Your Brain at Work

Posted by Andrew Savikas on January 26, 2017

Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself.

-- Publilius Syrus

Leading a business (or even just a team) is rightly called “knowledge work” and for most people it requires far more mental effort than physical effort. But even though what we think and feel produces most of that mental effort, we rarely spend enough time thinking about how we think and feel.

For example, in the context of how our species evolved, some of our brain’s most primitive responses (i.e., the “fight or flight” response) are supposed to take over when there’s danger, the same way the nerves in our spine will pull our hand away from a hot stove before our brain even knows something is wrong. But that’s cold comfort when a confrontation with a co-worker or a critical word from a board member leaves us feeling (and behaving) like we’re literally fighting for our lives.

David Rock’s Your Brain at Work is no substitute for formal training in neuroscience, but it offers accessible and practical explanations of some of the ways that our brain’s evolutionary heritage ends up at odds with the demands of the modern workplace:

I am not a neuroscientist. I am a business consultant. I help organizations such as Accenture, EDS, Ericsson, and NASA improve their people’s performance. Over the course of a decade of this work, I’ve discovered, somewhat by accident, that teaching employees about their brains made a big difference to their performance, and often to their lives, too. When I couldn’t find a book that explained the most useful discoveries about the brain in simple language for people at work, I decided to write one.

As a nod to our innate response to storytelling, Rock uses two characters, “Paul” and “Emily”, to illustrate the various concepts, challenges, and conflicts covered in the book. The first “act” of the book deals primarily with matters of attention and focus, and starts by covering what should be familiar ground by now, but is worth repeating:

When you need to focus, remove all external distractions completely

But he does more than just revisit practical advice, he makes the critical connection that attention is at the core of that most fundamental task for any leader: making good decisions:

No matter how much effort you put in, you can’t sit there and make brilliant decisions all day the way a truck driver can stay on the road.

And he reminds us that good decision making requires making use of our attention and willpower, both of which are in short supply (because they demand a lot of energy within our brain):

The bottom line to all this is one simple message: your ability to make great decisions is a limited resource. Conserve this resource at every opportunity.

Building on a metaphor of a mental “stage” in our brain that can only accommodate a small number of actors at the same time, Rock helps explain why our inclination to add ever-more detail and description in support of our board reports and project proposals frequently backfires with our intended audience when we overload them with minutiae:

The ideal number of new ideas to try to comprehend at once seems to be just one. If you have a decision to make, the most efficient number of variables is likely to be two: Should I turn left or right? If you have to hold more information in mind, try to limit ideas to three or four at once.

Problem-solving is a close cousin to decision-making, and Rock helps explain the ideal circumstances for developing creative solutions (including talking about the fabled “flow” state), as well as some understanding of why it can often seem so difficult to crack a thorny problem (and why when we do, it’s often standing in the proverbial shower):

It’s astonishingly easy to get stuck on the same small set of solutions to a problem, called the impasse phenomenon. Resolving an impasse requires letting the brain idle, reducing activation of the wrong answers. Having insights involves hearing subtle signals and allowing loose connections to be made. This requires a quiet mind, with minimal electrical activity. Insights occur more frequently the more relaxed and happy you are. The right hemisphere, which involves the connections between information more than specific data, contributes strongly to insight.

One especially useful concept for me from Rock was how he categorized emotions into “toward” and “away”, meaning whether the emotion left us wanting to get closer to the source or whether it left us feeling uneasy and wanting to get further from the source:

Emotions such as curiosity, happiness, and contentment are toward responses. Anxiety, sadness, and fear, on the other hand, are away responses.

While much of the book is about self-discovery and awareness, I found the categorization quite useful for thinking through interactions with others: if your words or actions result in an “away” emotion, your chances of a productive and positive encounter go down considerably.

The most common “away” emotion most of us deal with at work (both within ourselves and from others) is probably anxiety, which itself is quite often a result of uncertainty. Part of being a good leader means becoming comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, but as Rock points out, the desire for certainty is a potent force to reckon with:

Like an addiction to anything, when the craving for certainty is met, there is a sensation of reward. At low levels, for example, when predicting where your foot will land as you walk, the reward is often unnoticeable (except when your foot doesn’t land the way you predicted, which equates with uncertainty). The pleasure of prediction is more acute when you listen to music based on repeating patterns. The ability to predict, and then obtain data that meets those predictions, generates an overall toward response. It’s part of the reason that games such as solitaire, Sudoku, and crossword puzzles are enjoyable. They give you a little rush from creating more certainty in the world, in a safe way.

And so if we’re not careful, we can let that craving for certainty cloud our judgment. For example, I have to laugh a bit (inside at least) whenever I see a financial projection for a company or line of business that includes decimal-point precision throughout, confusing precision for accuracy. Rock points out how common this phenomenon is, tied again to that innate yearning for certainty:

Some parts of accounting and consulting make their money by helping executives experience a perception of increasing certainty, through strategic planning and “forecasting.” While the financial markets of 2008 showed once again that the future is inherently uncertain, the one thing that’s certain is that people will always pay lots of money at least to feel less uncertain. That’s because uncertainty feels, to the brain, like a threat to your life.

