The Nature of People – How Does It Affect What We Do?

Part 2 in our Change Management Consideration Series

Also see: Part 1: Change Management – What Is It?

Dr. Wilder Penfield (1891-1976) was a neurosurgeon. In 1956 he published his work on Speech and Brain Mechanisms. During his surgical treatments on severely mentally ill patients, he discovered that stimulating different parts of the brain caused the patients to experience a variety of emotions. He found that the brain, through electrical stimulations, releases chemicals that activate the nervous system. These chemicals would induce feelings of fear, excitement, depression, sadness, aggression, anxiety, happiness, etc.  He referred to this phenomenon as the chemistry of thought. 

He also discovered what he called the Mechanisms of Thought – the way in which the brain manages this chemical factory. His work described two “managers” we will call Self-1 and Self-2. 

Self-1 is what is called the “Conscious Teller” that manages our rational thinking and non-automatic muscles. We are in control. If we want to move our arm, Self-1 sends that command out and we scratch our nose. Self-1 observes the physical world and, through an “inner dialogue”  sends what it sees to Self-2, who cannot see the physical world and depends on the observations and commands from Self-1. 

Self-2 is what is called the “Subconscious Doer” that manages all the things to keep us alive – such as our heart beat, blood pressure, breathing – by sending out commands via our nervous system.  Self-2 releases the chemicals that make us feel hunger, sleepiness, fear – our emotions. As an analogy, you could consider a large ship where Self-1 is on the bridge and Self-2 is in the engine room with no port holes.  Self-1 does not trust Self-2 and tends to take over the ‘chemical factory’ in situations it considers critical.

To illustrate – when we mow the lawn or drive to work, do we remember each and every detail? Are we constantly focusing on turning the wheel of the car as we drive? Self-2 is handling that. It has learned, from many repetitions, what to do. Short, quick signals from Self-1 are all Self-2 needs to do the work and free up Self-1 to think about that upcoming meeting. Repetition of things that have not caused a disaster eventually become a part of the comfort level for Self-2.   

Self-2 has one priority – survival. It learns what behavior is safe through repetitions. When Self-1 tells Self-2 something that is different than status quo, Self-2 starts the chemical factory to support “flight or fight” to ensure survival. 

If Self-1 sees something suddenly appear in front of the car, it sends a message to Self-2 who releases adrenaline to support immediate muscle reactions and throws some chemicals in to release anxiety and fear. Self-1 takes over completely sending muscle commands to avoid the obstacle.

Figure 2.1 – Chemistry of Thought

An excellent description of Self-1 and Self-2 interaction is described by Timothy Gallwey in his 1972 book “The Inner Game Of Tennis” (there is a 1997 revised edition).  Once Self-2 learns something, it is more competent than Self-1 which is demonstrated exceptionally well by Gallwey. When Self-1 takes over from Self-2, things don’t go well. Gallwey describes how he took someone who had never played tennis and had them observe two people hitting back and forth. After a period of time (where Self-2 purportedly learns from the observations of Self-1), he replaced one of the players with his neophyte. Disaster! Self-1 was in complete control for this important situation. Then Gallwey had the neophyte concentrate and focus only on the tennis ball, to “try and see the fuzz on the ball!” Voila, the neophyte’s swing improved and there was some success. Self-1 had been occupied and let Self-2 take over. 

An excellent example of the lack of trust Self-1 has for Self-2 is this takeover by Self-1 when something critical comes up. Any sport requires complex muscle controls that Self-2 has learned through spaced repetition – like a golf swing, a basketball shot, a football pass, or where to place your fingers on the finger board of a violin or guitar. When Self-1 will tries to take over, it really screws things up. Gallwey found that having tennis players focus on the tennis ball, by telling the players to try and see the fuzz on the ball, it  kept Self-1 busy and let Self-2 do the intricate muscle manipulations with no interference. In golf, having the player visualize the arch of the ball to the green does the same thing instead of Self-1 focusing on keeping the elbow straight, moving hips with the backswing, etc. 

Let’s look at the power of this interaction in the workplace.

A new financial system was introduced to ABC company. One person in the finance department (let’s call her Jenny), was responsible for pulling data together and passing it on to other analysts. She was having considerable difficulty getting the reports out of the new system that she was accustomed to sending to her “customers.”  When Jenny brought this up in a staff meeting, her manager chastised her for not following procedure. He disputed her claim that the new system was considerably different from the old and difficult to use. The boss told her to “figure it out. If she couldn’t, he would transfer that function to someone who could.”

Self-2 immediately went into overtime with the chemical factory creating intense feelings of fear, embarrassment, anger, and resentment. Jenny’s self-esteem disappeared. 

After the meeting, Jenny found that by creating her own Excel workbook, she could load data from the new system and manipulate it herself producing the reports she needed in doing her job. She certainly didn’t want to discuss this with her boss and risk further attacks.

So, Jenny stayed out of trouble – and inadvertently changed the accounting principles of the company! Over 18 months, it cost the company over $3 million dollars! No one knew or seemed to care why Jenny created her “work-arounds.”  And, there are a lot more “Jennies” out there with their own “rules of engagement” in place to make their job easier and stay out of trouble. That should give us pause for thought!

Jenny was comfortable with the way she was doing things and suddenly a new way was thrust upon her. Her Self-1 told Self-2 “We are going to have to do these things differently and I’m not sure what to do. We could fail and get chastised or lose our job and have no money or place to live …” Self-2 goes berserk. So, Jenny was already on edge when she went into the staff meeting. The fracas with her boss added to her fears. Even after Jenny decided to take the easiest way possible out of the situation and create an Excel solution, her focus on the job had been reduced as she continued to focus on potential episodes with her boss and how to avoid them. 

When change is introduced, the process of focusing on avoiding the unknown releases Self-2 and the chemical factory. Frustrations rise and “job de-focus” begins as Self-1 tries to take appropriate actions. This natural reaction of Self-2 releases emotions that are now clouding our judgment and ability to respond. So, the challenge is to get Self-2 comfortable. Getting change accepted first means getting Self-2 settled down.

How we can effectively deal with eliminating this diversion of energy into frustration is manifested in two major ways: through our behavior styles and our learning styles. But, before getting to these styles and how they affect Self-1/Self-2 (and subsequently change implementation), we need to look at how Self-1 acquires its information that is passed to Self-2: via Perceptions – The Unreal Truths.

Jim Stanton

Jim Stanton is the founder of Perception Management, Inc., and the creator of the Perception Analysis Methodology (PAM), a non-invasive process for the discovery and validation of the ‘ground truth’ in organizations. Jim has 51 years of experience in improving technology utilization, team building, and managing change. As COO of a $1.1B company, he reengineered global operations saving $45M annually driving internal growth revenues to $3.2B over 8 years. Jim founded 3 successful consulting firms and is an advisor to several CIOs, CEOs and start-up companies. His early career was as a physicist/mathematician developing guidance equations for the first moon landing that led to a strong focus on 'cause and effect' management approaches that work. He is certified in ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library), CoBit (Control Objectives for Information and related Technology), Change Management (ODR), and Process Reengineering (CSC Index).


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