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How neuroscience can change the way we work

Neuro-science & Change

Most CEOs and Business Leaders take pride in updating their systems with the latest technology and equipment. They devote significant time and money to ensure their employees are using the latest in leading processes, materials, and methodologies.

Many of these leaders would agree that trying to achieve great business results without the latest thinking and technology would be tantamount to folly.

Using this logic it is then so confusing why these organisations and leaders continue to operate their most precious assess – their people – without the latest thinking and research – effectively using old beliefs and dated thinking.

The data from neuroscience continues to mount - so why is this crucial evidence-based information still being so widely overlooked?

Certainly our cultural views and policies on mental health reflect a deep-seated reluctance to accept the primacy of psychological health in our overall well-being and success. Fortunately, some organisations are starting to understand and really focus on this.

New data tells us

Over the last fifteen years, there has been unremitting neurological research revealing fundamental insights about how we humans function.  This information is not arbitrary – it’s factual.  These studies impact everything including abouty how we structure work. They show how brain functions affect perception, emotion and conscious thought.

While the growing body of neuroscience must withstand the scrutiny of further research, we can already begin to see applications for the workplace. The following are core ideas that have implications for all management practices:

5 Ideas that Neruoscience Tells us

Louise Altman summarises the 5 BIG Ideas as follows

  • Managing Expectations – As motivation plays a critical role in the how and why of people functioning, it’s important to understand that the brain is essentially a social organ.  Research now clearly shows that the brain’s primary organising principle is to detect whether incoming stimuli is a reward – or threat.  It’s part of our early survival mechanism that allows the brain to quickly classify the “danger” level of any situation.  According to Dr. David Rock core social domains (such as social status and certainty (control) drive human behaviour.
    Rock says, “Labelling and understanding these drivers draws conscious awareness to other non-conscious processes which help in two ways. Knowing the drivers that can cause a threat response in others enables people to design interactions to minimize threats (for example, knowing that a lack of autonomy (for some) may activate a threat response, a leader may consciously avoid micromanaging their employee. Second, knowing about these drivers can activate a reward response enabling people to motivate others more effectively by tapping into internal rewards thereby reducing the reliance on external rewards such as money.”
  • Emotional Contagion is real– Studies in the past decade have shown that emotions can be “infectious.” The moods of others, especially those in positions of power, can have a real and lasting effect on individuals and groups. Toxic bosses, bully environments and aggressive cultures can “breed” more of the same.  Leaders play an important role in their ability to influence the spread of certain types of emotions over others.
    The evidence shows that while all emotions can be contagious, “negative” emotions have greater power to influence.  That makes sense because when we are negatively “triggered” emotionally, the amygdala in the brain’s limbic system is activated and the “fight or flight” system kicks in, draining energy from the pre-frontal cortex (the “reasoning” part of the brain).  All of this can happen unconsciously, unless we develop the tools to bring it into awareness and mitigate the responses.
  • Suppressing Emotions Costs – The prevailing thinking in business still leans towards the maxim that “emotions don’t belong in business.” These declarations are still being made despite overwhelming knowledge that emotion is as integral to human functioning as any of the so-called rational processes.  One recent study provided illuminating information on the costs of emotional suppression, which is still the norm, in most workplace situations.
    When we suppress any emotion –the resources that are involved in suppressing that emotion come from the same area of our brains (the Pre-Frontal Cortex or PFC) that is used for problem solving and analytical thinking.  Like a car, the PFC has only a limited supply of fuel, and if we are using that fuel in another area, then you can believe that there is less fuel to service more important things like being effective on the job and managing your other emotions.
    The implications of these findings in the workplace (and beyond) are staggering. While we are busy pushing down our true feelings (in some cases we call this being “professional”) we’re not only denying our real experience but we are taxing our cognitive functions and wasting precious brain fuel in the process.
  • Creativity Needs Cultivation – Several large surveys done in the past few years show creativity at the top of the business leader’s wish list in today’s competitive environment. It’s instructive to know then, what creativity needs to thrive.  Old notions still prevail about “creative” types – that like “leaders” “creatives” are born – not made.  Another prevailing belief that plays a role against “nurturing” the seeds of creativity are attitudes towards sleep. Yes, sleep!
    While nap rooms in today’s corporations are still rare, resting the body and mind doesn’t just depend on a nap.  Increased workloads and cyber overload all contribute to a general sense of overwhelm and exhaustion.  It’s not uncommon for people to work 12 hours a day. Some people think this is the new normal (let us hope not).  Some managers model it and many companies expect it.  But findings in neuroscience signal that an entirely new mindset needs to inform how much and how long people should work to perform optimally.
  •  Mindfulness – The popular imagery still evokes a holy man sitting in an ashram meditating most of the day. There is general misunderstanding about the differences between being “mindful” and practicing mindfulness meditation. While research results show that meditation offers a wide range of benefits (in remarkably short periods of time) learning to become more “mindful” enhances cognition in amazing ways.
    A simple description of mindfulness is “slowing down and examining one’s thought process and learning to be in the moment.” Simple enough it seems, but a tall order for most people. UCLA researchers also describe mindfulness as a technique where someone pays attentions to their thoughts, present emotions and body sensations, without “passing judgment or reacting.” The result is that the amygdala is less activated and emotions are less intense.

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