The elephant in the room

Support, certainty and consideration from a direct supervisor will flood a worker’s mind with the energy to listen and do her work, says one expert

The elephant in the room
Every employee has two minds at work in every decision and action, according to Dalton Kehoe, retired professor at York University in Toronto and a communications consultant.SHUTTERSTOCK/leolintang

Organizational success from workplace managers requires the support of both “rider” and “elephant,” according to Dalton Kehoe, retired professor at York University in Toronto and a communications consultant.

Every employee has two minds at work in every decision and action — a rational rider with a pointy stick directing an emotional but heavy-lifting elephant, he said.

“We have two minds to create our reality — a conscious or rational mind that we know because we think and speak with it, and an unconscious or emotional mind that we don’t know because it operates without words in every moment,” said Kehoe, speaking at a recent Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto.

Inspiring employees’ riders and elephants is built on managerial trust and results in increased productivity and engagement, he said.

This theory inspired Kehoe’s book Mindful Management: The Neuroscience of Trust and Effective Workplace Leadership.

Rider and elephant

“Thirty years of neuropsychological research has overthrown the single-mind assumption about thought and speech,” said Kehoe of the rider-elephant theory.

The rider mind is located within the pre-frontal cortex, right behind the forehead, housing the brain’s speech, reflective thought and control functions, he said.

“You might ask yourself ‘How can such a little mind actually run such a big mind?’ It’s done with deeply learned habits.”

While the rider mind doesn’t fully develop until a person’s 25th year, it is a “powerhouse” that makes humans unique in the creature world, said Kehoe.

It has limitations, however, such as slow processing times and poor memory capacity, he said.

Meanwhile, as visual creatures, humans process 11 million bits of incoming information per second.

“If we had to deliberate about every word and action, we’d walk and talk like we were part of the zombie apocalypse — halting and slow,” said Kehoe.

That’s where the elephant comes in. While the rider is consumed with what’s happening and how it is being treated, the elephant naturally takes over by making instant emotional evaluations on past learnings, flooding the rider with impressions, feelings and possible choices of action, while priming her with responses, he said.

“We think we are fully rational thinkers, but the reality is ‘not a chance,’” said Kehoe. “The conclusions we reach are never about the present as it unfolds in front of our eyes, but as processed through the elephant’s habits of thought, which are always built on the past.”

The elephant is the home of long-term memories and habits. It is also the source of the mind’s energy, he said.

“If the rider is a Commodore 64, the elephant mind is a cloud computer,” said Kehoe. “All decisions, all the time, all directions — and no time spent or wasted on making those decisions. They’re instantaneous.”

“When this energy is aligned with our rider’s thoughts, we are powerfully engaged and very productive,” he said. “When we get the two minds aligned, people are unstoppable at their work.”

Connect versus control

Just 30 per cent of today’s workforce is appropriately engaged, said Kehoe, citing 2015 research by Gallup.

“We are creatures of connection, but we’ve grown up in a world of control,” he said, noting the majority of companies operate using a 2,000-year-old model of deliberate control employed by the Roman armies.

The problem is the elephant mind naturally reads any efforts to control it as a threat to its sense of self, automatically arousing feelings of fear, hesitation and wariness, said Kehoe. “Since we can’t flee or fight (our work), the elephant retreats emotionally, disengages and works less.”

And the way a manager speaks to his employees provides cues as to how the elephant reacts. Still, making positive, emotional connections is not typically part of the managerial role at control organizations, said Kehoe.

“What managers need to learn is that connecting with people is about the work,” he said. “It’s what we do every day that matters to the engagement of our staff… Managers need to create situations of connection, not control, to get employees engaged.”

It could be as simple as giving out more compliments or allowing employees’ opinions to count, said Kehoe. “The number one drive for the elephant is to make positive, emotional connections. Control makes no sense from the elephant’s point of view.”

If an elephant perceives support, certainty and consideration from its direct supervisor, it will flood the worker’s mind and body with the energy to listen and do its work, he said. “When the minds are aligned, it’s unstoppable.”

The elephant is emotionally wired to perceive bad as stronger than good, which makes it more sensitive to criticism and threats, said Kehoe. Therefore, warmth is the connection needed to appropriately influence people, as they all crave connection and rewards.

Advice for managers

Even without training, all managers are able to connect with their employees thanks to skills ingrained in them since they were toddlers, he said.

It can be as simple as a friendly greeting, swapping stories or sharing a positive emotion. When done correctly, the employee’s elephant will relax and begin to build trust in the relationship.

Managers should learn how to connect and trigger positive situational cues, rather than control, said Kehoe. Over time, staff will cut managers some slack in difficult moments, be more open to what is asked of them and, most importantly, get work done faster and at a higher quality.

In difficult moments, it is important to keep the rider in control and speak without judgment.

“Connection and warmth are conduits to influence and energy release,” he said. “Distance, control and coldness disengage. Where connection and warmth are part of the organizational culture — the daily work situation — trust and organizations flourish.”

Some companies, such as Google or the Ian Martin Group, are already excelling at elephant engagement through open-door policies and inclusive strategy meetings, said Kehoe.

“Employees who feel as though their manager is invested in them as people are more likely to be engaged. Save your control talk for beating up your competition in the market. When you talk to your staff, speak to them as emotional equals. Engage their elephant minds in the process and you will get the work that you really want.”


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