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STEM Understandings and Respect

Emerging STEM human performance understandings, together, suggest that reliable, values-based, human-to-human respect is KEY to adaptive, creative, and truly sustainable human performance — individually and organizationally.

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Let’s move beyond simply the use of “common sense,” intuition, and logic, to also utilize STEM-informed human performance facts.

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Emerging STEM human performance understandings suggest that each of our brains is profoundly influenced by how we are treated by others.

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We are learning the conditions under which our brains operate at their best.

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We are also learning conditions under which our brains do not operate so well, whereby we perhaps sabotage our own best interests.

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There are no smoke and mirrors here, just neurons, neurotransmitters, and electrical impulses. When we are treated with respect, our brains literally light up and perform at the highest levels which they’re capable.  When we’re treated with disrespect, the higher thought process in our brains go dormant. Hijacked by our primitive survival wiring, we become diminished assets to our employers and their organizations [and potentially to ourselves].

~ Paul Meshanko, 2013, The Respect Effect: Using the Science of Neuroleadership to Inspire a More Loyal and Productive Workplace, New York: McGraw Hill Education, p. xiv.

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Neurobiological human performance findings indicate that WHEN WE EXPERIENCE the frustration of INTERPERSONAL DISRESPECT, our Central Nervous System (CNS) — faster than thought — senses danger.  Our CNS automatically induces various amounts of stress hormones to enter our bloodstream, including cortisol.

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These stress hormones immediately increase our heart rate while diverting blood to the three CNS levels most essential for emergency mobilization — and away from our higher cognitive centers.

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As Daniel Goleman describes, it,

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The overall impact of cortisol on brain function is to enforce that primitive strategy for survival: heightening the senses, dulling the mind, and doing what’s most well rehearsed, even if that habit is yelling or freezing in panic…  Cortisol steals energy resources from working memory — from the intellect — and shunts them to the senses.  When cortisol levels are high, people make more errors, are more distracted, and can’t remember as well — even something they’ve recently read…  Irrelevant thoughts intrude, and processing information becomes more difficult…  If stress is sustained, the likely end state is burnout or worse”

~ Working with Emotional Intelligence, 2000, p. 76.

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Our amygdala induces an immediate biochemical cascade of stress hormones, primarily cortisol — enough for one episode of fight or flight.

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Once secreted, it can take hours for our bodies to re-balance neuro-chemically.

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The upshot is that our abstract, intellectual processing of information can temporarily diminish.

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This can translate into hours, literally, before our full intellectual abstract thinking capacities are back “on-line” and functioning.

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This automatic action by our amygdala triages our CNS’s finite resources, whether for physical or interpersonal reasons, for fight or flight — and not for constructive problem-solving thinking or conversation.

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Eustress

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In contrast, when we experience a challenge as “eustress,” our CNS senses an immediate attractive challenge and will respond with adaptive engagement and with focused innovation.

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We are able to think clearly and stay adaptively focused amidst high stakes, perhaps even experiencing “flow.”

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Our amygdala remains at ease.

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The difference is due to our CNS’s interpretations of the challenge — not simply our intellectual interpretation, although this is often also included.

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I can’t say it better than Paul Meshanko (2013) does:

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The Neurology of Human Interaction

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Human evolution and biology play significant roles in determining how we interact and behave around each other.  Our brains are wired for speed and efficiency and powered almost exclusively by glucose, which is a form of sugar our bodies metabolize from carbohydrates.  Because we have limited supplies of glucose available throughout the day, one of our natural, and often unacknowledged biases is to stay in environments that are familiar and use neural pathways that are already well-developed.  When we’re surrounded by people who are like us (or at least very familiar to us), we expend less glucose (energy) to understand their actions and predict their intentions.  This preference for familiarity, predictability, and safety is likely one of the underlying factors that drove our ancestors to form tribes.

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When we’re around people for whom we have no first-hand reference points, our brains immediately try to match what we can perceive about them (visually, audibly, and through our sense of smell) to patterns that already exist.  According to authors Marsh, Mendoza-Denton, and Smith:

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Neuroscience has shown that people can identify another person’s apparent race, gender, and age in a matter of milliseconds.  In this blink of an eye, a complex network of stereotypes, emotional prejudices, and behavioral impulses activates.

~Jason Marsh, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, and Jeremy Adam Smith, Are We Born Racist? New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010).

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These mental shortcuts allow us to quickly evaluate people and our relative safety around them.  There is strong evidence that they also permit the brain to consume less of the body’s precious supply of glucose.  When we have no existing reference points for a person, event, or situation, the brain must work harder and burn considerably more energy to program new neuronal reference points and synaptic pathways.  Think of it as the difference between driving down a highway versus having to build that highway in the first place.  Once our ‘highways’ are built, we are comfortable staying on them as much as possible.  To a degree, this analogy helps underscore the power and persistence of stereotypes to influence our perceptions and initial interaction behaviors with others. 

~ Paul Meshanko, 2013, The Respect Effect: Using the Science of Neuroleadership to Inspire a More Loyal and Productive Workplace, New York: McGraw Hill Education, p. 10, underscore added.

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Some Mental Short-Cuts Undermine Respect

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We ALL possess cultural (and sub-cultural) biases.

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The thing about unconscious bias, be it oriented around gender, ethnicity, age or anything else, is that correcting it is a very slow and arduous undertaking. That’s because, to a degree, it’s simply another facet our personalities at the individual level and culture at the group level. It’s part of what makes us “us.”

~ Meshanko, 2013

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At the same time, doing nothing to minimize stereotyping — conscious or unconscious — is not a very good option either.

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We are all much more capable if we can create living, working, and civic environments that encourage every person to grow and contribute to his or her full potential among others.

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This requires assertive action learning venues to address.

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This requires humble inquiry.

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How do we tackle this opportunity to become more respectful of others?

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Marsenko and others point to our need for “bias interrupters.”

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Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

~ American anthropologist Margaret Mead

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This does require acknowledgement, intent, discipline, pointed effort, and patience, including with oneself.

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