Box of Crayons Blog


Three Habits to Have Your People WITH You, Not AGAINST You

Everything changes when you realize that their brain, your brain, everyone’s brain is asking itself one simple question five times every second:

Is it dangerous for me here?

Dangerous? Or safe?

A place of risk? Or reward?

You don’t even realize you’re asking yourself this question. It swirls through your unconscious/subconscious mind, even as your conscious mind carries on with the pressing matters of the day, such as email, updating your LinkedIn profile, and running the team meeting.

But the answer to the question makes all the difference.


If the brain registers the micro-moment as dangerous, it moves into survival mode. Backing away – metaphorically or literally – or getting ready for the fight ahead. Brain chemicals and oxygen drain from your prefrontal cortex – the conscious mind – and you’re working on defensive instinct. On balance, you’re going to assume those around you are enemies and out to get you. And there’s no nuance in the situation anymore. It’s black and white.

On the other hand, if the brain scans and registers “safe”, then pretty much the opposite happens. This becomes a place of engagement. The assumption is that you’re with friends, and with friends you’re willing to share resources – physical and mental – and strive for a common good. You see the subtleties and the nuances in what’s happening, and you’re able to bring your best thinking – the full power of your prefrontal cortex – to the situation at hand.

Four factors make the difference: TERA

From the work of the David Rock and others, it’s become clear a small number of factors influence whether the brain reads the situation as dangerous or not. At Box of Crayons we focus on four, the TERA factors.

T is for Tribe, and the question the brain is asking itself is this: Are you with me, or against me?

E is for Expectation, and the question here is: Do I know what’s about to happen, or don’t I?

R is for Rank, where the question is: Whose status is higher, yours or mind?

A is for Autonomy, where the brain is checking out: How much say do I have here?

Three new habits to build your Tribe-iness

The art of using the neuroscience of engagement to yours (and everyone’s) advantage is to through small, everyday actions to increasing or decreasing the TERA quotient. Adjusting your behaviour to build ongoing habits will help you build and sustain a TERA environment.

Here are three ways to start you off.

1. Check in with your fellow humans

The busy-ness of business means that it’s all so easy to jump to the issue at hand right away. “Let’s just get down to this.” And sure, if the place is on fire sometimes you need to spring to action right away. But resisting that itch to Get Going and spending a moment to check in – human to human – will increase the sense of Tribe-iness and with it a sense of engagement, with all the benefits that brings.

One of the favourite Box of Crayons strategies is to ask about the high point (and, occasionally, low point) of the previous week. It tends to be a very human moment, as well as a great way to start the session with something that raises the energy. You can do this as a group if it’s small enough, or if the group is larger than, say, eight people then do it in pairs.

What truly makes this a Tribe-iness moment is when you not only ask, but you share. How are you doing? Great. Now, here’s how I’m doing. it’s a moment of shared empathy.

2. Embrace the power of touch

Having just spent a weekend with a visiting French family, I’m reminded of my own hands-off inclination: noli me tangere. With this lovely family, everything was physical from a handshake at breakfast, to the “double kiss” in the evening.  And I liked them more for it.

if you’re a waiter or waitress, one of the surefire ways of increasing your tip is to lightly touch the bill payer on the elbow or shoulder. Dom my favourite bar guy at our local pizza place does this all the time, and, well, he’s my favourite guy at the pizza place.

I’m not suggesting you embrace everyone at work with Gallic enthusiasm.. That has the portents of an “HR situation”. I am saying that the research tells us that what of the strongest ways to build a sense of Tribe-iness is to (appropriately) touch those around you. A handshake. A hug in some corporate cultures. A touch of the elbow.

3. Manage your orientation

How you physically orient yourself to another person has a significant influence on the Tribe-ness factor. In your meetings, for instance, is there a “head of the table” and who routinely sits there? Is there, in fact, a table? In the Box of Crayons programs participants don’t have tables, in part to increase the sense of togetherness in the room.

If you’re having a one to one conversation with someone, are you seated opposite them, next to them or “kitty-corner”? Are you at the same level – both standing or both seated, or is one of your subtlety higher or lower than the other?

You want your people with you

We all want our people on our side. Whether we’re talking customers, vendors, team-mates or our boss. How nice to have them standing with you rather than standing across from you.

So let me ask you – because we’re all in this together – now you understand the power of a sense of Tribe to drive engagement … what other tactics do you know to help increase the Tribe-iness factor?

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