Think, feel, know

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Written by Clive Hyland on 1 July 2013 in Features

In the first of a series about how our brains influence our relationships, Clive Hyland focuses on high-performance teams

Teams sit at the heart of all corporate business. They are the building blocks that support the operation and culture of the organisation, an essential aspect of the business architecture. All people with leadership, management or supervisory responsibility face the challenge of getting the best out of the teams that report to them.

Their impact on the organisation is massive. Excellent teams will drive the business forward while those that falter will be a drag on momentum and the source of frustration and disappointment. They demand understanding of not only each individual but also the dynamics of how these individuals interact.

Now, at last, we can see a completely fresh perspective on how this often daunting challenge can be addressed.

Teambuilding has been a mainstream training activity for many decades and has seen the rise to the fore of thought leaders like Professor Belbin in the 1980s. We have categorised team members into various role and personality types, even drawing on comparative animal profiles in the search for understanding. Now we have the opportunity for the first time of switching our attention to a new and valuable source of data. No need for speculative theorising or tangential thinking. What we really need to understand is our own brains: and the source of this understanding is offered by the insights of the emerging neuroscience.

Why is this so relevant? Because we are all in the game of influencing people's behaviour, of developing relationships and sharing ambitions, perspectives and experiences. Anything that offers us new, substantiated insights into 'what makes us tick' both individually and collectively has to be worth exploring.

The psychologists of the twentieth century did not have access to living brains when they conducted their research and developed their hypotheses. They were limited largely to observational methodology and built conceptual models around visible behavioural patterns. But, since the development of functional MRI technology in the 1990s, neuroscience now offers us radical insights into the live, inner workings of the brain so that we can directly monitor the relationship between brain functionality and human behaviour.

We are moving from an observational model to an explanatory one in which we can see a clearer relationship between cause and effect, between stimulus and reaction.

Of course, this is a complex matter. We are dealing with an incredibly sophisticated mechanism whose true capability has only recently begun to be revealed to us by the efforts of neurological scientists. So, for it to be of any immediate value in the everyday world of life and business, we need to bring this understanding down to a more accessible and pragmatic level. One way of doing this is referring to the Think Feel Know model.

The Think Feel Know model is a representation of the three main areas of the brain and its purpose is to illustrate their impact on our everyday behaviour.

The thinking layer of the brain is the cortex, the grey outer mass with its distinct left and right sides. This is where we operate by logic, data, structure, precision and method. It is clinical, objective and is the area in which we create and follow the rules for social engagement. It is also the world of self-awareness, where we try to make sense of our everyday existence. In terms of physiological evolution, it is the advanced nature of the cortex, above all, that separates humans from other species.

The feeling layer is the limbic region in the middle of the brain. It operates on totally different principles from the cortex: here it is about energy, sensing, feeling, emotions and relationships. It works primarily with immediate experiential data collected via the senses and is the region of the brain that is most immediately linked to the heart. This is a very personal and subjective world. It is sometimes referred to as the mammalian brain and is the area that, in evolutionary terms, gave us the capability and desire to form family groups. Hence relationships and bonding are key ingredients of this experience.

The knowing layer, the basal region, sits just above the spinal column and is the oldest part of the brain. It is sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain. It is the world of instincts, intuition and 'gut' responses. There is no fuss in this world, just following our own instinctive and intuitive responses. Here we don't need to invent new rules or get over-excited about anything. The brain already has its solution so we 'just do it'.

While simplistically explained here, the model gives us a very useful platform for a fresh and powerful understanding of human behaviour. Within the team context we are, of course, interested not only in what goes on internally within each of us but also in the impact we have on each other, for example whether we are naturally inclined towards being a team player or prefer our own space.

So a great place to start our analysis is to look at the prevalent communication styles exhibited by each member of the team. Unlike with many other approaches, with the Think Feel Know model this can be done in a very non-judgmental way. It is not a case of who is a good or bad communicator, more one of understanding the consequences of the behavioural choices we make and what we can do to develop a more effective style.

Each of the brain layers exerts its own influence over our behaviour, each manifesting itself as one of the Thinking, Feeling or Knowing styles. When it comes to understanding human behaviour, we can look for signs as to which of the regions is exerting the most influence on our behaviour. Typically, over time, we will exhibit a tendency to favour one or two of the 'styles' over the others in certain situations.

For instance, 'primary thinkers' (those who exhibit a tendency to use the thinking style more often than the others) tend to be orderly and structured in their approach, seeking clarity in rules and comfort in method. 'Primary feelers' operate very much in the moment and are energetically sensitive to their immediate environment. They can be warm, creative and passionate. 'Primary knowers' take a position quickly: they just want to get things done, to get to the point and not get distracted by fuss and irrelevance.

Although, for ease of use and for illustrative purposes, we talk loosely about 'primary thinkers, feelers and knowers', it is not the pigeonholing that matters. In fact, the value comes with understanding the fluidity of the model. After all, the brain itself epitomises fluidity. It is our own unique blending of the functionality of these regions of the brain that determines the way we 'show up' in life and in business, the way we process, and give meaning to, our experiences and the impact that we have on others. We will move very rapidly between these respective states as we face differing situations and people. Understanding how and why we move between the states will help us to find new insights into our own behaviour and those around us. The power of the model is in understanding what is going on in the moment.

