One of the experiences that I run at THNK, the School for Creative Leadership is designed to make you aware of the legacy of your ancestors of 100 000 years ago. It helps you become aware whether you are Ranking or Linking in any given moment. What do those words mean? Imagine for a moment two friends in a cafe and one says to the other that they have great news, they have just received a promotion. How might the other feel?
At THNK I divide the answers into two columns. ‘Happy’ usually is in the list in one column and ‘Jealous’ in the other. Then I name the columns Linking and Ranking respectively. These are the words Elaine Aaron uses for the modes your brain can be in when dealing with others, Linking when you are connected and curious, Ranking when you are status conscious and eager to win and not lose.
To understand the origins of these modes we timetravel 100 000 years to the period when our brain evolved and look at the living conditions of your hyper-grandparents. Usually they live in small tribes in situations of scarcity and danger. Let’s say in front of a cave in a gang of 30-40 people with wild animals not far away. Now what is the worst thing that could happen to someone living in those circumstances? Death? Well, we would suggest there is something even worse than death. Being thrown out of the group. Because being ostracised means certain death anyway and can you imagine how it must feel if the only people you have known all your life throw you out? That you die alone in the savanna instead of in the arms of your kin. Pretty rotten I would say. In any case the brains that got through evolution are the brains that were good at staying in the group. So the brain mode that helped was very conscious of its relative position in the group. Am I close to the edge or at the core of this group? The edge is dangerous, you are one step away from the wild animals and if there is limited food people at the perimeter are the last to eat. So this status-conscious part of your brain really loves moving closer to the centre and hates being pushed out to the rim. We can still feel it in action. When we get recognition from someone famous or with power, pleasure centres are triggered in our brain. And when we experience a loss of status we get an involuntary defeat response. It feels bad, some can even become really sick to the stomach if snubbed badly.
Yuval Harari adds an interesting notion to this in saying that 100 000 years ago homo sapiens was in the middle of the foodchain. Through the use of technology we have risen to the top of the foodchain in a very short period of time (in evolutionary terms). Now species such as the shark or lion got to the top of the foodchain through evolution, it took them millions of years and it shows. They are self-secure beings without too much anxiousness, hyper-vigilance and self-doubt. We however have risen to true dominance but with the programming in our brain of the middle of the foodchain. So our brains are still continuously scanning the world for danger as if our survival depended on it. And because it still believes that our social status is connected to our survival our brain spends a lot of time and energy preoccupied with our rank in the world.
Luckily Linking got through evolution too. We survived also through making intimate connections and caring for and being curious about the other. This mode is a good alternative for when the Ranking mode is only making you feel bad. For let’s be clear Ranking is not all terrible. First of all we would probably do away with all sports if we didn’t care about winning and losing at all. And surely we don’t want that. Also we know competition can bring out extra effort in people and companies and by itself probably has produced a lot of the progress mankind has made in various fields. However I think it is fair to say we overuse the Ranking mode quite considerably. Being thrown out of a group is no longer life threatening, so we can let go of the habitual use of the Ranking mode. How many petty quarrels and dysfunctional gatherings are not caused by someone feeling their status threatened. It can be good to see that it is just your prehistoric programming trying to make sure you don’t end up with the wolves. Very functional back then. Pretty dysfunctional most of the time now.
With our THNK group we play a game in which people can lose. When they do they then register what their involuntary defeat response is like. They get to observe their pre-historic programming. And attempt to switch to the Linking mode. Because that kind of mental state control just might be the next evolutionary advantage.
Next time a friend tells you some good news monitor your Ranking and Linking modes. Just as a game to see if you can spot which one you are in. For we would never want to eradicate games, especially those you play against yourself.