Your Brain at Work

The human brain is quite extraordinary. To quote the South African writer Lyall Watson, “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.”

The neurosciences are comparatively nascent in their development, but are already subject to pop culture and dumbing-down: mainstream media reports vastly oversimplify neuroscience research and fuel a burgeoning industry of conference circuit neuro-mappers who suggest that they can unlock the secrets of leadership and marketing from localizing areas of the brain. Though these articles’ conclusions are dubious, most of them are based on data from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, a primary tool of neuroscience. The technology allows us to peer into brains as they work, to see thinking as regions of the brain become more or less active.

These powerful images offer temptingly simple explanations for complex phenomena. But the problem is, fMRI doesn’t necessarily show causation. What’s more, thinking and behaviour don’t map onto brain regions one-to-one. You can’t scan someone’s brain while he watches adverts and tell if he prefers Coke or Pepsi. You can’t scan two Partners’ brains and tell which is the better leader. Insula activity alone doesn’t prove that you feel about your phone the way you feel about your mother.

To truly understand how neurological processes affect management, leadership and marketing, we must separate fact from fiction, resist facile narratives and establish a more sophisticated view of brain science.

And that’s exactly what’s beginning to happen. Because of a confluence of factors - technological advances in fMRI, newly applied statistical techniques and even Obama’s announcement of a brain-mapping initiative - neuroscientists are adopting a new and better framework for their discipline. It shifts the focus from studying the activation of brain regions to learning how networks of brain regions activate in concurrent patterns. It’s like going from using video from a single surveillance camera at a crime scene to do detective work to using footage from multiple cameras positioned in different locations.

The new tools and approaches have already produced new insights into the biology of our minds and deepened our understanding of concepts crucial to management, including:

  • how to enable creative thinking
  • how to structure rewards
  • the role of emotion in decision making
  • the opportunities and pitfalls of multitasking

The network-based view isn’t nearly as sexy as the current popular view of neuroscience. Good neuroscience based on the network view is more complex. Messier. But good science is messy.

But what does this mean for leaders and professionals in knowledge-based firms? Well, we think a brain-based approach to development represents a significant departure from much current practice. From the id, ego and superego of Freud to the collective unconscious of Jung to individualism, humanism and existentialism, the 20th century was not short of models of human behaviour. What it lacked was facts. In the absence of facts the vacuum got filled by theories being asserted as facts. Many coaches and leadership development consultants have been trained to use these assertions developed more as a matter of personal attachment to an idea and belonging to one school of thought or another than the pursuit of a common body of evidence founded in science that had, at its heart, a common set of assumptions.

So here are some of these, sometimes surprising, assumptions:

  1. The brain hates change. The best bet for the brain is always to trust its own experience. Intellectually, change might sound challenging or exciting but to the brain it spells danger. The brain that got me here is the one most likely to get me there, if you will. The brain is an error-detection system. The Orbital frontal Cortex (above the eyes) detects any unexpected change and is closely linked to the amygdala, the brain’s fear circuitry within the Limbic system, the brain’s emotional command centre. When activated, the limbic system draws precious energy away from the frontal areas of the cortex responsible for decision making and executive function. Error detection signals can push people to become more emotional and act more impulsively; animal instincts taking over. But with a cycle of perpetual change now a reality, even if change is well explained and implemented, the associated uncertainties can still trigger strong threat responses in people.
  2. Emotions are everything. These threat responses need to be understood. All sensory input first comes into the brain via this limbic system, where every event is given an emotional loading. Emotions and feelings attached to experiences create meaning. This happens before information is distributed into the cortex for decision or action. Think about that for a minute because it’s a pretty explosive statement: emotions underpin all decisions. The emotional patterning laid down in childhood has been shown to have far-reaching consequences in adult life. The coach’s task is to pick up on the energy of the client’s emotions and use that energy to create a shift in direction that the coaching contract has described.
  3. The social brain, an organ of relationship. The brain is predominantly social, a fact we forget all too easily at work. Social pain activates the same regions in the brain as physical pain. When someone is put down, barked at or on the end of an abrasive management style, threat responses are activated by the limbic system impairing the ability to think clearly. You know that feeling – “I’m just too stressed, I can’t think straight!” – what’s happening is the frontal cortex is drained of energy as the limbic system lights up like a Christmas tree and absorbs all of the energy itself.
  4. Insight requires a quiet brain. What do most of us do when we are trying to think? Hold our heads and say to ourselves, “Come on, think harder!” Problem is, insight comes from having weak associations. You have to quieten down the narrative circuitry in the brain to allow insight to come. Most people would seem to find insight coming when away from work or the situation to be dealt with. Some companies such as Google have experimented by allowing engineers time away to work on completely different things. Most problems are not solved rationally (we can’t explain 60% of problems we solve). Anxiety is inversely related to ability to spot them, i.e. the more anxious you are, the less likely you are to get insight and vice versa. What does this suggest you do now versus what might you do differently?
  5. Giving people ownership is key, telling them what to do just doesn’t seem to work. There is a significant body of clinical and work-based evidence now that attests to this fact. If someone always late for meetings is reprimanded, the short term threat of sanction might work for a while but it simply heightens anxiety and diverts attention away from work and back to problems that led to lateness in the first place. Even rewarding punctual attendance at meetings (say with better assignments) reinforces neural pathways associated with the habitual problem. However when people solve things themselves, the brain makes patterns and emits a rush of adrenaline. The reward response from ownership can be stronger than a pay rise.
  6. Expectation shapes reality. Mental maps play a bigger part than we ever thought in human perception. Take the placebo effect: tell people they have been administered a pain-reducing agent and they experience a marked reduction in pain, despite receiving a completely inert substance like a sugar pill. One study in 2005 by Robert C. Coghill and others found that “expectations for decreased pain produce a reduction in perceived pain (28.4%) that rivals the effects of a clearly analgesic dose of morphine.” People are clearly more focused on the pain relief, activating the brain’s pain relief circuits, i.e. they experience what they expect to experience. The influence of expectations, whether conscious or not, on perception has significant implications. Two call centre workers might have different views of an irate customer, one seeing an obstructive child to be overcome, the other seeing an intelligent grown-up with useful suggestions.
  7. Attention and focus are key. Cognitive scientists have known for years that the brain can change significantly in response to changes in the external environment. We also now know that the brain changes according to where it focuses its attention. Attention changes the brain – very quickly. The aim is to develop ability to control attention and make attentional choices. The more you can understand the brain, the more you can be solution not problem-focused. Tremendous benefits can be had from short bursts of practice (a few minutes a week), noticing your brain and assessing where its energy is flowing. In this way, you quieten down your brain, reduce any threat response, maximise prefrontal cortex activity therefore optimise insight and problem solving.

