You’re running a team of managers with a set of complicated goals, and you need to know how things are going. But every time you get together for an update, you get a heaping helping of “everything’s fine,” a side order of “that’s not my fault,” and not much else. So, it falls to you to ask pointed questions – at least about the problems you know about. Before long, you’re presiding over a sort of attack-and-defend courtroom drama in which you see them as trying to oversimplify and obfuscate a complex situation, and they see you as fault-finding and picking apart their good work. It’s combative, inefficient, and detrimental to everybody’s job satisfaction and mental health. Is this the unavoidable reality of life in upper and middle management?

Maybe not.

The part of our brain that’s largely concerned with survival, aversion to change, and fight-or-flight responsiveness is known as the limbic system, or “reptile brain.” Though it has an important role in keeping us fed, hydrated, and alive, it can easily get us into trouble doing things like interpreting political disagreements as physical attacks. Not surprisingly, the reptile brain also plays a big role in the degradation of accurate information transfer from your team to you, their boss.

If I work for you, from the perspective of my inner lizard, you stand between me and survival. (Reptiles don’t care about paychecks, but they care a whole lot about the food, shelter, and security they represent.) If you’re not happy with me, goes this lizard-logic, you’ll take everything away. So, my reptile brain constantly wants me to be sending two messages to you: everything I’m doing is going well, and any problems are not my fault.

In your staff meeting, I watch my peers relay their reptile brains’ same two messages and observe as you ask pointed questions. Your inquiry may be well-meaning and rational, but to my inner lizard it’s nothing more than an attempt to assign blame – and even more so if you appear the slightest bit frustrated or unhappy while asking. So, I become even more defensive, paint an even rosier and less specific picture of my work, and redouble my efforts to duck anything resembling accountability or fault. My colleagues do the same, you grow more frustrated, and the cycle continues as our team suffers from a bad case of a reptile dysfunction, replacing information transfer with posturing, noise, and aggravation all around.

How can you fix this? Many will advise you to finesse those inner reptiles into sedation. And no doubt, building trust, doing some teambuilding, and injecting humor into the situation can all help reduce their influence. But since the reptile brains aren’t going away, why not work with them instead of against them?

Here’s how.

First, be intentional about the results you want. You already know good managers create clear individual goals for their subordinates. The problem is, once you do that, the reptiles start competing for resources. So go a step further: tell your team, “although you each have your own goals, our team exists to achieve what I owe the larger organization. We succeed or fail together. You are all successful when my goals are met, and you all fail if they aren’t – one of you can’t succeed at the expense of another.” Get those lizards to tie their worries about survival to getting your work done, instead of competing with each other over individual agendas.

Second, be intentional about the process you want. Abandon once and for all the hyper-individualistic idea that it doesn’t matter how my people hit their targets, so long as they hit them. Replace this with clear expectations regarding consistency: “since we succeed together, we succeed when we work together. Early, honest indications of trouble are rewarded. Setting aside personal agendas for higher level goals is required. Misrepresenting one’s true status or practicing gamesmanship in place of collaboration isn’t appropriate and won’t be tolerated.” Be diligent with words and actions that put those reptiles on notice: the path to your good graces is through collaboration and honesty, not isolation and subterfuge.

Finally, be intentional about what success looks like in the long term. The lizard working on how to stay safe today is also trying to get more safe through advancement tomorrow. Conscientiously place people on the path of sharing information and understanding each other instead of hoarding information and protecting themselves: “for us to really work as a team, each of you needs to make recommendations that make sense in the context of all of our work. I expect you to spend time in one-on-one conversations where you share what’s going on and learn about each other’s areas. Not only will this make each of you better members of my team today, but you’ll become better candidates for advancement tomorrow.” Give those lizards something to chase that’s productive, useful, and real.

Of course, all of this is not to say you shouldn’t also have some fun and get some rest. Reducing stress, increasing trust, and lightening the mood all help to cut down on the limbic system’s ability to overwhelm our thinking. But since those reptiles are never going away completely – and since they’re looking for a fight – you might as well start working with them instead of against them. Teach the lizard-brains on your team to chase after the results you want by working together and sharing information, and you’ll be training them to stop creating the silos you don’t want by isolating themselves and obscuring the truth. You’ll make your staff meetings more useful, your direct reports more effective, and your life as a middle or upper manager better too.

Start today. Only you can prevent a reptile dysfunction on your management team.