Graham Birkenhead, April 7 2020

I See You - Leading in a time of crisis

Learning to See
Sawubona is a Zulu greeting which means “I see you”. The idea is that you don't merely acknowledge a person by saying “hi”, but you take a moment (or 5) to look just a little bit beyond what you see on the surface, or maybe a little beyond the assumptions you are making when they reply “good” to your standard “how are you”. In some cultures, when you hand over a business card, you take a moment to read it, to connect it with the person that gave it to you, ‘to see the person’. But in others you take it, say “thank you” and put it with the rest of the cards you didn't look at either.

So, what has this to do with motivation? – well, it’s foundational. But first, I want to dispel a myth about motivation: it is impossible to motivate someone! Motivation comes only from within. A major responsibility of a leader is to help team members to feel motivated. And so, being able to really see them is a key step to that (for more, see my blog on Not Motivating your Employees.)

A Model of the Mind
To understand how to influence someone’s motivation, it is helpful to have a model of how the mind works. Here is my simplified model of the human mind (it is an assemblage of *several models); we can consider the mind to comprise 3 distinct levels:

1 – The Neo-cortex which is the big thinking part of our mind – it is where we deal with analysis and logic, where we do planning and reasoning. It is what you are probably using right now to make sense of this blog. Here, we consciously work through things. And, compared to the limbic brain, its thought processes are slower and more deliberate, but this part of our mind is where we try to generate rational thought. For the purposes of this blog, I will refer to this as the logical mind

2 – The Limbic brain. This drives a lot of our physical reactions to our feelings or thoughts (we see this as body language). It is where a lot of our emotional selves are. Here, we have many automated and fast responses to situations – both in terms of how we understand what is happening and then what we do about it. Much of these interpretations and responses can appear irrational to an observer. For the purposes of this blog, I will refer to this as the emotional mind.

3 – The Reptile Brain which is where our core instincts and base behaviours are – such as aggression or protectiveness; and just in case you were wondering, our urge to mate is in here too.

How does this help me lead my team?

There are 5 points to be aware of when communicating with your team members:

Back to ‘I See You’
Bearing that simple idea of ‘I see you’ in mind and using it whenever you start a new conversation, even if you don't say it out loud, could help you to help your team member.

 As I go for my regular walks in these times of physical distancing, I am noticing a change in behaviour of the people around me – we are ‘seeing’ each other a little more. As we step aside to ensure there is a good 2 metres between us (and this naturally feels rude) we are looking at each other more, making eye contact and saying “hello” – and it feels good. Only a couple of weeks ago, most of those same people would be passing within centimetres of each other and completely ignoring each other. It is in us to see our fellow human beings for what we are – emotional beings who are capable of great feats of logic and ingenuity.


* MacLean’s Triune Brain model, Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory, Kahneman’s Two Systems of Thinking. 

Written by

Graham Birkenhead


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