How Neurological Levels Can Affect Your Technical Career

by Steven Cerri on February 18, 2015

A while ago I had an experience that has direct application to technical management and especially technical management for women. (Certain information and aspects of the event have been changed, but the message is the same.)

I was having a conversation with a woman who had retired from technical program management a while ago. (There is no need to explain the exact discipline she was in, just know that it was a very technical one and that she had been a program manager in the corporate world for a time.) As she explained her career to me it was clear that she had been successful financially. She had worked for a while inside relatively large organizations and had ultimately found her true success starting and growing her own business.

A constant thread.
But there was a constant thread through her explanation of her career that was negative and it was clear she was upset regarding a certain aspect of her career. The aspect of her career that she was upset about had to do with the way she perceived her treatment by men and especially men in management.

She had found that she had to be better than her male colleagues at whatever she did in order to be acknowledged for her capabilities. (This is still a common challenge for women in the workforce.)

She had to ask for what she wanted regarding her career with much more clarity and persistence than her male colleagues. (This is common today as well.)

And from her perspective, her male colleagues “covered” for each other but not for her. (The “old boy” network still exists.)

Her anger and bitterness at having been treated this way were the reasons she left the corporate world and started her own business. Her anger and bitterness were still evident years later in her conversation with me.

Part way through the conversation however, she said something very interesting. She said that she had a sister who had risen up the corporate ladder in a male-dominated industry and had done so while raising two children, having a happy marriage, and generally living the life the women I was talking to envied.

What made the difference between her career and that of her sister? Was it the differences in their respective industries? Was it the differences in male colleagues? Or was it the differences in the sisters? Or was it all of it?

Communication is the difference that makes the difference (much of the time).
In my communication with people, I tend to be what is called, in the linguistic and communication disciplines, a “matcher”. That means that if I can find a way to agree with you I will. I may disagree with you, but first I will find a way to agree and then I will tell you what I disagree with. Because I tend to be a matcher, I found that I agreed with the person I was talking to four or five times during our 20-minute conversation.

However, the woman I was talking to is what we call a “mismatcher”. A mismatcher is someone who will find a reason to disagree at every possible opportunity. In fact, in our conversation, she never once agreed with me. Instead, she disagreed with me four or five times during our conversation.

It did not matter what I said, if there was a way for her to show me I did not know what I was talking about, she would let me know.

In fact, even those times when I agreed with her, the next words out of her mouth would make me feel as if I had missed something that I should have known and therefore, she was now disagreeing with me by telling what I had missed in my process of agreement.

For me, it was a very frustrating conversation. I really could not find anytime where we seemed aligned. She would say something, I would genuinely agree with her, and then she would disagree with what I agreed with her about.

Can I be on your team?
She complained that her managers, men mostly, had made if very difficult for her to climb the corporate ladder.

Frankly, I would not have wanted her on my team. I could imagine her in a team meeting. I could imagine that no matter what anyone said in the meeting, she would do whatever she could to “correct” their statement, to ensure that they had the extra information that she could provide that everyone else did not know about.

Now let me be clear. Both men and women in the technical world display this behavior. Neither gender has a lock on this kind of behavior. And it can be very subtle. It is not like someone is yelling at you. Rather, it is that no matter what you say the other person’s response makes you feel that you have missed something. That you just did not know what you should have known.

One of the reasons the person I was talking to had found the corporate world so difficult was that she took everything at work “personally”.

Take things personally at your peril.
Let me explain. The person I was talking to determined sometime in her career that the only way to advance was to show how smart she was. So at every opportunity she made it a point to explain to others what they did not know that she did. Even when it seemed that she was attempting to approach agreement with me, she sounded as if she were lecturing me.

This behavior is useful in small doses. However, if it is done on a constant and consistent basis, it begins to look like an attack on others. Others, in turn, will defend themselves. But they will tend to defend themselves, often, through relatively subtle, passive-aggressive behaviors. In the business environment, these behaviors can take the form of not inviting you to a meeting; or not promoting you when you should be promoted; or selecting someone else for a new position when it could have been given to you; or not giving you the highest salary in the group when you are the highest performer in the group; and so on.

After a while corporate life begins to look like a personal war at every turn. This seems to be, from our short but illuminating conversation, what happened to the woman I was talking to. She saw her managers, mostly men, as selectively picking on her, not giving her the respect she deserved. And so she ultimately left to start her own company.

She interpreted all the perceived negative behaviors directed at her as a personal attack on her. This is what I call “responding from the neurological level of identity”.

She continued to explain that her sister “just had a knack for doing her work and making everybody look good”. From this information, I would guess that her sister responded to the behaviors directed at her (her sister) from the neurological level of “capability” or “behavior”. In other words, she did not often take things at work personally.

This distinction of “neurological levels”, originally developed by anthropologist Gregory Bateson, is often at the root of why some engineers successfully make the transition to management and some do not. The neurological level at which you operate in your work environment can have a significant impact on your career success whether the environment appears negative or positive.

Obviously, neurological levels apply to both men and women. This behavioral distinction is not exclusive to either gender and many people identify closely with their jobs. In my experience, men associate with their work more closely and more often than women, but whether man or woman, associating too closely with your work is not a useful strategy. The more you identify with your job the less professional flexibility you have.

Connecting who you believe yourself to be, (i.e., your identity) to the work you do or the professional position you hold, can be a powerful career-limiting process.

Here are some questions and answers to consider:

• When asked “What do you do for a living” do you answer with something like: “I am an engineer”?

• When asked “What do you do for a living” do you answer with something like: “I do engineering”?

• What are the differences in the two answers above? (The first comes from a Neurological Level of Identity, the second from Behavior.)

• At what neurological level do you function at work? (There are generally seven levels.)

• How much career and professional flexibility does it provide to you? (Some levels provide professional flexibility, others not so much.)

• How can you use knowledge about your own neurological levels to ensure your career advancement?

• How can you use knowledge about neurological levels to manage, lead, and influence others?

If you are interested.
If the answers to these questions interest you, the 16th monthly ACEmentoring tele-seminar, will be presented on Tuesday, February 24th, and it will address the topic of neurological levels and management and leadership and career growth. It will answer the questions above and many more.

If you are an ACEmentoring member and can attend the live tele-seminar, great. If you cannot attend the live tele-seminar you can always listen to the archived version later at your convenience.

Click this link to become an ACEmentoring member: Sign me up.

Already a member, just log in for your call-in information.

I hope this blog has been of use to you.

Be well,

Steven Cerri


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