ISSN 1175-5407

Viruses and Spiders – Mastering Mind Management

Keith McGregor, Director, Personnel Psychology NZ Ltd


The subtitle of my presentation at the 2009 HRINZ Conference was “I Can’t Work With That Idiot”. It attracted a large audience. The words clearly resonated with many of the HR practitioners - they had probably heard the expression many times while attempting to deal with workplace conflict. This commentary paper presents and expands on the themes covered in that presentation. Although the title of the session appeared light-hearted, the content was directed at helping HR practitioners to avoid the grief and trauma that can accompany situations such as workplace conflict and industrial accidents.
Over the past few years a book and video titled „The Secret‟ has reputedly sold millions of copies. Like so many others of its ilk, it offers to reveal ways to use the power of the mind to „attract‟ money and success. Amazing stories are recounted of people who miraculously obtained their dream home, partner, job…
Is there any truth behind the hype? Absolutely, but it is lot less mysterious than we are led to believe.

As humans we refer to ourselves as Homo sapiens – thinking or knowing man. A better label would be Homo emotionalis – emotional man. Everything we do is driven by feelings - the films we watch, the people we associate with, even the cars we buy. The importance that emotion plays in our lives is illustrated by the fact that when the parts of the brain that process emotion are damaged people are unable to recognise family members as family members. There remains debate as to the exact nature of emotions. At best they can be described as sensations that accompany the release of specific hormones. There is also debate as to whether emotions trigger actions or actions triggers emotion - do we run away from the bear because we feel afraid, or do we feel afraid because we run away from the bear?

Regardless of the definitions, when we consider what typically goes wrong in the workplace the underlying issues are invariably about how we feel: feeling overloaded, feeling bullied, frustration with others, lack of job satisfaction, interpersonal conflict, breakdown in communication, feeling undervalued or underappreciated. The common theme in virtually all of these situations is emotional distress in some form. To help understand how these situations develop we can look at one example, fear of public speaking, an activity many people find stressful.

The phenomena that we refer to as „stress‟ is the fight or flight response. The sensations we feel - increasing heart rate, muscle tension, light-headedness, nausea, etc – are the changes that occur as our body prepares for swift physical action. The stress response will only occur when there is a perceived threat. This perception is generated in two broad ways. First, it is established by a process commonly known as Pavlovian conditioning. This occurs when something in the world around us becomes linked to a positive or negative experience. A dog hearing the lead rattle as it is being taken off the hook where it normally hangs may become excited because that is the sound that has become associated with going for a walk. Or spending most of the night throwing up after a Tequila session can result in just the thought or smell of Tequila triggering a wave of nausea.

These experiences become conditioned by changing the actual structure of the brain and as this is a fundamental survival mechanism, negative events tend to condition faster than positive events. The changes are literally hardwired into the brain‟s threat assessment centre – the amygdala.

In the workplace, Pavlovian conditioning is occurring all the time. On first meeting our new manager, for example, there is no „wiring‟ within our amygdala. But, after a few unpleasant interactions the new manager becomes conditioned as an aversive stimulus and just thinking about that individual can trigger the fight or flight response. Once this has happened we develop a natural tendency to avoid dealing with the person, communication becomes strained and our relationship slowly breaks down. The second way in which the fight or flight response can be triggered is through the way we talk to ourselves. In earlier times things with long, sharp teeth were the threat that triggered the fight or flight response but having now run out of sabre-toothed cats we have had to find a new predator. The predator we have discovered is our ability to talk to ourselves. Returning to the public speaking example, the anxiety associated with the prospect of standing up in front of an audience arises from the perceived threat created by our internal „chatter‟ about what others may think of us. The challenge, then, is to understand how these conversations arise and how they can be changed.

We can view the brain as having a conscious and a subconscious mind. The conscious mind is our awareness of who we are and what we are doing - the part that is quietly talking to you as you read this sentence. The subconscious mind can be thought of as the engine hidden away under the bonnet doing all the work to make things happen - the part that is keeping the blood flowing to your brain so you can keep reading. It is natural to think that our conscious mind controls our body but a simple act such as clicking our fingers involves millions of nerve impulses and interactions that are beyond our conscious awareness. The conscious mind is primarily a verbal processor. We think and speak in words. The subconscious, on the other hand, is an image processor. Thinking of a favourite holiday spot we went to as a child can instantly generate mental pictures of that location. Because the two systems operate in different modes there is a potential for translation errors. If we say to three-year-old James “Watch you don‟t spill that drink”, the message can only be processed by James‟ subconscious as a picture of the drink being spilled. So long as his conscious mind remains in control James is likely to take care with the drink. If, however, his conscious mind is diverted – say by a fire engine racing up the street – there is now an increased probability that his subconscious will act on the picture and the drink will be spilled.

