In spite of this increasing demand, business has not paid much attention to the very tool that each of us has at our disposal in this battle for competitive advantage – the brains that belong to the people who come to our workplaces each day.
Organisations such as Google are learning from the field of neuroscience and creating brain friendly workplaces and practices – giving people the means and space to think effectively, while at work.
Advances in the field of science have enabled us to observe and measure brain activity in new and exciting ways, such as FMRI or functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures blood flow to parts of the brain when active during particular processes, and EEG which measures electrical activity within areas of the brain.
The brain is generally thought of as divided into 3 areas: the brainstem, the limbic brain and the cortex or grey matter. The brainstem controls physical activities such as breathing, movement, hunger etc. The limbic brain is encased in the middle of the brain and processes emotions, social connections and our response to danger or reward. Lastly, the cortex or outer layer of the brain holds our thinking or executive function brain. Most of the time, all 3 parts work in incredible harmony and outside of our awareness, day in, day out, 24/7.
So what does this mean in the workplace?
- Planning and carrying out tasks
- Thinking and processing information,
- Managing our own emotions,
- Relating to other people, and
- Understanding responses to change.
In terms of workplace activities, it makes sense to minimise distractions when you are doing hard thinking so that the processing power can focus on one thing. Once that part is complete, the thinking brain needs a rest, so do something completely different – go for a walk or talk to someone or even read something light for a few minutes, to give the pre-frontal cortex a rest.
Emotions at work
Neuroscience tells us that a basic function of the limbic brain is to scan the world for threats to our presence or survival. As a basic evolutionary survival mechanism we evaluate information that comes into our awareness as possible threat or reward and give it a “towards” or “away from” response. When we sense something out of the ordinary which could be a threat; a response known in neuroscience terms as a prediction error, the limbic brain sends out powerful neurochemicals and prepares the body to respond by either taking flight, prepare to fight or freeze. The limbic brain is extremely fast and does not give us time to try and rationally explain things before we react. As an example, imagine you are driving a car or riding a bicycle along a familiar route when another vehicle suddenly swerves across your path. You react before you have consciously had time to process the danger - either by moving out of the way or slamming on your brakes. You do not to spend time considering the appropriate action to take – the limbic brain ensures you act first, think later.
Relating to others in the workplace
From a very early age we learn to recognise other people and to lay down patterns in our brains as to what we can expect from them. Once we begin to recognise these patterns, they become hard wired, so that we don’t have to continually re-learn on a daily basis. Once again, our survival response is to categorise whether our response is towards or away from the person or action.
The system within the brain which codes this information is called the mirror neuron system. We literally mirror the activities of others. As groups and teams form in the workplace, habits and rituals help to bond that group of people together as a group.
Positive experiences with others literally increases good feelings by releasing neurochemicals such as dopamine (the feel good neurochemical) and oxytocin (the trust building neurochemical). The role of team leaders in setting the tone for interactions becomes crucial in this process.
The brain at work