Unleashing Your Primal Brain: The Blueprint For Effective Leadership In The Modern Workplace

Penny ZenkerTake Back Time Podcast

TBT | Primal Brain


Leadership is about understanding the primal within us, embracing tribal dynamics, and harnessing the power of unity in an uncertain world. Join host Penny Zanker and guest Tim Ash as they dive deep into the intriguing world of tribal dynamics, leadership, and the primal brain. Referencing his book, “Unleash Your Primal Brain,” Tim explores the fascinating interplay of our evolutionary psychology in the modern workplace. He discusses the concept of polarization within organizations and how it affects everything from executive decisions to interactions with clients. Tim introduces us to the Positive Polarization Toolkit, unveiling five powerful strategies to foster group cohesion in uncertain times. That’s not all as the discussion extends beyond tribal dynamics, touching on the concept of uncertainty and the importance of sleep. Tune in now and discover the secrets to becoming a more effective leader by understanding the primal brain and the tribal dynamics that shape our world.

Listen to the podcast here


Unleashing Your Primal Brain: The Blueprint For Effective Leadership In The Modern Workplace

In this episode, we are going to talk about a controversial topic of polarity. We’re not going to talk about politics but maybe we’ll play with it a little bit. We’re going to talk about how you can leverage it with your teams to use it as a positive source for your leadership. I have the expert with us, Tim Ash. He’s also a good friend. We went through a great speaker’s course together at Heroic Public Speaking.

Let me tell you a little bit about Tim. He’s helped create over $1.2 billion in value for companies like Google, Expedia, and Nestle. Genius. He’s been cited by Forbes and Entrepreneur magazine as the top online marketer. He is a bestselling author of multiple books including Unleash Your Primal Brain. He’s delivered hundreds of keynotes on four different continents to share his insights about psychology and persuasion. He may be the best self-taught salsa dancer, so he says, that you’re likely to meet. Without further ado, Tim, welcome to the show.

Thanks, Penny. It’s great to be with you.

I see you do some dance moves.

It’s a little hard on a webcam. I need room to perform.

Give us a little background. What’s your story?

In college, I was studying cognitive science and computers and then stayed on for grad school for seven years in the PhD program in what would be called artificial intelligence and neural networks. I quit and started my first digital marketing agency. I have been running that for many years, helping companies understand how to persuade people.

After I exited my company and sold it to business partners, I went back to public speaking and my first love which is, “How does the brain work?” It is the basis of all persuasion. That took me to evolutionary psychology, which is our brains evolve in a particular environment and the stuff we picked up along the way is still in there. Some of it we share with insects and other stuff with mammals. At the end of that evolutionary arch, there’s the distinctly and bizarrely human stuff that makes us so different.

Bizarre as we are. It’s very challenging and fun. All the crazy things that make us up are fantastic. Is that what brought you from the online world into what you’re speaking about and working in, which is around this topic of polarization?

You could say that this is one part of evolutionary psychology, which I find to be foundational to everything. If you want to be a good leader, study Evolutionary Psychology. If you want to be a good human being, have better relationships, and have a happier life, all of it is based on how our brain evolves. It’s not a leap. I’m going back to first principles.

Within that evolutionary psychology broad thing, I found as I’ve been talking to a lot of business leaders that the biggest issue that they have is we’re living in very polarized times. That’s at the political level. It’s also within companies. Even within small teams, it seems like we’re about as far apart as we can get in a lot of things.

When I think of polarization, politics, social issues, and things that are all around us, I don’t know why but it brings up a primal feeling, talking back to the primal brain. “We’re with our tribe. This is where we stand. You’re not going to move us. We’re going to fight you until the end to fight for our belief system.” With that feeling I have, is there some basis for that?

That’s what I’m saying. This stuff is deeply in our DNA. It’s why, like a plague of locusts, we’ve taken over the whole planet. 10,000 years ago when agriculture started, there were roughly 1 million people on the planet. In 2023, there are 8 billion people. We’ve been successful in every possible niche on the planet. The way we got there was by being loyal to our tribe. Initially, when we went back a couple of hundred thousand years ago to the plains of East Africa, everything came from our tribe.

