Dealing with change and uncertainty by using the chimp model 

Development Monthly | #7 March 2022 | Dealing with change and uncertainty by using the chimp model 

Joe McAllister

Medical Programme Education Manager,
University of Bristol

The last few years have been such a rollercoaster ride for us all. Within HE the challenges that professional services staff have faced are immense, and while we’ve had to quickly adapt our working practices to meet the needs of our academic and student partners we’ve also had to deal with unprecedented change and uncertainty in our personal lives.  A lot of this change has required a sort of cognitive leap into the unknown, almost a re-wiring of our brains to live and work in ways we’ve never done before.

Like many others, my personal journey through the pandemic has been challenging, but it has also been one of professional and personal growth. At the beginning of March 2020, I was lucky enough to be appointed the Medical Programme Education Manager at Bristol Medical School. I was delighted to join a fantastic team of people working hard to train the next generation of doctors. It quickly dawned on me however that the job I thought I’d applied for would end up being very different to the job I was about to do. Between the date of my interview and the date I started, the world literally changed forever.

On my first day in my new job, I was faced with a big team of administrators (25+) in lockdown, working from home for the first time, some of them home schooling children, some living alone in isolation but everyone dealing with change and uncertainty in their own way. This was a rather daunting proposition and there were many hurdles to overcome in those early days, not least getting to know my new colleagues and gaining their trust without the ability to meet face to face.

As I tried to hit the ground running in my new role, I was finding myself grappling with a whirlwind of different thoughts and emotions, some of them were not particularly helpful. In a classic case of imposter syndrome, I often asked myself ‘am I capable of doing this job?’. At other times I felt panicked and under pressure. What was happening in my mind and body to create this sort of reaction? And then I remembered a fantastic book that I had read called ‘The Chimp Paradox’ by Prof Steve Peters. One of the best-selling personal development books of all time, according to Prof Peters website [i] the book aims to: “recognise how your mind is working, understand and manage your emotions and thoughts, manage yourself and become the person you would like to be”.

The book is a blend of neuroscience and practical advice, tips and exercises that aim to help individuals manage their minds better.

In a nutshell (and I’d highly recommend you read the book yourself and not rely on my summary here) the book outlines three different parts of the brain; the ‘chimp’, a powerful primitive part of the brain which acts emotionally and is programmed to keep us safe, the ‘human’, a more rational side of the brain, able to consider facts and consequences and think compassionately and strategically, and then there is the ‘computer’ which is made up of our values, beliefs, and memories that both the chimp and human access when navigating our daily lives.  When these different parts of the mind are left unmanaged, they can work independently causing inner conflict and suffering, and leading to undesirable outcomes and behaviours.

The book teaches us ways to work with our unique minds, in part by understanding and accepting the way we really are and how to make our minds work for us in the direction that we want to go. The model is so effective that Prof Steve Peters has become world renowned in his field and has been invited to work with a diverse range of people including some famous elite level athletes (such as Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton).  

After revisiting the text, I chose to attend Prof Steve Peters two-day Annual Conference called ‘Neuroscience of the Mind with Practical Applications’. It was a fantastic event, and I met a diverse range of people including medical professionals, corporate executives, coaches, and therapists. At his opening lecture Prof Steve Peters asked us all to spend one minute writing down the qualities of our best self, the perfect version of us if you like. I started to create a list; kind, caring, hard-working, inclusive, funny etc and then the first bombshell of the conference – what you’ve written down here today, Prof Peters said, “this is you, the real you”. If you’re ever not acting in this way your chimp brain is in control. The conference went on to explore scientific topics such as hormonal responses, the nervous system and how the brain works, along with workshops about how the chimp model can be applied in practice, for example in developing high performing teams or having difficult conversations.

I found the content to be quite profound and it’s had a noticeable effect on my working practices.  I now find myself asking better questions; is this my chimp mind responding here? What do I want to think and feel about this situation? Is there a limiting belief in the computer than needs to be challenged or replaced? How can I accept reality, plan, and move forwards? The opportunity to go from being at the effect of a conflicted mind to being more in control is liberating.

One of my favourite learning points from the book is the understanding that we cannot prevent our chimp minds from high jacking us occasionally, and most people will come around to a more rational (human) position once they’ve given their chimp the chance to express itself and had a good night sleep.  As a manager this pragmatism has given me confidence in leading my team. I now try to accept any ‘chimp’ behaviours that I encounter as useful feedback, and a prompt to re-check that the environment is as supportive as it can be, people are being adequately recognised for their efforts, and when there’s lots of change and uncertainty going on we’re talking about it together as a team.  

Prof Steve Peters next conference is taking place in Sheffield in May, and I’m delighted to say I’ll be in attendance and looking forward to further developing my understanding of this model.  Maybe I’ll meet some of you there!

Joe McAllister is Medical Programme Education Manager at Bristol Medical School, University of Bristol.


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