Overcoming the Learning Professional’s Lizard Brain


Executive: We need a course on blah, blah, blah.
Learning Professional: …Right. OK, who is the audience? What is the objective?

Really? Back up. What the heck just happened? 

There’s a good chance their Lizard Brain kicked in, that’s what happened.  If you’re not familiar with the Lizard Brain, also known as Reptilian Brains, Primitive Brain, Old Brain and a slew of others, you can read up on the details here. However if I just remind you of these little words – “fight or flight“,  you probably know I’m talking about the Amygdala and this scenario makes some sense.

Simply put this inner area of our brain activates In stressful situations, when our survival instinct kicks in and we take on the stress or retreat to fight another day.


For millions of years we had fight or flight encoded in our brains. Our gut reaction to survive today is not that different than it was 150,000 years ago on the Savanna. However today, rather than flee a tiger to survive, we can take retreat from our knowledge about how most problems don’t require training to resolve. In the face of an authority’s demand, the corporate tiger, our encoded lizard brain can take over to better ensure we can pay the mortgage. 

Couple this with our years of schooling and systematic indoctrination and we have a deeply encoded brain telling us learning really happens in formal settings. I wrote similarly about this in the post: Cognitive Dissonance and the Denial of Social and Informal Learning and again as I compared our conflicts to the theory of Learned Helplessness. Both of these however focus on the issue from the point of view of leaders, executives and stakeholders; those outside of L&D. But the Lizard Brain is something we need to contend with as learning professionals. Just like the growth of the logical mind countered instinct and help advance humanity, this action must happen for learning professionals to truly help their organizations.

How can we detach then from the reptilian response system and succeed in using logic when faced with the requests?  Here are a few of my approaches.
Before the request arrives(as you know it inevitably will)
Most of the work happens here!

1. Support – The shift away from Lizard brain responses takes some augmentation. We can’t remember everything especially in the heat of the moment! Quick reference materials and prompts help you better articulate your message. I have tapped the grid in Is it a Training Problem? from Jane Bozarth’s and the Expertise by Learning Mode graphic by Clark Quinn of The Internet Time Alliance more times than I can count. These simple tools are great to reference or re-purpose on a napkin to help people really see the issue. They also aid in helping you be clear and not get caught up in jargon. 

I also find Evernote indispensable. When in the conversation I have my own tips and notes handy to reference and level set with. Plus, demonstrating your own ability to quickly find information at that very moment is a powerful statement in demonstrating management of your own knowledge and the power of performance support.

2. Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) – Now is the reason why you have been doing all this work! Your ability to tap into that of which you have collected, created and curated is a key ally to fend off the training first, training always request. Learn more about it through Harold Jarche and his work and writing on the topic

3. Networks – turn towards the others you (hopefully) have nurtured as your community. This is often called a Personal Learning Network (PLN). This trusted community is there to help you surface information or validate your thinking.
When the request arrives:

Pause – Most important, make a commitment not to immediately commit. A pause to invite reflection is your greatest opportunity to let the logical brain kick in and get warmed up. This is the time to engage your network, PKM, and tools

The Lizard is not your friend. What are you doing to keep it at bay?
Check out this solid read on the impact of the Lizard Brain from Seth Godin- Seth’s Blog: Quieting the Lizard Brain 

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