Another key concept Rock covers is known as “reappraisal” and it’s a very powerful tool for managing your state of mind. We know that the primitive part of our brain, the one that generates those “toward” and “away” emotions, is really effective at overriding the more recently evolved logical and rational parts. But that doesn’t mean our rational self must simply succumb to those emotions, because it turns out that if we aim that sophisticated pre-frontal cortex at our own emotional responses we can often weaken or even change them entirely:

Our emotional responses ultimately flow out of our appraisals of the world, and if we can shift those appraisals, we shift our emotional responses.

(Another technique Rock mentions that’s related to re-appraisal is known as “labeling”, which basically just means naming our emotions as we’re experiencing them – it turns out that deliberately engaging the parts of our brain responsible for language helps to redirect attention and energy and diffuse those very emotions.)

Extending his theatrical metaphors, Rock describes that analytical part of our brain as an internal “Director” able to observe and influence the action on the stage of our awareness.

Other writers have used different terminology to describe the same phenomenon. In The Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Haidt uses a metaphor of an elephant and its rider (the elephant being our emotional brain, the rider our pre-frontal cortex). Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson refer to an “Upstairs Brain” (pre-frontal cortex) and a “Downstairs Brain” (emotion-driven limbic system) in their outstanding parenting book, The Whole-Brain Child.

The challenge with re-appraisal is that, like decision-making and willpower, our brain finds it exhausting, so it’s difficult to sustain, especially during a stressful event (when it’s perhaps most useful!). While you can “exercise” re-appraisal through practice (aided immensely by meditation), it turns out that it’s actually much easier to perform on somebody else, which is a great reason to get some help:

The effort involved in reappraisal explains why it tends to be easier to reappraise with someone else. Many of the tools and techniques in mentoring, coaching, career counseling, or various therapies attempt to change your interpretation of events. Another person sees things about you that you can’t. It’s like having a bonus prefrontal cortex.

Rock offers practical “things to try” at the end of each chapter, and the ones from the chapter covering re-appraisal were particularly useful (it seems silly at first, but saying “that’s just my brain” can be incredibly helpful sometimes):

  • Watch for uncertainty creating a feeling of threat; practice noticing this.
  • Watch for a feeling of reduced autonomy creating a sense of threat; practice noticing this.
  • Find ways to create choice and a perception of autonomy wherever you can.
  • Practice reappraisal early when you feel a strong emotion coming on.
  • You can reappraise by reinterpreting an event, or reordering your values, or normalizing an event, or repositioning your perspective.
  • Reappraising your own experience is a powerful way of managing internal stressors; use this technique when you are anxious about your mental performance by saying, “That’s just my brain.”

Another way to describe a desire for certainty is to say that we like to know what to expect next; the flip side to that is when our expectations aren’t met, it can result in the same kind of threat response we get from uncertainty:

Unmet expectations often create a threat response, which I explain further later in this scene. Because the brain is built to avoid threat, people tend to work hard to reinterpret events to meet their expectations. It’s all too common to see people make tenuous links between ideas that are not really linked, or discard important data that might disprove a theory. This sometimes comes with tragic results, from police officers accidentally shooting someone they expect to be armed, to one country invading another nation based on assumptions that later prove incorrect.

The other side of the expectations coin is that when something positive happens that’s unexpected, it triggers some unusually high “towards” emotions, fed by dopamine:

Unexpected rewards release more dopamine than expected ones. Thus, the surprise bonus at work, even a small one, can positively impact your brain chemistry more than an expected pay raise. However, if you’re expecting a reward and you don’t get it, dopamine levels fall steeply. This feeling is not a pleasant one; it feels a lot like pain. Expecting a pay raise and not getting one can create a funk that lasts for days.

I suspect the examples Rock uses there were quite deliberate, and any manager responsible for deciding raises and bonuses should think very carefully about how they’re decided and administered.

Later on Rock covers another very common source of disappointment and disagreement, one also rooted quite deeply in our brain’s heritage: fairness. We evolved in relatively small groups where it mattered a great deal that everyone do their part, and as a result we are by nature incredibly sensitive to fairness. And because part of fairness involves expectations about behavior, when we sense unfairness it’s likely to also result in a perception of unmet expectations:

Many arguments between people, especially those close to us, involve incorrect perceptions of unfairness, triggering events that activate an even deeper sense of unfairness in all parties. This often starts by someone misreading one person’s intent, being slightly mind-blind for a moment. The result can be an intense downward spiral, driven by accidental connections and one’s expectations then altering perception.

If you’re anything like me, you can immediately think of at least one (and probably many more) examples of precisely that kind of “intense downward spiral” from your own work or personal life.

