Do we really understand normal work? The power of the unconscious mind

Understanding work

At the start of this year, I interviewed a young seafarer for a podcast who fell eight meters deep into a steel tank on a ship and suffered multiple fractures on his leg. I started by asked him, “John, would you like to tell me about yourself?” And from his opening sentence, I observed a glimpse into his personal life. John said he never wanted to be a seafarer; his career ambition was to become a lawyer. But then he felt ‘cornered’ at the age of 17 and was forced into a profession that he never wanted to be a part of. “Cornered, that is a very strong word” I said, “can you tell me more”. John’s father, also a seafarer, was in affair with another woman which he learned when he accidentally looked at his phone messages. The father then decided to leave the family which meant John had to give up on his ambitions to become the breadwinner and seafaring was his only choice.

Some years ago, during a safety audit another seafarer told me that he was ‘annoyed’ by the company’s tax scheme which had led to a 30% deduction in his wages. But this was supposed to be a safety audit and I was more interested in understanding the safety management system. Why is he telling me that I wondered? But I listened to him patiently and once he got his concerns off his chest, we began to speak about the items on my checks. See link to the article.

In another case, a car driver was being investigated for an accident with a list of templated questions. Within a few seconds, the driver had mastered the art of telling the investigators what satisfied their ego. The investigators were relieved to find that the tire pressure on the front right tire was lower than specified in the technical manual. That gave them a cause and a fleet-wide alert to mandate another task on the checklist – ‘check tire pressure before you get inside the car’. And of course, all drivers were saved!

When we engaged with this driver, he told a different story. This young man said he was ‘really exhausted’ when he turned to work for his morning shift. On the night before, he had slept in a shared apartment with a young girl. At 19, high on testosterones the couple kept busy all night and so he did not get much sleep. That apparently was the cause of the accident and one that he would never share with his team leader or the accident investigators. The example is extreme, but the message is not. Our philosophies and methods for understanding human decision making are outdated.

We say we want to understand ‘normal work’ but in essence what we want to know is how humans make decisions. Psychology and social sciences can help us gain insights to manage human behaviour but very few problems at work are the result of fault in our understanding. Most problems we encounter originate from deeper regions in our brains that drive our perception and action. This means that any attempt to understand everyday work (or normal work) is superficial if we don’t attempt to understand how the human mind works.

One Brain Three Minds

Let us do a simple exercise. Lift your hand, fold your thumb inside your palm and close your fingers on your thumb. That’s human brain in your fist. Think of the connection between the wrist and the folded fist as the brainstem. The thumb placed inside the fingers is the limbic brain and the front folded fingers represents the prefrontal cortex.

The brainstem is the reptile brain responsible for basic housekeeping i.e., fight, flight, breathing, sleep/awake function, and arousal. The limbic brain is the place for emotions and perception. The prefrontal cortex is the sensing and thinking part of our brain responsible for planning, anticipation, questioning inappropriate actions and empathetic understanding.

To simplify it further, the brainstem and limbic brain are the unconscious mind, and the prefrontal cortex is part of the conscious mind. This of course is an oversimplified model of human mind but sufficient to make the points relevant to this paper. To understand how humans make decisions, we must be successful at accessing the deeper regions of human mind i.e., the limbic brain and the brainstem.

The limbic brain is the heart mind (intuitive, semi-automatic); the brainstem is the gut mind (instinctive and automatic) and the prefrontal cortex forms part of the brain mind (logical and systematic). In social psychology of risk, we refer to this as One Brain Three Minds. See figure 1 below.

Figure 1: 1Brain 3Minds

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Mind 1 (Brain Mind – Rational, logical, systematic)

Mind 2 (Heart Mind – Intuitive, Emotional, Heuristics driven)

Mind 3 (Gut Mind – Instinctive, Automatic, Gut driven)

The unconscious is not merely restricted to the brain, our whole body is involved in making decisions. The butterflies in our stomach, the changing pace of our breath, the sweat in our palms and goosebumps on our arms – these are all bodily reactions to our gut feelings, emotions and thinking. It would be naïve to suggest that decision making is a function of the rational mind. In fact, very few decisions are made by the rational mind.

The predominance of unconscious mind in decision making

Let us now examine the dominance of the unconscious over conscious mind in decision making. The Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud was the first to point out that our conscious thought is merely the tip of the iceberg and that almost all human thought is built on the foundations of the unconscious. What we observe consciously through our senses are merely the outcomes evoked by our unconscious thought.

Building on Freud’s thesis, Benjamin Libet rejected such a thing as ‘free will’. If the unconscious mind works at a significantly faster speed (10 billion bits per second) than the conscious mind (16-40 bits per second) free will is simply an illusion of humankind. The unconscious mind has already decided what the conscious mind ends up doing a few seconds later. And if our conscious mind does not veto what the unconscious has voted for, we are merely slaves to our unconscious. You guessed it right – automaticity, conformity, mindlessness, and the dreaded word complacency! It is no wonder that entertaining doubt, being critical, reflective, and mindful are all considered antidotes to becoming a prey to our unconscious.

It is safe to say that our understanding of ‘normal work’ i.e., how people make decisions at work is incomplete if we restrict ourselves to psychology and social sciences alone. We cannot choose to ignore how our mind functions if we want to understand human decisions and thoughts. Intuitively that makes sense, right?

