How does your brain feel?
No, really. It’s a serious question.
It is also one we naturally shy away from in the workplace. Possibly even one that you are shying away from as you are reading this post. What on earth does it matter how my brain feels? I have five meetings to go to, my Manager is screaming for a product release and my children aren’t talking to me. I’m far too busy to listen to my feelings.
OK. I’m not into touchy-feely stuff either. So, maybe I’ll change the question.
How self aware are you? How aware are you of your own brain?
You hear that little voice that is assessing this situation, that little gargoyle who sits on your shoulder and watches the play of your life from the outside? That is your conscious self. The one that is also thinking of those five meetings that you need to go to and the one reminding you to answer the Manager’s email request. He or she is the star of the new book by consultant, come leadership coach, come neuroscientist botherer David Rock “Your Brain at work; strategies for overcoming distraction, regaining focus and working smarter all day long” . This was the topic for our Tech Talk recently and I thought I should look into it. David refers to your conscious self as your “Director”. Developing a strong Director is the key to working with your brain to succeed in everyday life.
Divided into four acts, David takes us on a journey through the life of a couple, Emily and Paul and their hectic lives in order to uncouple their behavior from the human default and by understanding better the way their brains work take them to a new level of awareness that allows them to cope and thrive in today’s stressful work environment.
Shakespeare wrote that “all the world’s a stage” and in this case so is your consciousness, or to be more specific, your pre-frontal cortex. An energy expensive, relatively newly evolved part of the brain that is our platform of our conscious interactions with the universe around us. There is a limit to how many actors, or how much information can crowd onto it at once. Try and push past the limit of the pre-frontal cortex and accuracy or quality suffers. Regardless of your sex, you can only do two things at once. Even more surprisingly you will actually suffer physical pain if you try and force the prefrontal cortex to take on more than it can at any one moment. That searing headache you get when the yet another email comes through is your brain telling you it isn’t happy and you won’t be at your best to answer it.
The way that David advocates we cope with information overload and separate ourselves from our inner child or our inner wolf is to become more aware of our mental processes. We need to become more mindful and in doing so gain better control of our Director.
You can practice this in an easy exercise. Right now you are listening to the world through your narrative circuit, the one that goes crazy with worry about your 2 o’ clock board meeting. So take a deep breath, close your eyes and instead activate your direct experience circuit, the sensory circuit. Feel the hardness of threadbare chair beneath you, the hissing of the air-conditioning, the rain knocking on the window. Try this now. You are controlling your brain. Practice this often and David promises us a strong Director which can be harnessed at will in order to help us deal consciously with what we face. End of Act 1.
The drive for dopamine
In Act 2 we learn how the brain is reward driven. The rewards come in the form of increased level of dopamine, which makes us feel good. The brain likes certainty and it tends to treat everything else as a threat. Everyone is a foe until proven otherwise, any loss of autonomy is scary and unmet expectations are hugely depressing. All of these will cause a sharp drop in dopamine levels. Your cortisol levels will rise, you will be stressed and you will experience strong emotions. Since it is not generally possible to get down on the office floor and have a tantrum we need to instead harness the Director in order to consciously reassess and reappraise the situation. Think clinically and in terms of dopamine. It is a lot less scary that way. Know your expectations and manage them. If you lower them then you are more likely to be rewarded with more dopamine. Reappraise early when you feel an urge to stamp your feet. Your colleagues will thank you and you feel a lot better.
No man is an island
In Act 3, we are forced to acknowledge that we are not a vacuum. In order to get on in life it is usually necessary to collaborate with others, even for those of us who chose to collaborate mostly with our computers. Those automatic foes need to be turned into friends. The good news is that similar to our monkey cousins we are highly social animals. In fact take social connections away and we die earlier. They are a primary need.
When playing with others two things are crucial to be aware of; fairness and status. When we feel that things are fair and when others think a lot of us our brain is rewarded. Someone refusing us a piece of birthday cake in the kitchen when everyone else gets a share or another colleague making us feel small in the boardroom results in us feeling threatened. That dopamine will surge downwards and probably eventually make us look for a new job. Or cry. The same applies to your colleagues and the people whom you are managing. Bring doughnuts to meetings, share with everyone. Set expectations at a level that you can meet.
Don’t lord it over your team or micromanage them. You will activate their threat response, their output won’t be productive and you certainly won’t get what you need to hear. Make people feel the reward of a raised status by being self-effacing and lowering your own. Play against yourself in order to push forward your own performance. These are powerful tools in the workplace.
Coping with change
Lastly David addresses facilitating change. Humans don’t like change. It goes against our certainty reward circuit. Getting other people to do what we want is hard; forming the new pathways in the brain is hard too. The brain has two basic responses, towards and away. Our away response is far stronger. For example, our ancestors would have walked towards a bush covered in edible berries, but would have run away from a forest fire.
The same thing applies to mental processes. Once someone switches to a strong away state is it extremely difficult to bring that person back on board. The solution? Minimize perceived threat associated with the changes and don’t try and influence people when they are experiencing strong negative emotions. Rather focus people on the good stuff, set small goals with their own rewards, be fair and don’t lower status in others by giving them set solutions. Ask questions and let people offer solutions to their problems. You will be increasing both their dopamine and lowering your cortisol. More happiness all round.
A mindful life?
In summary, David Rock claims that by developing a strong Director and by understanding how our brain works and why it works the way it does we are freed from being slaves to our default responses to problems. We are able to play an active role in improving our own performance and our associations with others. We can choose what gets our attention and how we prioritise our thought processes.
Does this all make physical sense? Absolutely. In recent years studies conducted using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) clearly show that the frontal lobes help with organization, time management, and decision-making, whereas the basal ganglia help to regulate moods and to control impulsive outbursts. Lesion, electrical self-stimulation and drug addiction studies suggest that the midbrain dopamine systems are parts of the reward system of the brain. Dopamine neurons show temporary activations to external stimuli espescially in response to expected reward whereas a separate, slower dopamine signal informs about risk. What David Rock is suggesting is the exploitation of the brain’s natural circuits for the management of both ourselves and others in a way which is somewhat more subtle, more effective (and not to mention, more legal) than walking around the office handing out sugar rich candy and cocaine.
There is also an unexpected and wonderful bonus to all this. By constantly giving our brains the rewards it craves we don’t only become mentally healthier but by being less stressed, lowering our blood pressure and unfurrowing our brows we become more physically healthy too. Well worth a try.
You can watch David’s excellent talk on “Your Brain at Work” via YouTube: