Manage the chimp

Understanding the human mind can help foster a positive work culture and improve psychological well-being

Consultant psychiatrist Professor Steve Peters formed Chimp Management in January 2013. The company specialises in the human mind, with an approach grounded in neuroscience. It views the mind as a remarkable machine, representing what could be people’s greatest asset and biggest liability in life.

Through this metaphor, Chimp Management works with how the mind operates in reality, and not how most people think it works. It seeks to understand the machine in people’s heads, and how effective individuals are in getting it to work optimally.

To help people progress their understanding and skill, Peters developed a highly practical and entertaining working model and development programme that can be successfully applied to teams and individuals, in both their personal and professional lives. Through insight and skill a person can learn how to manage the machine effectively, and ultimately become the person they want to be.

As with any machine, in order to ensure it functions optimally, it is not only imperative to understand the mechanism of the machine, but also the rules of operation.

“The probability of optimal outcomes and adherence to complex guidelines diminishes if these rules are not followed”

Consider what would happen in a corporate governance setting if the principles of risk management, compliance and oversight were either not understood or not adhered to. It may be the case that one would still get the outcome one was aiming for.

However, the probability of optimal outcomes and adherence to complex guidelines diminishes if these rules are not followed. The rules of corporate governance exist for good reasons and assist in ensuring businesses and corporations function within certain parameters and to certain standards.

The machine metaphor

Individuals may think they understand their own mind machine very well and always get the outcomes they want, never behaving in a way that either diminishes outcomes or that, on reflection, they are unhappy with. If that is so, I recommend carrying out an audit of this perception and testing it by asking spouses, partners and closest friends. People may be surprised at the answers they receive.

How the machine metaphor works is to view the main systems in the brain using three concepts. First, a human system, which works with facts and evidence and thinks logically. This system affords individuals all of the forward planning, problem-solving, budget management and evidence-based decision-making that are so vital in the corporate world.

Second, a chimp system, which thinks emotionally and works with feelings and impressions. This system is a survival brain and reacts to threats – real and, importantly, also perceived – with the powerful instinct of fight, flight or freeze.

“The chimp system receives incoming messages first, and is five times more powerful than the human system”

Third, a computer system, which represents preprogrammed automatic thinking and behaviour. This system is an analogy for the totality of one’s learning, experience, skills and beliefs. Just like any computer system, the output is reliant upon the quality and appropriateness of the programming.

Simply understanding the three components of the chimp model is not where the story ends, as the rules about how these systems operate is key to developing the skill to managing an individual’s machine for optimal output.

In short, although people may think that, of course, they are always in human logical mode, the reality is that the chimp system receives incoming messages first, and is five times more powerful than the human system. This makes sense in survival scenarios, however, thankfully, these are not the norm in today’s society.

Understand negative emotions

If this framework starts to help people understand why they sometimes say the wrong thing, lose their cool, feel stressed out, fail to stand up for themselves, or suffer self-doubt, they are not alone. The chimp model allows people to understand their mind machine through the prism of these three systems, and facilitates skills development to get the best from their own behavioural output.

It does so by understanding what each system offers and then learning skills to help drive thinking and behavioural output in the direction consistent with success as defined by the individual or team.

Having grasped a few basics, one may ask why this is important and what it can do to assist in the world of governance and compliance. In terms of importance, one must look at the world’s realities.

Open to new ideas

People are social beings and their success, especially in the corporate world, often relies not just on themselves, but understanding and working with others. Being open to challenges and new ideas is an avenue that can prove productive in business, as other people’s perspectives can add value to problem-solving, and perhaps in identifying risk, and helping to manage it, before it becomes an issue.

With specific regard to governance and compliance, understanding how one’s brain and the varying systems work with concepts like ownership and responsibility, or fail to do so, as the case may be, is a key piece of learning, that can help governance professionals achieve successful outcomes.

The goal of success is the critical outcome for business and there is evidence the chimp model has achieved successful outcomes from Peters’ and the Chimp Management team’s involvement with elite sport.

The company has helped sportspeople and teams win gold medals at several Olympic Games across a range of disciplines, and also helped professional sportsmen and women achieve success at events and tournaments. Notable figures such as Sir Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Steven Gerrard and Ronnie O’Sullivan are open about how applying this approach to their performance has been a fundamental component of their success.

Corporate evidence

For evidence that the approach also works in the corporate world, one can point to figures outlined in The Recruiter magazine last December. Having worked on an in-house programme with Chimp Management, fintech recruitment firm Nicoll Curtin reported a

26% rise in financial turnover, a reduction in staff churn to 15% and an increase in diversity and inclusion at senior levels within the organisation.

“The chimp model could help governance and compliance professionals to manage risks around psychological burnout, stress and associated decline in productivity”

This evidence can be taken as support for the central tenet of the chimp model – that though the situation may differ, if one is able to learn and deploy the skill of mind management, then the probability of success, however one defines and measures it, goes up.

There are areas where the chimp model could help governance and compliance professionals to manage risks around psychological burnout, stress and associated decline in productivity. Also, with the risks of a silo mentality emerging and hampering business growth.

The method could foster a culture of openness, challenge and fresh thinking, addressing the ‘elephants in the room’ of abdication of responsibility, breaches of integrity, and honesty.

Finally, the method can ensure that compliance includes the duty of care, not just to individuals’ own psychological well-being, but to all those within their organisations. Chimp management is a skill everyone can learn. Without it, the likelihood and impact of unhelpful and destructive behaviour patterns rises, but with it, the probability of success increases.

Aidan Kearney is Psychological Skills Mentor at Chimp Management LTD

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