And while awareness of these dynamics can help in understanding (and hopefully avoiding) conflict with others, as with much of this book, it’s also quite valuable for managing yourself. Here Rock describes how to use labeling and re-appraisal in response to the realities of business life:

The world is not fair, especially the business world, where dog-eat-dog can be a highly rewarded behavior. Being able to manage your response to unfairness puts you at an advantage over others. One way to do this is to label your emotional state when you sense arousal increasing. Whether it’s unfairness, or uncertainty, or lack of autonomy or relatedness, being able to put words to why you are feeling a certain way will decrease limbic arousal and help you make better decisions. If labeling doesn’t work, try reappraising, by looking at the situation from different perspectives.

One of the best ways I found to work on some of these techniques is to practice identifying some of the common emotional responses in myself, both to improve labeling and re-appraisal skills, and to spot behaviors worth either avoiding or emulating. For example, if I noticed myself feeling particularly anxious or fearful during an important conversation, I’d try and figure out what specifically the person said (or did) that might have triggered it. Then I would try and think about how I might choose a different way to communicate the same message or accomplish the same goal.

While the whole book is well worth reading, there’s one section worth the price of admission (no pun intended on Rock’s theater metaphor). In it, he describes something he calls the “SCARF” framework, which is a concise way to remember the five biggest triggers of emotional responses:

I noticed a surprising pattern while putting this book together. I saw that there are five domains of social experience that your brain treats the same as survival issues. These domains form a model, which I call the SCARF model, which stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. The model describes the interpersonal primary rewards or threats that are important to the brain. Getting to know these five elements strengthens your director. It’s a way of developing language for experiences that may be otherwise unconscious, so that you can catch these experiences occurring in real time.

I won’t describe the framework in detail, but to use “Status” as an example, if you say (or do) something that diminishes someone’s sense of status, they will very likely react with an “away” emotion, like anxiety or fear. On the other hand, if you say (or do) something that enhances someone’s sense of status, they’re likely to react with a “toward” emotion.

One technique I came up with for using this in practice was before an important conversation, I would write down one or two things from each category that I might say to try and create a positive response. Then I’d try and incorporate those into the conversation if possible (and as a side effect, it usually put me into a very positive frame of mind about the person I was speaking with, which also helped).

When you start paying attention to those categories, you’ll become acutely aware when you see or hear things that provoke negative responses across one or more of those dimensions. (Witnessing a senior executive repeatedly publicly berate and “dress down” junior staff becomes quite repulsive when you really understand just how badly the target feels afterwards, and why.)

On the other hand, used constructively, as Rock points out, these triggers can be incredibly helpful for motivating those around you, especially your team members:

Think about what it feels like when you interact with someone who makes you notice what’s good about yourself (raising your status), who is clear with his expectations of you (increasing certainty), who lets you make decisions (increasing autonomy), who connects with you on a human level (increasing relatedness), and who treats you fairly. You feel calmer, happier, more confident, more connected, and smarter

Rock uses a story about giving feedback to illustrate the SCARF model in action, also showing how very often multiple components are at work in the same conversation. Too often, our reflex is to try and solve other people’s problems for them (especially if that’s what they’ve asked us to do, or if they’re used to that). Rock gives some examples of an alternative way to respond aimed at nudging the person to solve the problem themselves:

  • If you stop and think more deeply here, do you think you know what you need to do to resolve this?
  • What quiet hunches do you have about a solution, deeper inside?
  • How close to a solution are you?
  • Which pathway to a solution would be best to follow here?

The point is not to try and avoid helping an employee, but instead to avoid the common pitfall of triggering those “away” emotions by threatening their status or sense of autonomy:

This approach is so different from what normally happens in the workplace. The poor quality of feedback is one of the biggest complaints by employees everywhere. This is an unfortunate cycle that new managers often go through: To begin with, they give lots of feedback, thinking people will appreciate this. Then they discover how people are easily threatened by feedback. They notice the long arguments and wasting time, and soon learn to not give feedback, but to avoid it. Then, at some point, they are forced to give feedback—by a performance review, or a mandate from their own boss. So their next technique is to waffle—to not say much at all—to avoid threatening the other person.

When writing this post, I found it difficult not to quote even more from the parts about the SCARF model, because they’re just so useful, and as I said already, well worth the price of the book. But I do want to include one more passage from that part of the book, which is among the most succinct descriptions of the qualities of great leadership I’ve seen:

Many great leaders understand intuitively that they need to work hard to create a sense of safety in others. In this way, great leaders are often humble leaders, thereby reducing the status threat. Great leaders provide clear expectations and talk a lot about the future, helping to increase certainty. Great leaders let others take charge and make decisions, increasing autonomy. Great leaders often have a strong presence, which comes from working hard to be authentic and real with other people, to create a sense of relatedness. And great leaders keep their promises, taking care to be perceived as fair.

Actually living up to all of that is a tall order, and I’ll be the first to admit I have fallen short many times. And one of the best reasons to read this book is to arm yourself with practical techniques to better understand yourself as a critical step on the path to becoming a truly great leader. As Rock himself puts it:

Leaders who want to drive change more effectively may want to practice becoming more intelligent about their inner world as a first step. A great way to do this is to discover more about your own brain

Your Brain at Work is available in multiple formats from Kobo.

Book cover image for Your Brain at Work