The key thing here to understand is as individuals, we can’t survive. We’re weak. We have bad senses. We’re slow, stupid, or blind. We can’t smell anything compared to other animals. The way we survive is by learning the cultural package of the tribe that was in that environment and everything that the tribe knows. That’s our edge. The best way to put it is we evolved to be blind loyalists who need to transmit that cultural package.

We evolved to be blind loyalists that need to transmit that cultural package. Click To Tweet

In other words, if everybody questions everything that the tribe does, it wouldn’t be very cohesive, knowledge wouldn’t spread very fast, and other tribes that we come into contact with who are more solid and unified are going to take over. They’re either going to outbreed, kill, or convert. It’s not going to be a good outcome. This is a two-step thing. 1) We can’t do it alone. We have to be blind loyalists for our tribe. 2) We grew up in an environment where we polarized against other tribes to survive.

In the organization, if we were to look at that, that might be where we see silos where people don’t work together or click. Some people work together and some people don’t. How do you see that showing up?

The big change was if we spent our whole life with a few dozen people, maybe 1/3 of them were our genetic relatives to some degree, that was our whole cultural package. Religion, technology, social organization, rituals, and entertainment, everything was inside of that little tribe of 100 to 200 people. The problem is in modern civilization, we live in overlapping tribes.

I’m a member of the aerodynamic haircut tribe. I shave my head. I’m a member of the immigrant tribe. I wasn’t born in the US. Some of these tribes are voluntary like brands. You might be an iPhone loyalist, for example. There’s a lot of Apple people here. You can almost think of that as a cult. Some of these are voluntary tribal associations. Others are forced upon us. Others, we’re born into. We don’t choose where we’re born, the color of our skin, and usually what religion were born into. A lot of those things are fundamental.

We have all these overlapping tribal identities. When you look at this in the workplace, there are three levels of it that I’ve seen where polarization happens. One is at the executive suite level. Another one’s across departments. They say, “That’s marketing. We’re in sales, production, HR, or legal,” whatever your job function is. I’ve even seen polarization between the companies and their outside environment, who they’re selling to.

For example, Chick-fil-A, as a political example, is known for being the founders are religious-based and conservative. That’s great but if you’re trying to sell chicken sandwiches to everyone who wants chicken sandwiches, you’re going to alienate some people. They’ll never buy a chicken sandwich for you. They’d rather go to El Pollo Loco instead.

Especially if you’re closed on Sundays and you want a chicken sandwich on Sunday, you got to go somewhere else.

My point is you can even have polarization between the company and its audience or the clients that it serves. The polarization can happen inside the C-Suite, across departments, or even within and outside of the company.

It’s my understanding that we’re full of contradictions as well. Don’t we, as individuals, also have our polarization within us? It’s the polarity of being and doing. We have this thing where we’re busy and have to do but we also need time to rest. There’s also some polarity in that.

There’s being and doing. In union terms, that would be the lover versus the warrior archetypes. The lover is all about being in the moment, the beauty of the world, avoiding pain, and seeking pleasure. The doer or the warrior would be about getting stuff done, discipline, mission, and service to the realm.

There’s another axis too. For example, change versus order. You have magicians and transformational types of people in the world. You also have stewards who want to protect the current way of doing. They’re more traditional keepers of the existing order. There’s a dynamic polarity as well. Being versus doing and change versus order. This happens inside a human being.

It’s necessary to see success. In context, you need a balance of both.

My friend, David Gruder, shrewdly came up with this framework that I described. He talks about the sovereign, the King or the Queen, the orchestra conductor, who says, “We have these four energies available to us, being, doing, change, and order. What is the current situation in the moment call for? What mix of those?” You have to have full access to each of those dimensions but you also have to have a purpose, a connection to source, a vision, or why you’re doing it. That is what determines which tools or instruments to use at the moment and what energies to manifest.

You said there were three areas in the organization, the executive, the departments, and then the outside world. How do leaders take advantage? What do they do to manage and use polarity as a positive source in their leadership?

