“Brain science’s transformation of management isn’t just about another new technique or model. It’s about shifting our paradigm to incorporate the hard data of science and fundamentally changing the way we think about business.”
Charles S. Jacobs, Management Rewired
Neuroscience will revolutionize the way we do business. It will do that because it will eventually transform the way we view the way human beings function. In Part 1, we explored some of the fundamental principles that underlie contemporary management practices. It is safe to say that while issues like motivation, learning and “performance” are all topics that dominant management theory, they are not well understood within the context of human psychology.
The dominant left-brain functioning which underpins management concepts keeps us stuck in old practices based on ideas of fragmented human experience.
The good but challenging news from the neuroscience front asserts that fragmentation isn’t really possible without a significant cost to well-being. Unless we view the person as a whole system we’re missing the amazing dynamism of human functioning and the interrelatedness of social communication. One huge neuroscience “aha” is that brains are social. They function in relation to other brains. That information is a mighty revelation for most of the business world. As Management Rewired author Charles S. Jacobs wrote, “Doing business seems more complicated in the world according to neuroscience. In the world of logic and common sense, I can just do what I want with no more concern for relationships or mind-sets than a billiard ball has. Now science teaches me that my actions are constrained by the relationships I find myself in and that I have to account for how others think. Thankfully, though, my brain is naturally configured (with mirror neurons) to work just the way neuroscience tells me it must.” Just as traditional neuroscience had for many years considered the brain as an isolated entity and largely ignored the influences of the social environment as a factor; now management theorists will have to recognize the considerable impact of social structures on the operations of mind and body.
David Rock’s SCARF Model provides a groundbreaking translation of hard neuroscience to the practical applications of business management.
Every system, design and organizational practice elicits a response from employees’ brains. Either an action triggers a threat response (moving away) or a reward response (moving towards). When a brain encounters what it perceives as a threat response, it necessarily becomes less efficient as it mobilizes for safety. According to Rock, “When you encounter something unexpected – a shadow seen from the corner of your eye – or a new colleague moving into the office next door – the limbic system is aroused. This is the “minimize danger, maximize reward” response; the fundamental organizing principle of the brain.” This fight or flight response mobilizes a person’s neurophysiology to “flee” or “fight” threat and releases stress response hormones that flood the body.
Writing about SCARF, author Ed Batista points out, “Our typical reaction to the strong negative emotions generated by a threat response is to suppress them, particularly in the workplace. But this response has many undesirable consequences, from reducing our own memory function to raising the blood pressure of people around us. So the cost of a threat response isn’t borne solely by the person experiencing it, but by anyone who interacts with them or depends on their effectiveness. It’s a shared–one might even say contagious–social experience, and this highlights the importance of group dynamics, perhaps most significantly the extent to which it’s safe (or unsafe) in a given group to express negative or difficult emotions.”
This transformational knowledge isn’t convenient for most organizational leaders. David Rock’s salient argument implies consequences for all business leaders, “Although a job is often regarded as a purely economic transaction, in which people exchange their labor for financial compensation, the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system. Leaders who understand this dynamic can more effectively engage their employees’ best talents, support collaborative teams, and create an environment that fosters productive change. Indeed, the ability to intentionally address the social brain in the service of optimal performance will be a distinguishing leadership capability in the years ahead.”
The 5 Domains of SCARF
Status is a powerful force in every person’s work experience. While many factors (beliefs, values, past experience, emotional awareness and sense of self-esteem and competency) all shape our (often) unconscious responses to status, it is a primary activator in the brain’s reaction to threat or reward. The brain determines status in relation or measurement to others. Rock points out that, “Your brain maintains complex maps for “pecking order’ of the people surrounding you.” Recent studies show that the brain may prefer the rewards of status even more than cash. In her research at the National Institutes of Mental Health, neuroscientist Caroline Zink found that we process money in the same part of the brain (the striatum) as social values. Zink maintains, “It’s hugely influential even (when we’re not) in direct competition with someone else.”
Another recent scientific finding impacts the status domain; we experience social pain in the same region of the brain as physical pain. It appears that the knowledge of this “neural overlap” established “an increasingly close relationship between our experience of physical pain and the painful emotions that come with feeling socially rejected. The latest study shows that getting dumped, disrespected or excluded is experienced as pain.” Studies also show that loneliness is playing an important role in understanding the role of social status in the workplace.
Nearly every aspect of workplace activity is touched by the brain’s assessment of status. Interpersonal communication, team interaction, email communication, workplace design, promotions, meetings structure, performance reviews and the entire repertoire of feedback methods need to be reexamined in light of what we now know about the role of status in the brain’s response mechanisms. A lack of consideration for factors that evoke status issues heightens the risks of employee hostility, reticence and may even stimulate conflict.
