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The Human Brain In The Workplace

(November 9, 2009) - They let woman in the workplace, dogs in the workplace - now the human brain - WHAT NEXT? Where will it end? OK, enough joking around. Here is what the neuroscience experts are writing about:

The modern workplace is an emotionally charged landscape of constant threats and unconscious fears that can addle or even destroy our brainpower, according to three recent books on neuroscience.

The flow of brain chemicals triggered by common workplace experiences -- feedback session, anyone? -- can erode our ability to think straight, harming productivity and diminishing our capacity to solve problems or work well with others.

Yet when approached with greater regard for how our brain operates, work can also be a deeply rewarding, creative experience. Getting there, though, may require ditching some of our more counterproductive work habits, the authors say.

"One of the things organizations need to do is respect the deeply social nature of the brain. People are not rational, they are social," David Rock, author of "Your Brain at Work" (HarperBusiness), told Reuters in an interview. "The social brain is such that we are really driven to increase social rewards, and we are really driven to minimize social threats."

Rock, the founder of a company that applies the insights of brain science to leadership coaching, lists five areas in which our brain's threat mechanisms are easily triggered at work: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

When we feel threatened in any of these spheres -- a superior displays power over us, rumors circulate about the future of our job, our work is micro-managed, we are excluded from colleagues' conversations, or our work is unjustly overlooked -- our brains focus our attention on the threat.

In doing so, the brain diverts scarce resources away from the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the area we use to set goals, make plans, control impulses, solve problems, visualize the unknown and think creatively -- in short, the part of our brain we use to do good work.

The PFC is the seat of our conscious thinking. Deprive it of fuel, and we make mistakes, lose our train of thought, forget key information, miss patterns and waste time. Productivity falls, and so does job satisfaction.

How can we work more effectively with the brain? Rock has some suggestions, as do the four authors of "The Brain Advantage" (Prometheus Books), Madeleine Van Hecke, Lisa Callahan, Brad Kolar and Ken Paller, and Charles Jacobs, the author of "Management Rewired" (Portfolio).

Become more "mindful" of what our brains are doing:
Whether we are leading teams or taking orders from above, it helps to recognize when our brains, and other people's, are perceiving threats, so we can regulate our reactions.

Acknowledging our emotions -- "I am getting angry/scared/indignant" -- helps us to think before we react rashly. One study shows we generally have 0.2 second to veto an impulse after it emerges from the unconscious.

Find the right level of stress:
A little stress is good for most people, but studies show a high level of stress-related chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline can kill existing neurons, and stop the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, which is important for forming memories. Better emotional self-regulation helps (see above), as do talking things over with friends, and physical activity.

Find better ways of giving and receiving feedback:
Offering even constructive feedback, let alone punishment for poor performance, can serve to underline the "alpha" status of the giver, writes Jacobs. Organizations that want people to learn should avoid cookie-cutter, depersonalized approaches to feedback, explore more self-appraisal by individuals and teams, ask questions rather than give answers, and strip as much status-threat as they can from the process.

Arrange work around the brain's energy levels:
Studies show doing more than one attention-rich task at a time decreases accuracy and performance, and memory starts to degrade when we hold more than one thing at once in our minds.

Whenever possible, we should carve out blocks of time, away from phones and e-mail, for different kinds of thinking. Wading through e-mails while seeking inspiration is a bad idea.

We can only do a few hours of high-grade, conscious thinking in a day -- we should know when our brain does it, and not fill that time with low-grade tasks that can be done when we are tired or low on energy. Prioritizing is key.

Build a virtuous circle. Help colleagues feel safe in those key areas defined by Rock: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

(Reporting by Martin Langfield; Editing by Eddie Evans)

Colleen Gildea

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