So, when we are trying to communicate effectively, it is very useful to understand which primary state our target audience is in. Thinkers like clarity, method, detail and rationale. Feelers like energetic connection: the most important factor for them is engagement. Knowers will make their mind up very quickly so get to the point quickly or you will lose them.

Taking this into a team context, we will, of course, be dealing with a mix of styles, so the challenge becomes choosing the right style for the right audience at the right time. And, to support this, we need to ensure we continually develop our own communication competences in each of these styles. While it is important to be true to ourselves and our own sense of integrity, over-dependence on one style will result in missed opportunities to lead, engage and develop the entire team.

Our purpose here is to build a team able to excel at all three aspects, that is a genuinely thinking, feeling and knowing team. 'Primary thinkers' will bring a diligence and work ethic to the team. They like to get organised and follow tried and tested rules of execution. 'Primary feelers' will bring energy, are typically good at engaging in relationships and can provide the creative spark. 'Primary knowers' are decisive, no-nonsense types that just want to get the job done and move forward.

On the other hand, teams who are over-dependent on thinking will be very meticulous and well prepared but could also be ponderous and inflexible. Teams with a high feeling profile will be energised and spontaneous but they could also get easily distracted and lose focus. High knowing teams will certainly get the job done but it may not always be the right job. Knowers prefer to lead than to follow and are not always the best team players as this involves compromise and sharing - not natural strengths of knowing.

Yet, while communication is a great starting place for the team development journey, a further reference to the Think Feel Know model offers us the opportunity to move on to so much more. This is because understanding the interplay between the regions of the brain can offer powerful insights into how we build confident performance. Confidence sits at the heart of advanced performance yet, so often, we struggle to understand why it can suddenly desert us. And the principles are the same whether we are considering individuals or teams.

Confidence is a physiological phenomenon. It is something we feel at a deep level throughout our body. It cannot be faked; it cannot be simply thought into being; we cannot fool ourselves that we are confident, although we often try to fool others.

Confidence comes when the thinking, feeling and knowing regions of the brain are aligned. This means that the thinking brain has mastered the techniques required to succeed (the rules), the feeling brain has practised them to a point of advanced refinement and the knowing brain 'knows' it has the solution and is therefore entirely focused on a successful outcome.

The individual professional athlete will have trained long and hard to firstly acquire and then master the techniques of his sport. Assuming he has the requisite talent, he can only become confident if he is able to execute his talent without fear or anxiety. This is, of course, much easier on the training ground than in the heat of public competition. Public exposure is an energetic experience: the senses are aroused and will hijack performance if it is not underpinned by a personal belief in the outcome. These principles are equally relevant at the team level and the search for confident performance can best be undertaken by addressing each stage of the thinking, feeling and knowing process.

The thinking element of the team model here refers to the rules and structures by which the team operates and performs. Every team needs to be absolutely clear about its plan and its intended mode of operation. Each team member needs to understand exactly what role his colleague is playing and how this fits together into the team plan. This is more than the job description: it also means understanding how the team member will interpret the role. No two people will execute a job description in precisely the same way. The think element also includes the team's infrastructure, its methods, the techniques it invests in and the information it uses to support and measure its performance.

Having created the team plan, next comes the feeling element. This is the time when we practise our techniques, when we pick up subjective experiential data (as opposed to the more clinical data of the thinking brain). Above all, it is about the relationships within the team and the energetic impact they co-create. This means harmonising the hopes and feelings of the players. The team members have to learn to work towards trusting each other and aligning behind the team cause. Individuals who disrupt team harmony are divisive. Team relationships do not just happen; they need to be skilfully nurtured and time needs to be invested. Each team member needs to have time to express himself in the team and to expect team support in return.

And finally there is the knowing element. Here we are talking about the vision that gives the team a common purpose and a direction of travel. This should not be underestimated. An effective vision is not a strategy or a business plan; it is the common destination that each team member feels able and willing to sign up to. Above all, it is a human factor. Each team member needs to be able to picture it and internalise its meaning so that they can carry it with them as a source of focus and motivation. It needs to be clear, energising and believable. In my experience, this is far too often treated as a 'think' exercise driven by analysis and numbers. Of course data matters but it is 'think' and it will not captivate the heart and the subconscious mind. A vision has to be felt at a deep level if it is to be sustained. The knowing (basal) region of the brain needs to visualise the outcome and feel part of it. It cannot be captured on paper alone. Time invested in creating genuine team alignment around a shared vision will produce a significant return. Without this the team members are just 'doing their jobs'.

There is so much more to be achieved when a team believes in its shared purpose and commits to the journey of achieving it.

About the author

Clive Hyland is the CEO of Think Feel Know and author of Connect through Think Feel Know (Panoma). He can be contacted via


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