I recently read “Your Brain At Work” by David Rock. Many of my friends were interested in the findings of this work as it dives into what happens to your brain when you’re at work and applicable to the masses. I decided to put together a list of the top 16 takeaways that might be helpful as you navigate the complexities of managing your brain at work.
- When you have competing things going on, write them all down, and prioritize them. Work on the hardest problems first. New concepts take up more space. When trying to decide between options, the optimal number of items to compare is two. Memory degrades when you try to hold more than one idea in your mind.
- Peak performance requires just the right level of stress. Peak performance occurs when you have intermediate levels of norepinephrine and dopamine — interest and alertness.
- If you’re stuck at an impasse and cannot generate new or creative ideas, let your brain go idle, switch off things that require mental alertness, go for a walk. Insights occur the more happy and relaxed you are.
- The brain has a principle of minimizing danger (away) or maximizing reward (toward). The away response is stronger and can reduce your cognitive abilities. Suppressing an emotion reduces your memory of events. Suppressing an emotion makes other people uncomfortable. Labeling can reduce limbic system arousal. Labeling needs to symbolic, not a long dialogue about the emotion.
- The strongest emotion (away) in a group setting impacts the experience that others feel in a group feel when together due to mirror neurons (which aren’t present in people with autism).
- Loneliness could significantly increase the risk of death from stroke and heart disease. Loneliness generates a threat response in the same way that thirst, hunger, and fear do. People are classified as friend or foe, with foe as the default absence of positive cues. If someone is classified as a foe, they are perceived as a threat, and you are more naturally inclined to act defensive. Being ostracized from a group activates a similar threat and pain response as being hungry.
- During the hunter-gathering times, it was a life or death situation to trust someone’s word and exchange / barter goods and services throughout the year. Thus, a sense of fairness is primal, and a big driver of behavior. A sense of fairness can be a primary reward, and a sense of unfairness can be a primary threat. Men generally don’t experience empathy with someone who is in pain who has been unfair, whereas women do. Punishing unfair people can be rewarding to our brains. “Working with a perceived enemy is uncomfortable, and errors can be made easily due to a lack of sharing information and other by products of a high threat level between people.”
- Status is a major driver of social behavior. People will go to great lengths to protect of increase their status. “Changes in pecking order bring about changes in how millions of neurons are created.” This is obvious when in a relationship, someone suddenly makes more or less than the other. The threat response is stronger with status. If you are speaking to someone who has a higher status, then it will register as a perceived threat. The response is visceral and cortisol rushes to the brain and impairs the limbic system.
- When people felt excluded, or have less than other people even socially, it creates a response of suffering. Because of how intense the drop in status is, many people choose not to take risks in which their status might suffer. People don’t like to be wrong, as being wrong drops your status. “Being “right” is more important to people than just about anything — including life itself. Higher status monkeys have lower day to day cortisol levels, are healthier, and live longer.” Dopamine and serotonin levels go up when you have a high status. During most meetings, much of the time is spent largely on an individual’s status becoming higher or lower and unfortunately, it’s a zero sum game. The trick is to play against yourself. Improving yourself, your skill sets, without trying to be better than your peers makes you appear less of a threat. By communicating your improvement (including challenges), you set others at ease.
- Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness are important to everyone and these are the core themes that you need to consider when communicating to a group.
- Giving feedback is rarely the right way to facilitate change. Feedback creates a strong threat for people in most situations. Annual performance review soften reduce performance for six days each year. Feedback given also signals a status shift (one person is higher than the other), and their reaction is to immediately dismiss it. You can change this by helping increase someone’s status by encouraging them, and increasing their sense of certainty by clarifying your objectives, or by ensuring that they are making decisions and coming up with their ideas, and not just your suggestions. Focus on asking people to pay attention to their own mental processes.
- Activating the right hemisphere of the brain is important for having insights. Focusing on solutions generates a desire, and increases dopamine, which is useful for insight. This is not a natural tendency for the brain, as solutions are generally untested, and thus uncertain. Bringing people to their own insights, rather than providing suggestions, is the fastest way of getting people back on track.
- Carrot and stick approaches work on children, they work less well with adults.
- Attention is what changes the brain. If you focus people’s attention long enough, you can change your brain. First, you must create a safe environment. Second, you need to help others focus their attention in just the right ways to create new connections. Lastly, you have to get people coming back to pay attention to their new circuits over and over again.
- Many people in high leadership positions have highly developed intellect, but are poor on social side of things. The regions of the brain related to self-awareness, social cognition, and empathy are different regions than the areas of the brain focused on holding information, planning, and working memory. They are inversely correlated. When one region is active, the other is dormant, and if you spend a lot of time on cognitive tasks, your ability to have empathy reduces because that circuit doesn’t get used as much. The circuitry for self-knowledge is used for knowledge of others, and if that doesn’t get used — there will be a cost, as it will be more difficult to understand other people.
- Communication after a burst of glucose enters the brain is a better time to share information. Difficult conversations should skew towards being had after lunch, not before.
“May your cortisol stay low, dopamine high, oxytocin run thick, and serotonin to a lovely plateau” — David Rock
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