The power of language in decision making

When we work in a fast-paced environment, the unconscious mind is constantly but unknowingly primed by corporate messages and slogans – ‘time is money’, ‘focus on your agenda’, ‘the 80:20 rule’, ‘do not deviate from the topic’, ‘know your priorities’, ‘act professional’, ‘don’t make excuses’ and so on. During conversations, all this makes it difficult for our conscious mind to pay attention to what is being said, detect cues and avoid jumping to conclusions which then leads to misunderstandings, sweeping assumptions and a breakdown of trust.

It is understandable that when a person feels ‘cornered’ due to his father’s extra-marital affair, ‘annoyed’ about the tax cuts, or ‘exhausted’ even before they arrive to their shift, we are quick to disregard their stories as ‘outside the scope of discussion’ or even worse judge them for being manipulative or dishonest.

If we did not pay attention to those words, we could have missed the most important cues in our conversations. The words ‘cornered’, annoyed’ and ‘exhausted’ are emotional words, and they came instinctively during our interaction. In other words, this is the language that originates from deeper parts of the brain (heart mind and gut mind). How do we know?

The gift of the unconscious

Typically, when we ask a question, we expect an answer to our question. But when frustration, fear, anxiety, excitement, hope, or any human emotion that resides deep inside the mind of the other person surfaces unexpectedly in a conversation, we should consider this as the gift of their unconscious. A gift because we were offered something we did not expect or ask for. And what follows by chasing the gift is access to the mysteries hidden deep inside the unconscious mind. Accepting the gift is – metaphorically speaking – unlocking human potential.

Human beings are social creatures, and it is through deeper visceral connections that we know ourselves and relate with others. The gift of the unconscious is what makes us click with the other person. During my interactions, I have felt a noticeable change in the body language of my clients once we connect at a deeper level. In the case of John, his smile, gestures, posture, and tone changed when he was able to share his feelings about his father’s affair with me. It was as if his unconscious mind was dying to spurt it out. He even made a comment at the end of our session that five years since the accident no one apart from his family members had ever listened to him. That does not surprise me. Non-judgmental, uninterrupted listening is rare in human interactions.

Chasing the gift, however, is not a session in psychotherapy (although a lot can be learned from this discipline about how to engage with people). It gives us access to the deeper, emotional networks within the brain and unparalleled insight into thoughts, perceptions, and decisions. It clearly has significance for politicians, leaders, investigators, auditors, parents, teachers, pilots, surgeons, social workers, police forces, human resource managers, and everyone in authority whose success is contingent upon interacting with others.

Surfacing the unconscious

Organisations invest heavily in building software programs and databases to capture, record, and facilitate the sharing of experiences. But we miss a simple point – people know more than what they can tell. Activating and surfacing their unconscious can give us direct access to their tacit, informal knowledge, and their embodied skills, masteries, and tricks. As Karl Marx wrote in his thesis Das Kapital, the extraction of tacit knowledge to explicit (codes, manuals, processes, algorithms etc.) has been the single biggest challenge for Capitalism perhaps because Western science has consistently underestimated the power of the unconscious. We now know that once we have connected with the unconscious mind of the other person, they can tell us a lot more about what they intuitively know and do. A reliable indication of this hypothesis is when we don’t need to ask many questions and the conversations flows. Once the unconscious is activated, what follows is a rich insight from deeper, normally inaccessible parts of the brain. This a relatively unknown, unexplored area in most organisations partly because our worldview has not matured beyond human resources to include human relations.

Understanding the ecosystem

We live in uncertain times. Businesses operate more like ecosystems replete with critical (and often hidden) dependencies that can both leverage and undermine profits and productivity. The gift of the unconscious helps us uncover the unknowns in our ecosystems. Beneath broken equipment and process violations often lies ego clashes, personality conflicts and cultural differences. All this is unavoidable when a group of people with their own values and agendas come to work together. Being mindful of our own unconscious (biases and agendas) and that of the others and surfacing the unconscious during conversations is a necessary step in resolving conflicts and building trust.

When we facilitate iCue exercises (a semiotic method to illustrate how humans make decisions) it is fascinating to observe how our personal and collective differences begin to surface and make sense to ourselves and others. We start to realise how a disgruntled employee became a threat to the organisation and why chasing ordinary expressions of human emotions can resolve our differences and build trust between colleagues. When a colleague turns up to work frustrated or bangs his hand during a meeting, we don’t send them to a counsellor or a therapist. Rather, we take time to listen to their unconscious. In fact, many early signs of mental health can be detected, flagged up, and addressed from everyday interactions if we listen carefully to the language of the unconscious.

The power of the unconscious

Human beings are social beings. Any attempt to understand everyday work is incomplete if we don’t relate to our unconscious minds. It is only by listening and observing intelligent cues (and hence the term iCue) in human expressions and conversations (including language, metaphors, gestures, and symbols) that we become aware of the unconscious of ours and others. Understanding human decisions and motivations is far more rewarding when we learn to surface the mysteries of the unconscious mind.

If you have a different view, I would love to hear your thoughts

About iCue®

iCue is a visual / semiotic method to understand how human beings make decisions. It is based on Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR). Using a whiteboard, iCue allows us to map, code and make sense of human interactions by surfacing our personal and collective unconscious (biases and assumptions) and identifying trade-offs in human decisions.

iCue coaching is accompanied with a pocket guide, scenario cards and role play exercises that can be used to practice and improve our listening and observation skills. It can be used in a variety of situations including event analysis, team meetings, risk assessments, incident investigations and nearly all forms of human interactions. For more information visit

About Nippin

Nippin is a former master mariner with a master’s degree in economics, a PhD in Social Sciences and Anthropology and a desire for life-long learning in the wider disciplines of linguistics, cognitive psychology, social psychology and philosophy.

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