Monday, June 19, 2006

Brain Research Provides Clues to Best Management Approaches

There is a fascinating article in Business + Strategy magazine that links neuroscience, psychology and business management practices. It points out that many standard business practices such as punishment and rewards and performance feedback run counter to the way our brains function.

The articles gives a fairly scientific but very readable overview of various brain structures and how they function in the workplace. To help me follow the article clearly, I drew myself a diagram illustration which I have re-created brain research
Here is my synopsis of the article. Hopefully I have understood it correctly but since I'm not a scientist caveat emptor if you quote me on this.

The pre-frontal cortex handles the higher intellectual functioning. New information is handled here in what can be likened to a temporary work area. Chemical connections between neurons are created which require a lot of energy. These connections may or may not make it to the more permanent storage areas of the brain.

The Basal Ganglia area of the brain stores information more permanently. This area is for habits and routines. Most people can drive their car using the Basal Ganglia. This area requires very little energy to perform its tasks.

To create behavioral change in the workplace, the goal is to have information processed in the pre-frontal cortex and then assimilated into the basal ganglia. I believe this might be the brain definition of learning.

So far so good. But if it was this simple, workplace change would be easy for everyone. How come it's difficult to get those who are not performing to improve? Why do employees have such a difficult time with change? What does it take to get the temporary connections in the brain to be pushed down to permanent memory? And what prevents this from happening?

The good news is that repetition, focus and attention all help the new information in the pre-frontal cortex makes it's way into routine in the basal ganglia. Practice using the new copy machine and soon enough it becomes routine. Do you remember when you first tried to use a computer mouse? When all goes well we learn and assimilate the new information. Sometimes though another part of the brain works against us. The orbital frontal cortex, according to the article's authors Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz and David Rock, acts as an error detector; an often faulty error detector. When presented with new information, this area of the brain compares the information with what the brain already knows and assumes the new information must be a mistake. It saps the energy from the pre-frontal cortex, which needs all the energy it can get, and it alerts its very close neighbor, the amygdala which is the home of fear. Without enough energy, the intellectual area of the brain tires and is unable to make the permanent connections necessary to assimilate the information. The change literally hurts the brain.

How about if we introduce rewards and punishments? The brain doesn't like them very much either. When you punish the employee for an undesirable behavior, you inadvertently focus attention on the negative behavior. What happens when you focus attention? You begin to create permanent connections. So with punishments, you actually create permanent connections tied to the behavior you are trying to eliminate. Rewards aren't much better. They focus the marginal performer on things they think they can't accomplish plus create fear and jealousy toward those who outperform them.

Performance reviews are used to provide a gentle way of discussing areas for improvement. This request for improvement also activates the error detector plus focuses attention on the problems rather than solutions.

So what is a manager to do? The article provides a relatively simple answer that works in concert with the way the brain functions. That is, helping the employee find his or her own INSIGHT on a particular situation. When an employee is the originator of the insight, his or her brain creates a burst of energy (40Hz oscillations of gamma waves to be exact). This helps the high energy needs of the pre-frontal cortex and overcomes any sapping of energy from the error detector region. Insight causes the brain to create a complex set of new chemical connections. When attention and focus are added, these temporary links create permanent changes in the brain. Better still, managers can speed up this process by providing positive feedback. Positive feedback actually alerts the brain that the connection is something worth saving. Positive expectations have also been shown to aid in this process.

The article finishes up with this thought
Perhaps you are thinking, this all sounds too easy. Is the answer to all the challenges of change just to focus people on solutions instead of problems, let them come to their own answers, and keep them focused on their insights? Apparently that's what the brain wants.

The simple summary is that asking or requiring change, punishments and rewards, performance review feedback all work against innate functions of the brain. Helping employees find their own insights works with the brain to achieve long term positive results.

If there are any neuroscientists reading this post, please feel free to correct any misinterpretations or mistakes that I have made on this post. I promise to keep my orbital frontal cortex out of it!


Anonymous ellenweber said...

What a refreshing look at people who could be helped to develop their own creativity and solve more problems in diverse ways! Why is it when it is stated so clear that some folks feel it is very easy or common sensical... yet... at the same time there is little evidence that leaders use these good ideas? Thanks for the great post.
Brain Based Business

6:58 PM, June 24, 2006  

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