The One Thing Standing Between You and Your Success


Posted Jun 06, 2013

462 eyes were looking my way as I stood there awkwardly in front of the room. There was only one thing left between me and my success.


Every person in the audience was waiting to judge my performance. At that moment I understood the role people play in propelling our careers forward or bringing them to a halt. They influence decisions concerning feedback, promotions, pay raises, and vacation time. That’s why it’s critical to build strong relationships around you at work to be sure you are leveraging others to your advantage. To do this, you need to know where they come from. Not which neighborhood, but which millennium.

Humans have spent over 99% of their evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers[1]. Thousands of years of cave dwelling led to primitive stimulus-response patterns that still influence our daily lives. Just consider our cravings for sugar and salt. Thousands of years ago, sugar and salt were scarce commodities. Our environment has changed, but our brains haven’t yet adjusted.The result? Americans now consume more than double the recommended daily intake for sugar[2] and salt[3]. Our primitive stimulus-response system that once kept us alive is now exacerbating our nation's health problems.

The evolutionary forces undermining our best intentions in the grocery store aisles are also at play at the office. They direct aour behaviors when engaging with others, often without conscious awareness. Here are 3 relationship oriented ancestral patterns that can either be stepping-stones or stumbling blocks for your career.

1. Emotional Contagion

How you “feel” everyday can affect how other’s feel around you. As it turns out, emotions are contagious. In a study of over 70 work teams across 51 different companies, emotions were found to spread even without conscious effort between individuals and across teams.[4] If you bring negative feelings to work, people are less likely to be supportive, positive and helpful in your presence. Managing your mood at work can be a key component to managing your trajectory of success.

2. Life-Preserving Behaviors

While the fight-or-flight response may have served us well for surviving encounters with a predator, it is less likely to be successful at helping us during a group project, public speaking engagement or performance review. This response bypasses reason and cognition in the brain to expedite action[5], making it very difficult to override. If you notice you or your colleague getting angry, teary, or starting to shut down, find a way to exit from the conversation and re-convene at a later time. This will provide the space required to move beyond emotional reactions, and back towards productive, rational thinking.

3. Neurological Shutdown

In a study published by the Ivey Business Journal[6], it was found that the brain literally shuts down key areas when exposed to people with whom we have low-quality relationships. When engaged with these individuals, we tend to lose motivation, alienate them and put a negative spin on the interaction.

While you may not like the other person, shutting them out could be detrimental to your success. Work hard to think of the other person’s positive attributes and circumstantial pressures. This will help your brain to see them as an ally rather than an enemy and keep your brain firing on all cylinders in their presence.

As I stood there in front of the 462 eyes waiting to judge my performance, my brain was responding in a primitive manner. I saw them as a threat, and they were quickly evaluating whether I was a friend of foe. My ability to understand and manage these ancestral patterns was the difference between my performance being a great success instead of a colossal failure. By recognizing and responding properly to primitive behavioral patterns, other people can become a bridge to achieving your end goal, rather than a barrier.  



[1] Bereczkei, Tamas. “Evolutionary psychology: A new perspective in the behavioural sciences.” Janus Pannonius U, Dept of General and Evolutionary Psychology. Hungary, European Psychologist, Vol 5 (3) (Sept, 2000): 175-190.

[2] The Associated Press. Cut back, way back, on sugar. MSNBC, 2009.

[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Sodium Fact Sheet.” National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. November 2009.

[4] Bartel and Saavedra. “The collective construction of work group moods.” Administrative Science 
   Quarterly, 45 (2), (2000): 197-231.

[5] Barsade, Sigal G.; Gibson, Donald E. "Why does affect matter in organizations?" Academy of Management Perspectives, Vol. 21 Issue 1 (Feb2007): 36-59.

[6] Boyatzis, Richard. "Neuroscience and Leadership: The Promise of Insights." Ivey Business Journal, (Jan/Feb 2011).

About the Author

Christina Curtis

Christina Curtis is a leadership and executive coach based in Colorado.

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