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Introducing the Wolfpack Brain

I have quickly learned that third grade is often the year kids start to struggle with cliques at school. And it can lead to a lot of drama.

In my house we have explored this phenomenon by introducing another part of the brain. We already talk about the monkey brain (AKA primitive brain) and the wise old owl (AKA the prefrontal cortex). Both of those terms are commonly known and used educationally with kids. But they don't address the intense feelings one experiences when being excluded from the in-group.

So while processing such struggles with my kid one night I said reflectively, "This makes me think of another part of your brain, it's called your Wolfpack brain."

This sparked deep curiosity, as I knew it would. And they wanted me to tell them more.

I explained part of what makes wolves special is how they can only survive when they are part of a pack. And when a wolf is rejected by their pack they can't survive (I didn't bother going into the glorification of the lone-wolf in our society).

My kid responded immediately, "that's like lions too. But they need to be a part of a pride."

To which I replied, "That's right. As humans, we are also like wolves. We need to be part of a pack to survive. And the Wolfpack Brain is constantly determining whether or not we fit in. And when we don't feel like we belong it starts to worry and tells the monkey brain there's a problem."

At this point my kid sat straight-up in bed, gazed at me with a curious and reflective expression on their face. So I went on.

"Sometimes, when we feel like we don't belong. We do or say things just to fit in. Even though it's not what we truly think or feel or want. And when that happens we aren't being our true-self in order to feel like we belong. But here's the thing, a true pack will accept you for who you are. Anytime a group of kids or adults expects you to change to fit-in, they aren't your real pack!"

I pause as my kid looked at me with a rueful grin while declaring, "I'm all wolf brain."

"Ok, that's cool." I replied and continued, "so, our need to be a part of a pack is why it hurts sooooo intensely and deeply when we feel rejected or excluded by others. The way you're feeling is normal. It's important to acknowledge those feelings while reminding yourself that if they aren't going to accept you for who you are, they aren't your true pack."

At this point in the conversation, my kid howled. I knew this was a way to embody and integrate their wolfpack brain. I paused to see if they had any other thoughts or questions. After another enthusiastic howl they laid down and we said good night.

The part of the brain I was describing is the limbic section, where the amygdala resides. As humans, we are hardwired for connection and belonging. When we feel rejected or excluded we experience pain, cortisol is released and we go into a threat response - fight, flight, freeze or appease.

The threat response I described to my kid above was appease. That's where we say or do the thing we think other's want from us in order to gain or maintain a sense of belonging.

Because we are hardwired for connection and belonging, it's valuable for all of us (leaders, parents and kids alike) to bring our awareness to how and when we feel like we fit-in or not. We have all formed habits of thought, and behavior from our early childhood to promote our sense of belonging. When those habits go unexamined our intentions don't always match our impact. This is one of the problems with group think.

Group think happens when people become so entrenched in a position they outright reject anyone who disagrees. Contrary to what one might believe, group think isn't always a malicious or egocentric practice that occurs because one surrounds themselves with sycophants. Sometimes it's the byproduct of a bunch of people wanting to belong that mean well. A leader may inadvertently shut done all disagreement by invoking a clear right vs. wrong story rooted in their values.

In such situations it’s hard to give voice to a dissenting point of view because doing so means you don’t exhibit certain values. Or more specifically, disagreement results in being branded as a "bad person."

Whenever we get sucked into good vs. bad thinking about each other we can become blinded by belonging. When we other our peers we are steeped in group think and will struggle to integrate diverse perspectives into a meaningful communal exchange.

I was working with a leader recently who had lost two valuable team members because of group think. He had just been promoted shortly after the turnover occurred and was figuring out how to repair the discord that festered under the conflict avoidant eye of his predecessor.

As he explained the situation, the prevalence of self-righteous group think was abundantly apparent. The conflict came to a head because there wasn't a productive way of handling disagreements around the embodiment of their core values. What's more, there wasn't an egregious error in judgment. No one was tacitly harming another or breaking the law. But there was a clear us vs. them pattern of thought within the group

Suffice it to say, all their feelings about the situation were big and strong. And trust was low. Those are ripe conditions for making up dramatic stories about the proverbial other.

When the conflict came to a head, both parties believed their account of the situation was the right one and the other was wrong.

Since there had been a clear majority, when an individual in the minority expressed a dissenting opinion it was viewed as an attack. People became escalated. As sometimes happens, the triggers led to an unprofessional outburst by the person expressing a different perspective.

It was a messy situation. There was no resolution at the time, only separation.

In the end, both parties felt wronged because of the failure of leadership to co-regulate the team's neurochemistry in the moment.

The conflict catalyzed a change in leadership. And the new leader had the difficult task of guiding the team through healing and recentering.

Once he could see how group think was showing up as self-righteous indignation hiding behind their values, he was able to address the root of the problem. In addition to having one-on-one conversations with those involved in the conflict, he also was mindful about the dynamics he created in meetings.

He actively modeled listening to connect, not judge, confirm or reject. This helped team members feel seen, heard and validated. Counter to what you might expect, listening led to more openness from others to consider different points of view.

The leader also provided clear direction and shared expectations for the team, which had been lacking before. It was the absence of well defined and understood boundaries from the previous leader that had spurred group think before. That combined with avoidance in conflict sewed seeds of doubt and confusion that led team members to seek an in-group.

By addressing these issues, the leader set the team up to work together collaboratively to navigate more pressing needs. They were able to deal with the challenges they faced because they were once again a united front that had shared expectations for how they worked together and an openness to explore different perspectives.

When we don't have a productive way to navigate differences, we tend to band together with people like us in order to foster a sense of safety. But it's a false sense of security because in shutting out other points of view, we weaken our abilities to learn, grow and innovate.

The wolfpack brain's need for connection and belonging is powerful. A people-centered leader must learn how to create a sense of community with their team where belonging and diversity may co-exist. Doing so isn't necessarily an easy feat but it is fertile ground for turning bold ideas into innovations.

Would you like to foster a sense of belonging on your team while also creating space for diverse perspectives to be voiced? Apply the latest research in the Neuroscience of Conversation to transform your next retreat into a team building experience that improves communications and advances your strategic priorities. We are now booking retreats for 2023. Start planning your retreat online here today.

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