ own words, to help us learn to cope with “the power-mad boss, the surly subordinate and the office bully” among others. Their core premise is that all the things that scare us and others, such as aggression and anger, fear and territoriality stem from what they term as the dinosaur brain. Evolution has armed all humans with a cerebral sandwich: the evolved or thinking part of our brain -- the cortex -- on one side and an ancient dinosaur brain -- which drives our emotions and instincts -- on the other, with the limbic system sandwiched in between.
When you encounter that energetic new boss that’s great at kicking off things but not so good at following up or actually working at it to get it done, you see the dinosaur brain at work. What the authors term as the first rule of lizard logic -- the get-it now impulsiveness.
Bernstein and Rosen articulate seven rules that they dub the lizard logic, which arises due to the evolutionary patterning of the dinosaur brain. What makes their work and hypothesis about lizard logic easily understandable are the excellent and specific examples they cite for each of the seven rules. Of course, reasonable people will recognize themselves in one or more of these rules, but even unreasonable people will recognize their co-workers.
Recognizing that dinosaur brain when it is in action is the first step in learning to deal with those impossible people. Losing your temper is rarely the answer. Half-way through the book, the authors point out that anger has a role, and when used appropriately, can help deal with some situations, but needs to be done so sparingly. They have given numerous tactical ways to handle the dinosaur in specific situations, all which entails, stopping and keeping the big picture in mind before you release your inner Tyrannosaurus rex.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
K. Srikrishna is an entrepreneur and angel investor. He writes about issues that business leaders and managers regularly face and books that could help.