This potential conflict between what we say to ourselves or others and the mental image created by those messages can have tragic consequences. Seemingly inexplicable industrial accidents involving experienced operators have occurred when a sudden crisis or unexpected event has created the perfect opportunity for a negative picture which may have lain dormant for years to guide their behaviour. In high-rise buildings there are often signs by the lifts which state: "In the event of fire do not use the lifts".

The only picture the subconscious can create given those exact words is to use the lifts which, in a panic situation, people are more likely to do. The signs seldom say “Use the stairs”. Subconscious images can be considered as our internal software. If we think about activities such as ballroom dancing, public speaking, time management etc., we tend to automatically conjure up pictures of ourselves in those roles. Some pictures are positive and lead to successful outcomes whereas others are negative or they are pictures of behaviours we would very much like to change and yet our efforts meet with little success.

An example is the messy desk. The culprit may insist that he knows where everything is but studies have repeatedly shown that a good deal of time is lost locating items that have mysteriously vanished. Efforts are made to tidy up the desk but within a few days it is back where it started. One explanation for this is that the new behaviour - keeping the desk tidy - involves moving away from the underlying picture, namely, that the desk is always messy. As the separation increases, there is a build up of tension to the point where something has to give. Either the picture comes into line with the behaviour or the behaviour comes back into line with the picture. Back in 1922, Emile Coué commented that when the will and the imagination are in conflict, the imagination always wins.

The behaviour comes back into line with the picture and by the end of the week the desk is messy again. Coué illustrated his point by observing that most people would have no difficulty walking along a wooden plank placed on the ground but would struggle to walk along the same plank placed between two high-rise buildings. When the plank is on the ground we do not get a picture of falling and so are unlikely to lose our balance. When the plank is placed at a great height, however, we are likely to start running internal messages such as “I must not fall”. The subconscious generates pictures of falling with the result that we start to lose our balance.

A primary source of internal pictures is self imprinting or self hypnosis. When 200 secondary school girls were asked if they enjoyed mathematics, only five put their hands up.
This suggested that the remaining 195 were likely to be telling themselves that they did not enjoy maths, with the result that when they walked into a maths class they became disengaged. If these girls subsequently performed poorly in the maths exam it was not because they were bad at mathematics but because they were bad at software - they were running mental viruses. When we consider the range of self imprinting which occurs, the list is almost endless.

People to tell themselves they never have enough time, they can‟t work with that idiot, they always leave things to the last minute, they have trouble remembering names, they are clumsy, they hate public speaking and so forth. We accept these internal messages as fact without appreciating that they are simply internal conversations. The danger, however, is that as they are repeated they form neural pathways within the brain and become entrenched behaviour.

In addition to self imprinting it is possible for others to imprint or „program‟ us without our knowledge. Parents frequently voice their frustrations with their children by way of statements such as: “You are so thoughtless”, “Why do you have to be so untidy?”, “You would lose your head if it wasn‟t screwed on”. And they often do so in a yelling match with heightened emotion. These statements can quickly become part of the child‟s mental software which increases the likelihood that their behaviour will line up with the negative pictures.

The same can happen in relationships. A husband, frustrated with his wife's repeated lateness, frequently berated her about being late. She in turn berated him about being overly critical. On reflection, the husband realised that what he had been doing for 20 years was increasing the likelihood that his wife would always be late while she, in turn, was influencing his tendency to criticise.

Again, placing this process within a work context, a great deal of stress and disharmony can be traced back to negative internal messages. Some will have arisen as a direct result of self and external imprinting within the job whilst others will have their origins in messages received during earlier formative years. Once established, the mental messages become part of the structure of the brain – which goes some way to explaining why attempts to change negative behaviours, such as improving time management skills, tend to be short-lived. Surprisingly, the subconscious cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality. One author in this field describes reality as imagination multiplied by vividness. This is easily illustrated when we observe the reactions of someone who is terrified of spiders and has just been told, falsely, that a large spider is crawling up his back. The likelihood is that despite there being no spider the person will experience a significant stress response with his heart going faster and his body heating up. The amygdala treats the mental picture of the spider as being real and immediately initiates the fight or flight response.

This lack of direct connection between the subconscious mind and the wider world is extremely important - it means that we can literally „reprogram‟ our brain. A trainee, who dreaded public speaking, was required to write and deliver a two-minute speech in front of the class. She practised using a video camera but on the day her speech was a disaster, possibly due to her repeating to herself: “I mustn't forget the opening line”. The following month the course had to repeat the exercise but on this occasion rather than using the video camera the trainee was encouraged to repeat to herself: "I am thrilled how well my speech went". She protested that the speech had yet to occur but agreed to try the technique.