How coaching can help

We are very excited as a pioneering group of coaches how some understanding of neuroscience is allowing us to be “brain-based” in the way we coach leaders and professional people. The adage “cells that wire together, fire together” is helpful to remember. Corporates talk a lot about change and engagement, but yet the same things that inhibit performance in organisations seem to persist. Coaching is about helping clients establish new pathways, learning through repetition to physically change the brain as there can be no change in behaviour without it.

Coaching and neural pathways

Imagine wanting to get from Watford to Ruislip by train. There is no line existing between these two stations but most cognitive approaches to coaching would try to create that pathway, i.e. build a new railway line. In fact, as coaches we need to work with pathways our clients have already. It’s nonsensical to assume that, at some point, the pathways that got you to Watford were never of use to you. A brain-based approach would instead help the client find out where they started, analogous to going back to, say, Marylebone. From there, we can figure out how to get to Ruislip, i.e. go to Baker St and take the tube. Take someone with an abrasive style – the question, instead of “let’s practice something else” (i.e. Watford - Ruislip direct), might be: “can we get back to a point where that style or strategy worked for you (i.e. get back to London and take the tube) and go from there? This person has particular hardwired “skills” (as defined by something he/she does well, no value judgment implied). How can we identify if and where he/she might have any other skills we might want to investigate together?  Hence lots of time when coaching others should be spent on investigating a person’s history. We are nothing but a sum of past. Many coaches tend to listen to the events in a person’s life, but we would be asking “what were the processes by which they were making meaning from those events?”.

Creating fairness and a trust-based firm

It is possible of course to get output from people based on the threat of sanction, but it is low level compared to what they can achieve in conditions of trust. Competition can actually thrive in a trusting environment when fairness is observed. Fairness is a core motivator for workers, and trust enables good, robust discussion and constructive challenge. Conflict can and should come from balanced interaction. Being allowed to express an opinion is key and one should not feel it will be a career-limiting move. It is rather like two Formula 1 drivers taking a bend at 200mph – they both really want to win but they have to trust each other!

If you’re a leader, ask yourself; is it better to be a fair bastard or an unfair unbastard?

What kind of boss do you want to be? The unwritten rule has become “anything goes” to achieve a particular corporate outcome. We understand the commercial constraints only too well and that restructuring can be painful. However inhumane things happen in organisations all the time, subtle things that affect people’s lives hugely. But they are decriminalised and hidden behind the profit motive, so are got away with. Perhaps fairness has to be at the centre of things if we are to get our people resonating well with each other and performing better. 

The key point of all this wondering is that we are foundationally emotional beings, and this might be the great Neuroscientific discovery of the 21st century. As we make sense of things through our own self (perception) and project back into the world (behaviour), it becomes a reality for us and then for others. A Descartesian view of the self; “I think, therefore I am”  relies on the primacy of people’s cognitive abilities. If nothing else, this note might turn that notion on its head. A restatement based on what we can say with confidence by looking the brain might be “I feel, therefore I think I am”.

The main idea then is this - If we remember the brain networks are grown by the quality of relationships we have, we can see how adverse social situations can impair the development of the self, as neural networks are not formed. It becomes very difficult to repair retarded neural growth. By remembering the foundational importance of relationships and behaviours at work, leaders will learn generate the adaptive capacities in individuals so necessary for success and enable them to thrive in a competitive, information-heavy world. 

About the author

James Parsons is an executive and careers coach, leadership development specialist and mentor. He has a background in strategy consulting and investment banking and as such, has sat where many of his clients sit now. His brand is one of tough love, able to be compassionate yet constructively challenge his clients’ thinking on a range of issues at work. Understanding that trust-based, fair organisations are built from the top down, he is especially keen to get leaders to examine possibilities for creating positive cultures at their firms in fearless, imaginative ways.

He has extensive experience coaching people in leadership roles in professional services firms, financial services and law firms, as well as offering workshops in areas such as networking, career management, team behaviours and using social media effectively. 

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