The Reptile Within Us

Dinosaur brain manager with tie

Dinosaur brain manager with tie?

You have struggled the whole weekend to get a report done. On Monday morning your boss throws a quick glance at the result and says, “It’s not good enough, you have to start over from scratch.” You know he is wrong and your instincts tell you to immediately explain yourself. Then your boss will probably understand you and even commend your work. Or maybe not?

In 1989 Dr.Albert Bernstein published the book Dinosaur Brains: Dealing with All Those Impossible People at Work. With dinosaur brain as a metaphor for a whole range of our instinctive reactions, Bernstein teaches us how we can manage our employees and fellow workers. He enumerates the rules of the Lizard Logic:

  • FIGHT, FLIGHT OR Fright – When the dinosaur feels attacked, then he either fights back, runs away or becomes paralyzed with fear. Don’t be fooled when it looks as if he explains something – he’s actually attacking or running away.
  • GET IT NOW – The dinosaur never makes a plan. His actions happen automatically and immediately. The most exciting thing to do replaces the most important one. You recognize it when he talks about competitions and defeating others.
  • BE DOMINANT – To the dinosaur, any social contact is a part of a contest. The winner will be at the top of the hierarchy and is allowed to mock those who are further down. That’s why he so often speaks about the rules for the people at the top.
  • DEFENDER THE TERRITORY – Sharing is a sign of weakness. The dinosaur indicates that it is his office, his project and his paperclip. It doesn’t matter if it’s something important or trivial – he will always defend his personal interests.
  • IF IT HURTS, HISS – Whoever holds the Old Maid at the end of the game is the loser. Slightest indication that something may go wrong causes the dinosaur to throw accusations at people. It solves no problems, but the dinosaur’s goal is to get someone singled out as guilty of this problem.
  • LIKE ME GOOD, NOT LIKE ME BAD – His ultimate dichotomy is us-against-them. Those who are on the dinosaur’s side are good and everyone else is evil. He expresses this often and in emotional sermons.

Yes, we have inherited the part of the brain called the brain stem from the ancestors of today’s reptiles. But our brains have evolved since then. Layers have been added that make the human brain unique. The most sophisticated of the new parts is the frontal lobe. With it we can work together, imagine, plan and even change our mind. To do that we need to stop and think, instead of immediately follow our instincts.


  1. Which seven people do you meet most often at work? Write their names below; one name above each circle. Inside the circle, draw a stick man with the right hairstyle, beard, device or something else indicative of each of the seven work mates.
  2. Do this step rather quickly: rank the seven persons. Who do you imagine feels most comfortable in your company? Write ‘1’ next to the circle. Write ‘2 ‘next to the second best. Continue until all seven are ranked.
  3. In Step 2 you used your reptilian brain. Now you must use your creative brain instead. What would you be able to—individually—help these people with? Start with the lowest ranked, i.e. number seven. What knowledge or proficiency do you have, that this person would benefit from? You may have some information that would help her with her duties? Maybe you’re an expert on a tool that she uses? Write one thing that you can share below each circle.



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