Great Shark Expectations

Great expectations

Some of you will think I’m crazy. Recently Mark and I set off for three days to the Neptune Islands, off Port Lincoln in South Australia. These islands are famous for Great White Sharks!

We were going diving with Andrew Fox, the son of Rodney Fox who survived a horrendous Great White Shark attack and later advised on the Jaws movies.

As soon as we left Port Lincoln, the crew began ‘chumming’. A dead tuna was hung off the back of the boat so that its blood dripped into the sea around us. Soon after the crew attached a big bucket of tuna blood and guts to the back of the boat so that this too, washed into the ocean, to attract the White Pointers.

We were full of anticipation. Even though we would be in a cage, and even though I was standing on the deck of the ship, my amygdala had my heart beating much faster than usual as I scanned the ocean for big dorsal fins. You recognize this as The Almond Effect®!

Shark bait

Day one – no sharks sighted yet. We dropped anchor and geared up to go down in the cage to check out what was below. The water was freezing – 14C!

And as I entered the cage, my heart started to race. So using the STAR model (Stop-Think-Act-Rewire), I stopped and thought about what was going on. My pre-frontal cortex (PFC) reminded me that I was safe in the cage but I still had to convince my amygdala with slow, deep, rhythmic breathing.

Safely down at 15 meters we saw bull rays, giant cuttlefish, big blue groper, and handfed lots of jacks and other fish – but no sharks.

Day two – the sea was turning red and still no sharks. So to pass the time we decided to land on one of the islands to look at the baby seals.

We have been privileged to be near seals previously so we knew how to behave next to these lovely animals. When we came upon a small group of them, I immediately sat down low and still on the rocks. They were about 5 metres away. One of the baby seals gently started moving towards me. I was excited as I thought it might nuzzle me.

Wrong! Instead of nuzzling me it bit me on my leg, painfully! Talk about false expectations!

The role of expectations

And this surprise encounter reminded me of the work of Robert Coghill and also Lorimer Moseley. Both are neuroscience researchers in the field of pain and their work includes the impact of expectations on the level or experience of pain that we have.

In other words they ask the question: how does what goes on in our brain affect what we feel? How do our expectations impact our reactions?

I heard both of these men speak at the first two NeuroLeadership summits. Although they research on different continents, their message is the same: basically you feel what you expect to feel.

Indeed Coghill told us that he has found that, due to the impact of their expectations, patients can experience a reduction in pain equivalent to 0.08mg/kg morphine.

A similar well known and documented outcome is The Placebo Effect. This is when a patient’s symptoms are altered in someway (usually beneficially) when they take an inert substance (e.g. a sugar pill) expecting and/or believing it will work. In essence, expectations and desire are key components of The Placebo Effect.

Application to the workplace

What can we draw from this for the workplace? It seems to me that if the neuroscientists can prove that expectations have a measurable impact on physical pain and can even positively impact physiological disorders, then one day neuroscientists will be able to prove what we already know intuitively, that our expectations have a great deal to do with our psychological pain including disappointment, frustration and anxiety at work.

I am particularly thinking about the implications for the way managers motivate and lead their staff through change and experiences such as performance reviews.

Expectations depend on individual experiences

If a nurse approaches you with a large needle and says” this won’t hurt a bit” – depending on your past experiences, it may hurt you a lot or not at all. For another person faced with the same situation, what they experience will not be the same as you. In each case, how you react will depend on your past history with needles, the present context and what you perceive are the future implications of the jab.

Similarly if your manager says to you: ‘the new system will make your life easier’, or ‘this restructure will cut costs and make us more competitive’, or ‘no jobs will be lost in this merger’ or ‘performance reviews are a two way discussion of how we can work together better in the future’ – again how you and other team members respond will depend on each individual’s past experiences of this kind of event (wherever they may have happened), the present context and what your brain predicts will be the future implications.

Everyone is different. Just as we each respond differently to physical pain depending on a range of variables, environmental, emotional and cognitive, so too we all perceive what happens at work differently.

One size doesn’t fit all

The message for managers is clear – we can’t manage everyone in the same way. We need to discover as much as we can about our people, their experiences, their motivations, their aspirations, their expectations.

We also need to think about ways to give our people training in the skills they need to be able to better manage their own reactions to events which do or could cause them psychological pain.

Neuroscientists and others are developing and using neurofeedback devices (in contrast to biofeedback) to train people to alter their brainwave patterns to achieve the optimal state for whatever it is they are being trained for.

To date the research shows that neurofeedback has some success for people with ADHD (attention deficit) and it is reported that it is also being used with sports people to improve their performance.


Teaching them STAR skills is a great way to start the process. Let me know if I can help you and your team develop the skills to Stop-Think-Act-Rewire.

Day 3

Our expectations and excitement are shattered. Despite doing everything possible (including snorkeling with seals) we didn’t attract any Great Whites. So we headed for home.

And clearly the next time we go – and yes we will go looking for the Great Whites again – our experience will be different because, based on past history, we know we might not see them.

And maybe if I get bitten by a seal again, based on my revised expectations, it won’t hurt as much!