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How to Make the Most of Being an Emotional Neanderthal (Hint: You are and just don’t know it)

By Dr. Jean Greaves

My daughter came home from school a few years back and announced that as a modern human, I have 4% Neanderthal DNA still in me. We chuckled over a possible resemblance, but the thought stuck with me. Were obvious emotions like fear or anger in ancient people similar to feelings like defensiveness or frustration between people at work? Duke professor Mark Leary has an interesting answer based on his review of research across disciplines, including neuroscience and psychology. People across cultures, young and old, rural and urban, are living with five ancient instincts that trigger strong emotions to motivate specific behaviors. People have strong instincts to:

1) belong to groups
2) be socially accepted
3) influence others
4) protect themselves from people who might harm them
5) form close relationships.

These core instincts are the source of our feelings and motivate us to act. These instincts enabled early humans to survive and adapt to the challenges in their world, and they are just as relevant today. The difference is they must be understood and responded to consciously. Otherwise, you’re just a caveman with an iPhone.

If you’re seeking greater self-awareness, consider the following insights and questions to help you to understand how these ancient triggers influence your behavior:

Instinct #1: We want to belong to groups

People were motivated to belong to groups. One human had a better chance of surviving when joining with another, sharing shelter, food, learning from each other, and divvying up the tasks of living such as hunting, fighting predators, or traveling to a new location. People still want to belong to groups. The drive to belong shows up in children across the school years. Young and old, belonging manifests in families, sports and academic clubs, book groups, hobby groups, professional associations, project teams, even online chat rooms for people with common interests. People are drawn to do and say what it takes to join groups. When we aren't welcomed, we feel hurt or isolated. We begin thinking about what it will take to get in. We feel happy, satisfied, or content when we belong; and we feel sad, frustrated, or anxious when we don't. Finding another group is the only solution. We would rather feel connected than rejected.

What is the role of belonging in your life? Ask yourself the following questions:
1. How would you describe your experiences joining groups? What about leaving them?
2. Which groups are most important to you and why?

Applying to college is a universally uncomfortable request to join a group. Watch Chuck experience the awful feeling of being rejected.

Instinct #2: We want to be socially accepted

It's one thing to join a group but quite another to stay; members typically follow spoken or unspoken rules. Early people were motivated to be accepted by other members in their group. Those who did the opposite were shunned or thrown out in the cold to fend for themselves. Chances for survival were better and positions of importance more likely when you were socially accepted. The need to be liked and conform to the expectations and rules of a group continues to be a strong human desire. People don't like to feel rejected, so they do and say things to be accepted by others. In the modern office, chances for career growth increase with social skills. It's no coincidence that when satisfying instinct #2 gets blocked, you feel frustrated, rejected, resentful, or angry. These feelings motivate you to pay attention to what it takes to be accepted. Those who didn't struggled, and they still do today.

What role has social acceptance played in your life? Ask yourself the following questions:
1. How well can you read the unspoken rules expected by the groups you belong to?
2. Think back to feeling rejected by a group. Can you spot any rules you may have broken?

Instinct #3: We want to influence others

Early people were motivated to influence others so they could get their needs met. Influence back then meant getting people to share food or resources or to go where you wanted to go. Influence improved your situation if you could get other people to listen to what you had to say. The same is true today. Informal leaders surface in groups even when not assigned. Just think of the alliances that form on reality show competitions. Pairs align, and contestants struggle to influence one another. At this point, belonging to groups, social acceptance, and influence begin to work together. We want them all, and we don't feel good when our instincts go unrewarded.

What is your ability to influence? Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Who do you influence in your life?
2. Who and what can't you influence? And why?

Instinct #4: We want to protect ourselves from people who might harm us

Early people were motivated to protect themselves from people who could harm them. We have very effective systems for feeling and sensing danger, including mirror neurons that help us feel what others are feeling. So even if you couldn't see danger, if other members of your group made you feel nervous or you felt their fear, your mirror neurons helped you sort out fight or flight reactions. Today, we spend much of our day with people in the office, in the classroom, and in our homes. In these complex social settings, our radar for harm focuses on people we consider threats to our happiness or the pursuit of our goals. These threats are the people who say and do things that trigger us to feel disappointed, resentful, used, or criticized.

How do you protect yourself in your life? Ask yourself the following questions:
1. How much do you spend worrying about who or what could harm you?
2. How effectively do you spot when harm (political, social, or physical) headed your way?

Instinct #5: We want to form close relationships

Early humans were motivated to form close relationships with each other. They lived and moved together in small tribes of 20 or so individuals. The ability to form intimate relationships allowed families to form and generations to continue. A close relationship ensured the continuation of our species and a long-term place for an individual within a tribe. Even today, research shows that these instincts are alive and well. Gallup research finds turnover is lower and job satisfaction is higher when people form close friendships at work. Health research shows people cope better with stress and health problems when they have supportive, close relationships in their life.

How close are the relationships in your life? Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Have close relationships and friendships come easily for you?
2. If not, do you understand why?

Our caveman instincts offer a wonderful set of criteria for selecting leaders at the project or company level. Many people have expertise, but who can lead those experts? The one who understands how to identify and belong to the group being led (She's one of us!) will excel. The person accepted by them as their leader (We'll follow him!) who can influence them (We'll go where she says!) and protect their group from outside threats (He's watching out for us!) will take their performance to new heights. Perhaps most importantly, the leaders who can form close relationships with followers will cultivate the most satisfaction in their group.

Think about what your instincts are telling you to do and why. Your career and life goals are typically in service to getting these needs met. It's been a matter of survival since the dawn of man.



Jean Greaves, Ph.D.

Dr. Jean Greaves is the co-author of the bestselling Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and the cofounder and CEO of TalentSmart, the world’s leading provider of emotional intelligence tests, emotional intelligence training, and executive coaching. Her bestselling emotional intelligence books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries. Dr. Greaves leverages her twenty-five year track record of consulting, speaking and applied research. She has written for, or been covered by, Newsweek, Fortune, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Harvard Business Review.

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