Lead­er­ship lessons

John Eales writes for us. Is hate a good mo­ti­va­tor?

The Australian - The Deal - - Front Page - John Eales

FOR­MER Prime Min­is­ter Bob Hawke chal­lenged me re­cently when I asked him why Aus­tralians hated the Bri­tish so much. “I’m not a good per­son to ask that ques­tion,” he replied. “I’m not a hater. I never have been.”

Emo­tions can be your friend or your en­emy. They can drive you to glory or to dis­trac­tion. They can gal­vanise or con­fuse you. Hate is a com­plex emo­tion and one of­ten con­jured by sports coaches and business lead­ers alike as they at­tempt to drive per­for­mance against a com­peti­tor. But in iso­la­tion, and left unchecked, it can be a dan­ger­ous strat­egy be­cause hate can dis­si­pate ef­fort as much as it can di­rect it.

Although he may not have ul­ti­mately dis­tin­guished him­self in of­fice, in his fi­nal speech as US Pres­i­dent, Richard Nixon, cut to the heart of hate: “Re­mem­ber, those who hate you don’t win, un­less you hate them.”

The emo­tion of hate is of­ten con­fused with the at­ti­tude of com­pet­i­tive­ness. Hate is an emo­tion you invest in that takes en­ergy, of­ten de­tract­ing from your per­for­mance. Con­versely, com­pet­i­tive­ness is not an emo­tion but an at­ti­tude or a fo­cus. Not be­ing an emo­tion, it trav­els a dif­fer­ent neu­ral path­way to hate and thus by­passes the “hate cir­cuitry” al­low­ing decision-mak­ing re­main ra­tio­nal based on prob­lem solv­ing and at­tain­ment of the goal.

The neu­ral ori­gins of emo­tions like hate are be­com­ing clearer through tech­nol­ogy like func­tional mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing. In one study, neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gist Semir Zeki, of Univer­sity Col­lege London’s Lab­o­ra­tory of Neu­ro­bi­ol­ogy, scanned the brains of 17 adults as they gazed at images of a per­son they pro­fessed to hate. Those images ac­ti­vated ar­eas in the me­dial frontal gyrus, right puta­men, pre­mo­tor cor­tex and me­dial in­sula, which cor­re­spond to the so-called hate cir­cuit.

Ha­tred ac­ti­vates ar­eas in the frontal cor­tex that may be in­volved in eval­u­at­ing another per­son and pre­dict­ing their be­hav­iour, po­ten­tially dis­tract­ing you from the task at hand. Com­pet­i­tive­ness, how­ever, does not ac­ti­vate th­ese same ar­eas and so by­passes this judg­ment or pre­dic­tive path­way. Zeki demon­strated that hate ac­tu­ally al­ters the decision-mak­ing process.

This think­ing re­in­forces re­search like that from An­to­nio Da­ma­sio, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, who de­vel­oped the so­matic marker hy­poth­e­sis (SMH), and posited that ra­tio­nal think­ing can't be sep­a­rated from feel­ings and emo­tions. In short, when emo­tions are in­volved, our think­ing pro­cesses are al­tered, and the re­sult­ing be­hav­iours are not al­ways op­ti­mal.

Even when not fo­cused on another per­son hate can be de­struc­tive, and it doesn’t dis­crim­i­nate who it con­sumes. I’ve sat with peo­ple who have tried to ex­cuse av­er­age be­hav­iour by the cover-all, “I hate los­ing”. I have yet to meet some­one who loves it. To think that hat­ing los­ing is a dif­fer­en­tia­tor is delu­sional, even ar­ro­gant. But of­ten the dif­fer­ence be­tween high per­for­mance and oth­er­wise is the abil­ity to chan­nel that ha­tred of los­ing con­struc­tively and to­wards com­pet­i­tive out­comes rather than de­struc­tively and emotionally, to­wards per­sonal agen­das.

And that is the essence of the dif­fer­ence be­tween hate and com­pet­i­tive­ness. Com­pared to hate, com­pet­i­tive­ness is not rooted in emo­tion but rather based on ri­valry and the at­tain­ment of a goal or prize. It draws on such qual­i­ties as de­ter­mi­na­tion, tenac­ity, re­silience and adap­tive prob­lem solv­ing for which the neu­ral path­ways are flex­i­ble and var­ied and not as de­struc­tive. Ul­ti­mately, ex­ec­u­tives and ath­letes alike must cut through their dis­trac­tions and first find, and then un­der­stand, their op­ti­mal per­for­mance zone, where the right bal­ance of stim­uli and ac­tion com­bine to chan­nel their best per­for­mance.

Ad­mit­tedly, and thank­fully, the head bang­ing, emo­tion seek­ing, locker-room leader of the past is ap­proach­ing ex­tinc­tion while the think­ing per­son’s leader is on the rise. It’s not to say that pas­sion is not im­por­tant, far from it, as com­pet­i­tive­ness chan­nels pas­sion ev­ery bit as much as ha­tred does. It just does it in a more use­ful man­ner.

In an ar­ti­cle in the New York Times, Matt Richtel spoke about for­mer US ten­nis cham­pion, Erik van Dillen. “The em­pha­sis on

Even when not fo­cused on another per­son hate can be de­struc­tive, and it doesn’t dis­crim­i­nate who it con­sumes

com­pe­ti­tion, he told me, some­what misses the point — even at the level of cham­pi­ons. The great­est play­ers he has known and played against, he said, are prob­lem solvers. When they play against other greats, they rel­ish the chal­lenge of solv­ing a dif­fi­cult prob­lem. Win­ning or los­ing is sim­ply a mea­sure of whether or not they have solved the prob­lem.”

But such a proac­tive ap­proach isn’t nec­es­sar­ily in­stinc­tive and that’s where a healthy dose of self-aware­ness is im­por­tant. If any­one un­der­stood the dark side of hate it was Nel­son Man­dela. “No one is born hat­ing another per­son be­cause of the colour of his skin, or his back­ground, or his re­li­gion. Peo­ple must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more nat­u­rally to the hu­man heart than its op­po­site.” And the best preach­ers al­ways put their own best wis­dom into prac­tice.

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