The way I believe to turn polarization into an ally in the context of companies is what I call building the Primal Brain Company. It’s based on these evolutionary psychology foundational things. The first step is what I call tribe spotting. In other words, you have to take an inventory of which tribal allegiances are out there in your workforce and company. Some of them might be obvious which are departments, seating areas, and so on. It could be water cooler talk, what people do after work, or what they bring with them to work. It’s their existing associations.

All these overlapping tribes are there in the background. The question is, “Which one is activated? Which one is the most important in the context of work?” First, you have to take an inventory and see what’s in the way of you building an effective work tribe. What are the existing overlapping allegiances? The second step is to create the cultural package. Remember, when we were wandering around the plains of East Africa, every tribe had a complete cultural package.

This is not your mission statement that was worked out by the committee and it’s on your lobby wall. This is all the behaviors, language, processes, organization, values, technologies you use, and stories you tell. That’s the cultural package of your work tribe. It’s important to get every part of that. It’s not just in your HR manual somewhere.

This is critical. It’s also important to define what you stand against. It seems a little counterintuitive but if you’re going to stand for something, polarization is not optional. You have to say, “What are we polarizing against? These are not our values. We would never do that. We would never behave in this way or do these things.” You have to be super clear.

Separating the must and the must not.

In a way, it’s a filter. It’s like, “We want these kinds of people and we don’t want these kinds of people.” I don’t believe that you have a work environment where every individual is happy and fulfilled and is yet an individual with different beliefs and values. It’s very unlikely. It’s very hard to build that because what’s the unifying thing? “I’m going to spend time looking at every one of my co-workers to understand their uniqueness and that’s where all my time is going to go.” Nothing productive is going to get done at work.

That’s why we have organizations that are so highly disengaged because they’re not aligned in this cultural package and they’re not a fit.

You’re not doing anyone any favors. If their cultural package doesn’t match yours and they won’t get converted into yours, then it’s like a bad apple. Somebody’s going to be dissatisfied. They’re going to complain and undermine other people. I have done that. I got out of one of my past employers by complaining to my co-workers for about six months about how crappy it was there.

That was enough for me to create momentum to leave the company psychologically. I did a lot of damage to my co-workers in the meantime. I’m not advocating that. Be super clear about what you want and also what you don’t want. Create that cultural package at the executive level. Be sure you address all of those issues.

TBT | Primal Brain

Primal Brain: Be super clear about what you want and what you don’t want and create that cultural package at the executive level.


Leading in this way, that seems to me like it’d be an interesting interview question. What do you stand for? What do you stand against?

What are your values? Ask things about the values hierarchy. “In this situation, here are two competing values. Which one is more important to you?” It’s not your standard interview questions, that’s for sure but that gets us a perfect transition to the house. The first step was tribe spotting, doing an inventory of existing tribes. The second was consciously creating this cultural package.

The third is what I call positive polarization. I talked about the positive polarization toolkit. Polarizations have this negative association but you can use five strategies to reliably bond any group. There are uncertainties. We key into things more if we’re not sure what the rules are around us, how to behave, or what to do. Next is peer pressure. I’m not talking about negative peer pressure like gang jumps or something like that. It’s very hard to go against especially the unanimous behavior of people around us. You’re norming by showing them what other people are doing.

Fourth is synchronized group activities. It’s rituals that involve synchronized behavior. Whether it’s doing the wave at a sporting event, singing along at a concert, or doing tai chi or yoga. You don’t even have to like the people doing it with you but you’ll feel a sense of well-being by participating in synchronized group activities.

The fifth is difficult initiations. A lot of companies will say, “Welcome. You’re our new employee. Here’s a coffee mug with our logo on it.” It’s like, “I feel valued.” That doesn’t work. There’s got to be effort involved. If it’s not hard or you don’t share the struggle of getting into the tribe, then you don’t value it that much. It’s almost like a throwaway. There’s not that much allegiance.