The brain craves certainty . We can blame the brain for our incessant drive for certainty. Dr. Robert Burton, former Chief of Neurology at the University of California at San Francisco-Mt. Zion Hospital, comments, “I don’t believe that we can avoid certainty bias, but we can mitigate its effect by becoming aware of how our mind assesses itself. We need to recognize that the feelings of certainty and conviction are involuntary mental sensations, not logical conclusions.” One reason we’re hard-wired to seek certainty (where in the real-world there is none) is due to the brain’s brilliant capacity for prediction. Jeff Hawkins, inventor of the Palm Pilot and founder of a neuroscience institute writes, “Your brain receives patterns from the outside world, stores them as memories, and makes predictions by combining what it has seen before and what is happening now. Prediction is the primary function of the neo-cortex and the foundation of intelligence.”
Being a prediction machine, the brain gathers information and makes assumptions based on the “safest” possible outcome. In the larger scheme of brain tasks, this mechanism has an elegant purpose – the conservation of precious neural energy and the protective effectiveness against real threat responses. When you can’t predict the outcome of a situation the brain signals an alert to pay more attention. When this happens a threat response can occur. David Rock’s example speaks to the fragile role that assumptions form in the brain as it tries to accommodate multiple possibilities in predicting outcomes, “Imagine expecting a colleague to phone you at 3PM. It’s now 3.06PM. You automatically start to try to predict futures: If he calls now, will he apologize? What made him late? Is he okay?” The emotional “stakes” will also play a role in how the brain demands certainty. Imagine if the caller was the employee’s boss, child, or parent. Who the caller is impacts the urgency for certainty.
While no one can guarantee certainty in an uncertain world, organizational leaders can try to provide greater perceptions of certainty in the ways they structure organizational processes and activities. Rock recommends, “Sharing of business plans, rationales for change and accurate maps of an organization’s structure promote this perception.” Providing greater transparency and promoting a climate of trust can also contribute to fostering feelings of certainty. Leaders and managers that influence the conditions that promote greater satisfaction, contentment, calm and confidence will better ensure that employees’ threat responses are not unnecessarily activated.
It’s long been recognized by science that when research subjects’ control is thwarted, the organism experiences significant degrees of stress. It seems that choice is a necessary variable in the maintenance of overall well-being. The balanced brain seeks an idiosyncratic degree of both autonomy and social connection. In the right personal doses, autonomy – freedom of self-control – activates the brain’s reward center. Because “a little can go a long way,” even small expressions of self-control satisfy the brain’s need for autonomy. Office space, control over decisions, flexible work-hours and connection but not reliance on co-workers can all contribute to satisfaction.
Unfortunately, most management systems today are still top-heavy with authoritarian control. Micro-management and environments laden with criticism trigger threat responses, however subtle. These stressors all cause the brain to take defensive, even aggressive postures for self-protection.
Most Westerners have been conditioned to images of self-reliance and competition as the dominant themes of success, especially in relation to work. The concept of collaboration is still a relatively new idea in the workplace and the systems that foster it aren’t routinely practiced. Organizations talk teams but many employees don’t have the skills or mandate to operate as such. Yet, most leaders would agree that effective relationships are essential to meet business goals.
The brain’s needs for relatedness and certainty are interconnected. In David Rock’s view, “Each time a person meets someone new, the brain automatically makes quick friend-or-foe distinctions. When the new person is perceived as different, the information travels along neural pathways that are associated with uncomfortable feelings.” Rock’s organizational advice is that “Teams of diverse people cannot be thrown together. They must be deliberately put together to minimize the potential for threat responses. Trust cannot be assumed or mandated, nor can empathy or even goodwill be compelled. These qualities develop only when people’s brains start to recognize former strangers as friends. This requires time and social interaction.”
In the past decade, public discussions and awareness of social, racial, gender and economic inequities have become commonplace. This information has resulted in consistent polling that shows that the majority of Americans do not feel they are playing on a fair playing field. This has challenged many people’s notions of fairness and has contributed to lower than ever trust levels of most institutions.
Perceptions of unfairness generate strong limbic system responses that can trigger resentment, hostility, anger and even rage. While people’s ideas of fairness are wide ranging, even small actions perceived as unfair, can activate the flight or fight response. Loyalty and trust in organizations and workplace relationships are governed by beliefs about fairness. Although, those beliefs may not be openly expressed, they are nonetheless motivating choices and impacting behavior.
Perceptions of a lack of fairness provoke a primary threat response. It is rooted in our evolutionary past in basic social survival interactions. Organizational leaders should note that employees are relating to fairness within the workplace at multiple levels. Organizational decisions, hierarchical structure, hiring, firing and promotions, salaries, manager-employee treatment, executive privilege, division of labor, benefits, information sharing and cronyism are all liable to create lasting impressions of fairness.
The Leadership Challenge
If you are a leader, the learning curve is steep. Most leaders are on unfamiliar ground when it comes to understanding human dynamics. Embracing innovation may mean looking at your employees in an entirely new light. Old paradigms must give way to new ideas and actions that may seem uncomfortable and “uncertain” at first.
The first step is overcoming our personal resistance to change. This is difficult because you first have to convince your brain that this is a good thing. But one thing is true – these changes are inevitable. We can’t hold back the tide of knowledge about who we really are, what we really want and how we really function.
Thanks for reading.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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