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The chimp paradox

Sport psychiatrist, Professor Steve Peters, says that whether you are an Olympic athlete, a professional footballer, or a business leader, in order to reach your full potential, you have to tame your “inner chimp”; that is, the part of the brain that fuels impulsive emotion and gut instinct.    

Professor Peters became best-known for his motivational work with British cycling, the England football team and Team GB. His company is called Chimp Management which consults FTSE 100 companies, including Unilever and many SMEs. Cyclist turned jockey, Victoria Pendleton, after winning her second Olympic gold: “Steve is the most important person in my team.”

His top-selling book on the topic, The Chimp Paradox, acts like a mental model for athletes and CEOs alike. The key theory is that for survival, we need to harness our impulsive and reactive emotions, that if not harnessed correctly, can have catastrophic results. Peters, who calls himself a ‘mind mechanic’, says organising and having command over your brain is beneficial to you and those around you, on both a personal and professional level.     

Feeling happy means you are more likely to get the best out of yourself and others; as with top athletes striving to be the best they can, business leaders who master their own minds can achieve ‘optimum performance’, using logic over impulse and are very likely to triumph in their career.

Glenn Mead, one of Chimp Management’s consultants, says: “The first stage of a reaction is recognising that it is okay to express an emotion. If something has happened and it is not a great result then don’t try to pretend that it is not a stress, or a drama. Let it out – provided that everyone else knows that is what you are doing, and can anticipate that. You are exercising your chimp. If you have a culture where the leader is ranting and raving, they are not necessarily directing it at anyone; rather they are really asking: ‘Can someone understand me?’

“The key thing is to not let your emotions take over, especially when under pressure. That is no different for high-achieving individuals such as Olympians, medics, or business leaders. However you measure success, if you are happy then you are more likely to get the best out of yourself and those around you. You always hear large and small organisations insist that ‘people are our best asset’, so consider how your happiness influences how you interacted with other people. How happy is your team as a result?”

So, when a decision maker gets their own head in order, it has an amazing impact on those around them, and a disproportionate effect on success. Conversely, a lack of emotional intelligence can impact upon the planning stages of business strategy and therefore limit the success of the project.

“If a company has a culture which is very much a ‘stick’ culture and punitive, I’m not saying you can’t succeed, I’m saying you’ll get a lot of stress and a lot of casualties,” Prof Peters suggests. “They may say to me: ‘Well that’s good, we want to weed out anyone who’s stressed as a casualty’. What I would ask, though; is that an ethical way to work?”

Mead says : “Regularly we have to deal with disappointment, but this is mostly because of our expectations. Successful leaders learn how best to deal with that disappointment. If we use the human side brain – that is the limbic, rather than the impulsive chimp element – we can use evidence, from past experiences, perspective and rationale to assist with our response.”

As Mead notes, US president Abraham Lincoln once said: “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my axe.” The point being that a leader should take the time to better tool up his or her brain. “Make sure you are well stocked, understand your own emotions, and be flexible,” Mead says. “If you are dealing with colleagues or staff, or even clients, use non-confrontational language and have awareness of others – because they all have impulsive, instinctive chimps, too. As with coaching methods, use open questions – how, why, who, and so on – and you are likely to gain a better, quicker reaction. Open questions also create human reactions.”

According to Prof Peters, success comes hand in hand with happiness and confidence; impressive, clear-headed leadership in turn cultivates good morale in the workplace. Not only will mentally managing the chimp lead to success at work, but also at home, as Prof Peters says: “I’ve had the wives of people come up to me and say: ‘This isn’t the man I married – and it’s a change for the better.’”

He continues: “Manage yourself and become the person you would like to be.” And as Mead says, should you feel the need to rant and rave after a disappointment, and you feel the chimp getting the better of you momentarily, express that rage away from others. “Do it in a safe place, where it is not going to have a negative effect on people. And to do that you need to understand the nature of your chimp – it’s different for everyone,” he adds. “Go for a walk, take some peace and quiet, there is no right or wrong way to deal with it. Just be aware of what the consequences of your emotions will be for other people.”

So, in short, we all have a wild, raving primate for a brain and the way to be a success in any area of our life, is to learn to control the maniac mind with rationale and logic.


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