The final one, and this word comes back to leadership, is the impeccable example of the leaders. They have to embody the values of the tribe. A lot of leaders don’t. They say, “We care about our employees but we’re a sales lead organization so get me those numbers every quarter.” There are disconnects like that at the top. There’s a lot of attention being paid to how the leaders behave and they have to be in full integrity all the time. That’s their job, create and support that cultural package with their example. Uncertainty, peer pressure, synchronized group activities, difficult initiations, challenging initiations, and the behavior of the leaders. That’s how you do it.

I’m drawn and fascinated by the difficult initiation. “Be the example.” They all make sense but that one reminds me of sorority in college or these different groups that you have to go through. I get it. It makes sense. You gave some great examples with some of the other ones like the wave so that people could connect what that could mean. I’m curious. I didn’t hear any examples on that one. What are some initiations? I remember 1 or 2 from some companies but I’m curious what you would say.

They can take many forms. I’m not advocating physical pain like, “Drink beer until you’re a blackout drunk in your sorority.” Those things will continue. They’re not going away because they serve such a powerful bonding purpose. There’s always going to be excess in sorority or fraternity initiations. There are others like Navy SEALs or special operations forces. They have a notoriously high attrition rate. You have to want it and unring the bell to leave the Navy SEAL training. You’re just like, “I’ve had it.”

Is that what I forget?

That’s how it works. 10% to 20% of people might make it through a particular SEAL training class but you know that those people have no quit. If you’re on a mission and your life depends on them, they’ll be there for you. That’s an extreme form. That’s probably the strongest one but pretty much any activity you think of, you have difficult initiations if it’s meaningful. In the workforce, that might be difficult interviews.

A lot of high-tech companies like Google, how many rounds of interviews do you have? First, you have the one with HR, your immediate supervisor, and then they beat up on you in a group interview. You’re making it hard. You go through that and you go, “Everybody in this company, if I make it to the other side of that, has been through that ordeal and so have I.” That bonds you more closely to them. Don’t just give it away. Make it difficult, challenging, and effortful. That’s maybe a better way to put it.

Was it Zappos that’ll pay you to leave the company? In your first couple of weeks, they’ll pay you a bonus to leave. It’s a hurdle that you get to jump across to make that extra commitment that you’re going to stay.

Perfect example. That’s right. It was well known that if you have a dissatisfied low-engagement employee, that’s costing you money. It’s better to know that upfront before the rotten apple spoils the whole barrel of apples.

It’s attractive for somebody who’s not happy there to take that. I read something about onboarding. It was a very large percentage. More than 60% of people decide in their onboarding process whether they’re going to stay in the organization or not. It made me think of when my son went off to college. They have everybody in these t-shirts and everybody’s there cheering you on. You pull up and this flux of people comes out of everywhere. They take everything out of your car. Before you know it, in ten minutes, that car that was full is unloaded and everything is in his room. That stuck with me. I can imagine how some of these initiations or special circumstances could stick.

If you think about it, every religion is based on these five principles. That’s one of the strongest tribal affiliations, religion. You have uncertainty, peer pressure, synchronized group activities, and difficult initiations. You might be baptized. You’re being dunked into the water in front of all your peers and family or something like that. The example of the leaders will hopefully be a good example of religious leaders. The point is if you think back to the group where you felt the strongest allegiance to you or belonging, my guess is probably all five of these strategies in the positive polarization toolkit were combined to get you there.

Those are the steps. Maybe you’ve got something else in another direction you want to take but I’m interested also in talking a little bit more about uncertainty. I get how uncertainty together binds you. When you’re looking to innovate something because there’s been a big change in the marketplace, it comes together and works hard to come up with a solution but uncertainty can also break people apart. It can break down trust.

The uncertainty has to be shared. This is well-known in politics. It’s called negative campaigning. Here’s the basic idea. If you think you’re an individual, you can’t survive by yourself. In uncertain circumstances, you fall back on tribal knowledge and that common cultural package. It’s much easier to get people to bond and activate group cohesion if there’s uncertainty, risk, or something like that going on. We all know that there are social rules. We fall back on group behavior rather than individual initiative. Uncertainty will even override our direct life experience and parrot the cultural beliefs of our tribe instead because that’s the safe thing. The wisdom of the tribe is much stronger than our single lifetime of experience.

