Simple tweaks in communication and role-modeling based on the latest behavioral research can nudge employees into top form and create a more productive environment for everyone
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I usually do not post articles of this type but I think it is really important to think about the “soft side” of leadership based on new and exciting research on the brain. I strongly urge you to go to this article and the others highlighted in it to get you thinking in this mode.
The two-system brain
….research on human behavior, we know what it takes for the average person’s brain to perform at its best, cognitively and emotionally—even under the pressures of the modern workplace. These new insights suggest that simple tweaks in leaders’ communication and behavior can potentially create a much more productive atmosphere for any team…
…the brain’s activity is split across two complementary systems—one deliberate and controlled, the other automatic and instinctive. The deliberate system is responsible for sophisticated, conscious functions such as reasoning, self-control, and forward thinking. It can only do one thing at a time and tires remarkably quickly. The brain’s automatic system lightens this load by automating most of what we do from day to day, but as the brain’s deliberate system becomes more exhausted, the automatic system increasingly takes the reins, leaving us prone to make misleading generalizations and knee-jerk responses.
That’s why multitasking is such a problem. We think we can parallel process, but each tiny switch from one conscious task to another—from email to reading to speaking on a conference call, for example—wastes a little of the deliberate system’s time and mental energy. And those switches cost us dearly. Research shows that people are less creative, more stressed, and make two to four times as many mistakes when they deal with interruptions and distractions.
Another way that the deliberate system’s limitations play out in the workplace is that decision-making quality drops the longer people go without a break. Classic cognitive biases like group-think and confirmation bias take firmer hold, and we’re more prone to sloppy thinking in general. In one study, where hospital leaders were trying to encourage the use of hand sanitizer, they found that compliance rates fell when people worked long hours without a break…
The discover-defend axis
…..The problem is, our brain is constantly looking for threats to fend off or rewards worth pursuing. When we’re more focused on threats than rewards, we’re in defensive mode. Our brain diverts some of its scarce mental energy into launching a ‘fight’, ‘flight,’ or ‘freeze’ response, and as those instinctive responses unfold—looking more like ‘snap, sulk, or skulk’ in the workplace—brain scans show less activity in the parts of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. To put it another way: some of our more emotionally sophisticated neural machinery has gone offline.
This matters, because it takes surprisingly little to put someone’s brain into defensive mode—anything threatening a person’s self-worth, even the smallest social slight. This can create vicious circles in the workplace when, for example, people feel daunted from the start, triggering an instinctive defensive reaction that makes it harder for them to solve the problem at hand.
But then there’s discovery mode, where people’s brains are focused on the potential rewards in a situation—for instance, a feeling of belonging or social recognition, or the thrill of learning new things. If leaders can foster a rewarding environment even amid the most difficult situations, it’s likely that they can dampen that primal feeling of being under threat just enough to nudge people out of defensive mode and back into top form
The social self
Whenever you have a very new group of people joining an existing team, you’ve got to pay real attention to motivation,” ……The reason for this lies deep in our highly social brains. Of all threats, social slights are especially high on the list of things against which our brains seek to defend us. This social sensitivity probably helped keep us safe when tribal belonging determined whether we’d survive the dangers of the prehistoric savanna—but in the workplace, it means leaders have to meet three main types of deep social needs if they want their colleagues to thrive:
- Inclusion: “Do I belong?” In Charles’s case, existing staff may be worried that they’re going to be excluded from the exciting new work. The newbies, meanwhile, will be wondering whether they truly fit in.
- Respect: “Do people recognize the value I bring?” Everyone on the team wants to feel that their efforts are useful and appreciated.
If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” people’s brains can quickly go into defensive mode—which, as we learned earlier, is a sure recipe for dysfunctional behavior.
- Fairness: “Am I being treated just like everyone else—or do I at least understand the reason that things are the way they are?”