IN TOUCH : Brains at work

It’s hardly news that bullying boss or negative work environment is bad news for employee engagement but new research into how the brain works highlights just how bad that impact can be.
“When you start exploring the biology involved, there’s reason why it has the impact it has and why that impact is bigger than we realise,” says David Rock, consultant, author (Your Brain at Work), co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and keynote speaker at the upcoming NZATD conference in Auckland.
It’s all to do with how our brains deal with social signals. We are, it seems, very finely attuned to so-called threat and reward responses and the “neural noise” thrown up by perceived threat can severely impair conscious thinking processes. Greater awareness of this has emerged from the explosion of brain studies based on new technologies such as FMRI scanning and enhanced through faster computer processing power.
“It’s meant we can study more real world things,” says Rock. “And while some of these studies just confirm what we already knew, there are some findings that are completely counter-intuitive or brand new and the impacts can be quite big.”
The implications for learning, development and staff management are significant. Even quite subtle priming with positive or negative stimuli can have 50 percent impact on people’s abilities to solve complex problems, says Rock. That even small signals can make big difference highlights the reality that we are very socially connected creatures.
“This presents an enormous challenge to managers. Although job is often regarded as purely economic transaction in which people exchange their labour for financial compensation, the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as social system.”
So when people feel unrecognised or betrayed at work, they experience it as “a neural impulse as powerful and painful as blow to the head” says Rock – which leads to disengagement and under-performance. That might seem an outsized reaction until you take into account the number of studies now showing that the brain equates social needs with survival. So negative signals can quite easily send it off down the wrong path.
“Findings show this has an impact on people’s ability to do linear decision making and an even bigger one on insight problem solving where you’re dealing with innovation or doing things differently. So it becomes more difficult to do anything that involves learning, changing, collaborating or innovating,” Rock explains.
But those are exactly the skills needed in today’s more complex work environments which means leaders increasingly need some understanding of how our brains work and how that affects performance. It’s not so much about new styles of leadership, says Rock, as embedding style people would like to see more of.
“I also think it’s opening up new approaches. There’s now huge amount of research happening about the neuroscience of leadership – and it’s really about understanding the human side of human capital much better.
“I think if you are looking to improve organisations in any way then you are looking to improve people’s thinking so you need to understand the biology behind those soft skills.”
While the track record of failed attempts to spark higher-performance behaviour has led many managers to conclude that human nature is simply intractable, the brain is actually highly plastic. New behaviours can be learned and entrenched behaviours modified at any age – but the brain will only make these shifts when engaged in mindful attention, says Rock.
He identifies five particular qualities that enable employees and executives to minimise the threat response and enable the reward response – status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness (SCARF). How these can be utilised is part of his presentation at the conference.
Other speakers include Jack and Patti Phillips, who spearhead the ROI Institute and whose programmes for measuring the success of investments in workplace learning are in hot demand. Speaking during brief touchdown in his US base, Jack Phillips told NZ Management that the recession has prompted huge demand for methodology that provides bottom line figures and accountability for whole range of training, performance improvement, human resources, technology programmes and, more recently, the payoff on “green” investment.
“We’ve been swamped because people are finally showing the value of what they do.”
Those attending the couple’s keynote speeches and workshop in Auckland will find out about the eight types of data that can be reported to senior executives – and the three sets they need most, says Phillips.
“These are impact (on the organisation from the learning/development programme), the financial return on investment, and application – and these are the three that are provided least. So there is disconnect. We’ve known that for years but this puts it in perspective and puts some challenges in front of us.
“Because we haven’t been able to produce the kind of data executives want, we see the aftermath of this in our global recession when (learning/development) investments get cut because they’re perceived as something you can do when you’ve got time and money when it should be the other way round.
“So my sessions will be about those measures and the challenges of putting them in place and Patti’s will be more specific about the process. It’s called ‘Show me the Money’ and is more on how-tos – how to get the ROI to see that it is possible and it is being done and that is the way to win the hearts and minds of senior executives.”
The two-day NZATD Conference, which as well as range of overseas experts also includes local speakers like Wade Jackson and Michael Henderson, is being held at the Waipuna Hotel and Conference Centre in Auckland, May 26-28.

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