I get what you’re saying. As a leader, I get that maybe you’d say, “Here’s this change. AI is coming.” We don’t do something together and come up with a solution. I see a lot of things breaking down with uncertainty where it’s every man for himself.

I’m talking about chaos. There are certain centripetal forces. If they’re strong enough, the group won’t hold together. There’s no question. What I’m talking about more is in situations when you’re uncertain, you’ll key off of the behavior that people around you, which ties to the peer pressure side of things.

Give us an example of what a leader would do to utilize that.

I’m saying on a personal level. Let’s say you went to another country on vacation. You know their social rules. They’re different from your country so you drink things in. You’re much more receptive to the different cues. “They don’t tip here. They only tip 5% here, not 22%,” like some of the restaurants here in San Diego. “People don’t smile. They want more room between you on the bus.” You’re more open. You’re like a sponge if you’re uncertain. Uncertainty doesn’t mean chaos. It means outside of your typical comfort zone.

These are things that leaders can do. What’s an example that would be from that leadership perspective on how they can help people to come around?

I’ll give you an example of how all five can be combined. Years ago, I went through a men’s initiation weekend through the ManKind Project. The idea was to take a hard look at yourself and hopefully come up with insights about how to be more purpose-driven without any belief systems attached but dig into your work and become a better person.

How did it go? First, when you arrived, you did not know the agenda for that weekend. They didn’t tell you what was going to happen, why it was happening, and what was coming up next. None of it. That’s the uncertainty part. You have to surrender to it and be open. Peer pressure. You were looking at people around you because of that uncertainty norming off of their behavior.

With synchronized group activities, pretty much the whole weekend was us doing things either in parallel or the same stuff but taking turns. Difficult initiation. It was a lot of psychological deep digging and it wasn’t easy. The staff that ran the initiation, you’re looking at them as an example of what you’d be like on the other side. You’re like, “Those people embody what I want to be.”

It’s not like uncertainty is by itself. It’s combined and it’s cocktailed with this other stuff. For example, not even knowing the agenda. “We’re going to do a team building. All I’m going to tell you is to bring a pair of hiking shoes and some mosquito repellent. Wear comfortable clothes and bring a change of underwear.” What do you know about that team-building experience? Nothing. You’re like, “I don’t even know what I’m stepping into.” Good. That’s the uncertainty part.

You’re not encouraging leaders to not define goals.

I’m not saying create chaos. Don’t be Elon Musk.

This is so interesting. I hope you don’t mind me probing with different questions. I’m being the people who are reading. If I’m not understanding 100% or I think they might have a question, then I like to voice it.

I appreciate that.

We’re coming to the end of our time for this first call. We can always dig deeper into another episode but what did I not ask you that’s important and relevant for people to know?

I believe evolutionary psychology is the basis of a lot of wisdom. Having a clear understanding of how we evolved and why, as I described in my book, Unleash Your Primal Brain, is not just good for teams. It’s good for relationships and the individual. All of this stuff applies at the individual level. You have this focus on taking back time.

TBT | Primal Brain

Unleash Your Primal Brain: Demystifying How We Think and Why We Act

I’m going to give one personal tip, if I may, to try to lead a more effective life. Don’t short-change your sleep. Our tendency is to pack as much as we can into our day. I have a whole chapter on sleep in the book and the evolutionary reasons for it. Don’t rob yourself of sleep. Ideally, it’s 7 to 9 hours on a similar schedule every day. That’s daily life support.

If you don’t do that, you’re not creative. You can’t learn anything new, physical or mental. You misread people and think that they have aggressive intent. There’s no form of life on Earth that lives longer than a few days that doesn’t have some form of sleep. Put your phone in another room, go to bed at a reasonable hour, get 7 to 9 hours of sleep or you’re not going to function very well. The best way to take back time is to devote more time to sleep.

I’m working on that. I’ve got my little Oura Ring and I’m tracking it. People have this expression, “Sleep when you’re dead.” I always say, “You’re dead when you’re dead.”

If you don’t sleep, you’ll be dead sooner. It’s the best way to put this.

I was talking to somebody about how so many people are on edge. When we don’t sleep, you know how any little thing could blow you over. You’re angry or crying. That’s where people are, on that edge.

It’s from sleep deprivation. That’s what they used to torture people. They break them down mentally by playing loud music, blasting them with cold air, and not letting them sleep. You’re right. If you don’t get enough REM sleep, which is 7 to 9 hours, and there are several cycles that are tail-weighted during that time, then you misread people’s micro-expressions. You get more paranoid. You think that they have aggressive intent towards you. All of your social calibration and ability to work in groups goes away.

I didn’t know that your social calibration goes away. That’s interesting. There you have it, people. I like to say set a bedtime. Get more sleep. Set a bedtime that you know that you can control. That also means that if it’s time to watch another episode of Netflix, you know, “No, it’s my bedtime. I’m going to go to bed and get a good night’s sleep.” Tim, where can people find more information about you, your books, and what you’re speaking about?

The easiest place is to go to PrimalBrain.com. There are several editions of my book including the audiobook if you want to listen to me for a few hours. I know some people prefer that. I narrated it myself. TimAsh.com is the other one. PrimalBrain.com is mostly focused on the book and evolutionary psychology.

Thank you so much for being here.

It was my absolute pleasure, Penny.

Thank you all for being here. This was good stuff. It’s an interesting and unique individual perspective that can help you as a leader. On top of that, you got the best advice, get more sleep. Get some more sleep and we’ll see you in the next episode.


Important Links


About Tim Ash

TBT | Primal Brain

Tim Ash is an acknowledged authority on evolutionary psychology and digital marketing. He is a sought-after international keynote speaker, and the bestselling author of Unleash Your Primal Brain and Landing Page Optimization (with over 50,000 copies sold worldwide, and translated into six languages).

Tim has been mentioned by Forbes as a Top-10 Online Marketing Expert, and by Entrepreneur Magazine as an Online Marketing Influencer To Watch.

Tim is a highly-rated keynote speaker and presenter at over 200 events across four continents. He has been asked to return as a keynote at dozens of events because of the fantastic audience response. Tim shines on massive stages with over 12,000 attendees, as well as in intimate executive events or workshops. He offers dynamic conference keynotes, workshops, and corporate training services (both in-person and virtually). Tim also selectively works as an online marketing advisor with senior executives.

For nineteen years he was the co-founder and CEO of SiteTuners – a strategic digital optimization agency. Tim has developed deep expertise in user-centered design, persuasion, understanding consumer behavior, neuromarketing, and landing page testing. In the mid-1990s he became one of the early pioneers in the discipline of website conversion rate optimization (CRO).

Tim helped to create over 1.2 billion dollars in value for companies like Google, Expedia, eHarmony, Facebook, American Express, Canon, Nestle, Symantec, Intuit, Humana, Siemens, and Cisco.

He was the founding chair of the international Conversion Conference event series (with over 30 conferences in the US and Europe since 2010). Since 1995, he has authored more than 100 published articles. Tim was also the online voice of website improvement as the host of the Landing Page Optimization Podcast on WebmasterRadio.fm (over 130 recorded interview episodes with top online marketing experts).

Tim earned a dual-major Bachelor of Science degree “with highest distinction” in Computer Engineering and Cognitive Science from U.C. San Diego while studying on a U.C. Regents Scholarship (the highest academic award of the U.C. system). He stayed on at U.C. San Diego for Ph.D. studies focused on machine learning and artificial intelligence. Although Tim never defended his dissertation, he advanced to candidacy and also earned his Master’s degree in Computer Science along the way.

Originally born in the Soviet Union, Tim has been a long-time resident of San Diego, where he lives with his wife and two children within walking distance of the Pacific Ocean. Tim was a conference-winning collegiate sabre fencer and Athlete of the Month at U.C. San Diego, and is a certified Tai Chi Chuan martial arts instructor. He is a poet, painter, and an avid photographer specializing in travel and fine-art figurative work.


Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share! https://pennyzenker360.com/positive-productivity-podcast/