On the streets of Cairo, Egyptians of diverse backgrounds have been demanding rapid change. After 30 years of authoritarian rule, they are calling for a greater voice in how their country is governed.
The pace of the revolt has surprised many observers. The consensus had been that the majority of Egyptians were content to trade their free speech and economic rights for stability and predictability. President Mubarak had eliminated most of his opposition. In return, there had been jobs, food and safety, allowing citizens to not be too worried about what was happening in the rest of the region.
The economy slowed down, resulting in high unemployment and rising food prices. Then there was the successful, social-media aided revolution in Tunisia. But those were simply the “last straws.”
There are a number of things influencing events in Egypt. Yet what’s happening there is also happening on a micro-level in many American companies. From a cognitive brain perspective, Egypt has reached a tipping point in a natural process driven by the way our brains develop. This process happens at the individual, group and societal level and it offers lessons for businesses and organizations.
The dominant generation Mubarak has ruled – those now in their 50s and beyond – had known mostly upheaval, war and insecurity. They were driven by a primary need for Safety. But their children, a generation that has only known safety, is moving up the brain into the Limbic system. They want Respect. They want a voice at the table, accountability from leaders, the ability to control their future and levels of autonomy of which their parents had not dared dream.
That generation now makes up more than 52 percent of Egypt’s population.
This progression, from the Safety needs of the Reptilian Brain to the Respect needs of the Limbic Brain, is the way we’re all wired. It keeps us alive. When we’re feeling safe, we don’t stay satisfied. We look for signs that we are being heard and respected. That’s what is happening in Egypt on a national level and it was, in many ways, very predictable. If the Egyptian people can get through the troubling days ahead restoring respect for all parties, they have a chance at engaging their fellow citizens in a truly rewarding dialogue.
The enemy for the Egyptian people today is no longer Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood, but instead fear and anger. Fear and anger engages the Reptilian brain’s responses of fight, flight or freeze.
Look within your own organization. In some companies we see Boomers who have been willing to trade their voice and respect for safety. There are Millenials and Xers who have only known safety and, no matter what the economy looks like, they are demanding respect, a voice and levels of autonomy that seem out-of-sync with their elders.
How leaders respond to those Limbic needs will determine their success. As I write this, brute force and cynicism are only making things worse in Egypt. You cannot avoid these moments. You can anticipate them. Ask yourself how you are responding to veteran employees who have begun to “retire while working?” How are your managers approaching those younger employees who have new ideas or unconventional requests? What happens when your customers ask you for something unusual? Do you understand what “revolutions” are happening among your suppliers?
Safety and Respect. You cannot dazzle people with your logic, reason and creativity until those needs are met. With an understanding of the way we’re wired, you can be ready for your own “Egypt moment.”