She was also asked to create a mental video of the speech going well in order to ensure that the subconscious had a very clear image to work to. Her solution was to create a mental video in which she and the rest of the class had completed their speeches but 10 minutes remained before the session was due to end. When the instructor asked if the group would like to hear one of the speeches again to fill in time the class unanimously chose the trainee‟s speech. In her mental video she was now running through the speech just as a fun encore. She ran this video through her mind several times a day and when she eventually stood up to do the speech she could not free her mind of the fact that she had already done it. She felt completely relaxed, received a high mark and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

This process forms the basis of most sports psychology. Top gymnasts, golfers, football players spend significant amounts of time visualising the perfect outcome, knowing that when the game is under way things happen very quickly and if the correct picture is not in place the ideal outcome is less likely to be achieved. When formulating these internal messages there are some clear structures to follow. First, the messages are stated as positive, present or past tense facts. They create a clear picture of what we have achieved or are like, not what we are moving away from or don't want to be like. This becomes clear when we are asked how we would draw a picture of the outcome we are seeking. A statement such as “I must not get stressed” does not translate easily into a picture, whereas “I am calm and relaxed” can be visualised easily.

Second, the messages are realistic in the sense that the outcome can be influenced by our behaviour. Affirming that we have won Lotto may be a lovely thought but it is unlikely to have any effect as we cannot influence the fall of the numbers. However, affirming that we enjoy working with a particularly obnoxious individual can have a positive outcome by changing the emotions we experience when dealing with that individual. Third, we do not have to work out how the problem is going to be solved or the desired outcome achieved. Our subconscious is infinitely more intelligent than our conscious mind and is the seat of creativity. It is not uncommon to find that the solution to a problem we have given up on pops into our head after we have stopped thinking about it and we often have dreams involving places we have never been and people we have never met.

Our ability to access this intellectual power or creativity is, however, influenced by our level of anxiety. When we become stressed, our creativity and capacity to solve problems can quickly diminish. Writer's block or mind blanks during examinations are frequent examples of this phenomena. But, as we begin mentally repeating that we enjoy working with the difficult individual or that we feel calm and relaxed, we begin to weaken the existing neural pathways within the amygdala and form new ones. As this process continues the target of our concern slowly ceases to be perceived as a threat. The result is an increased likelihood that we will feel more relaxed and begin to have creative ideas or see solutions to our problem. In a sense this is a little like sending an e-mail. We do not have to concern ourselves about the mechanism by which the e-mail reaches its destination, but we do need to ensure that the address is correct. When solving a complex problem our role is to ensure that we create a clear picture of the outcome we are seeking that the subconscious can then use to begin generating solutions.

Fourth, we do not have to believe the affirmations. Computers do not need to believe the software they run, they will simply try to run whatever is loaded. If the software happens to be a virus that is going to destroy the system the computer will still try to run it. Our brain is more or less the same. If we have a mental virus that states we are unable to work with a particular individual or that we have trouble remembering names the subconscious will do everything in its power to ensure that that is the outcome. Similarly, a concern frequently expressed is that by stating positive affirmations we are lying to ourselves. The reality is that in many cases we are already doing so. An individual who states that they are hopeless at speaking in public is equally likely to be observed successfully doing exactly that when telling a funny story or vociferously arguing their point of view in a meeting.

Fifth, the new messages have to be repeated many, many times. Our brain is constantly changing - every second we form over one million new synaptic connections. The process of changing the way we feel and act is akin to training for a marathon. An athlete trains in order to change the structure of her body and while each training run may appear to make little difference, over time her body changes significantly. In same way, if we are seeking to solve a work problem or change our emotional reactions concerning a relationship, we need to do the work to literally change the structure of our brain. The majority of failures in this regard can be traced back to people running positive messages for a short time then reverting back to the negative – a bit like someone complaining that they couldn‟t finish a marathon despite training for a whole week.

Just as we can „reprogram‟ our own mind, so too can we reprogram the minds of others. The key is to think carefully about the images that we want to leave in the subconscious mind of the other person. “Watch you don‟t spill the drink” becomes “I love the way you always hold your drink carefully”. Or, to a teenager, “I love the way you always keep your room tidy”. Any accusations of sarcasm can be quietly met with the comment, “I am just trying to get the software right”. In the work setting this approach extends to all forms of communication with a special emphasis on safety messages. Constantly reflecting on the mental pictures likely to be created by the message helps to ensure that communication is effective. Science has only begun to scratch the surface in terms of how the brain works. Working within the knowledge we do have, the essence of my presentation to the HRINZ conference was that negative emotions underpin the majority of challenges faced by HR practitioners and that by changing our self-talk we can change the emotions. The purpose was not to tell people what to think but to share some insights that would empower them to make their own decisions on what software they chose to run.

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