I have long considered myself a student of brain sciences. I am fascinated by how we store information and learn, how emotion plays a role in imprinting and decision making, why behavior change is so difficult …anything that might eventually permit me a greater degree of mastery over that big, grey walnut-shaped mass between my ears. For those with similar curiosity, it’s a great time to be participating in the business of business. There have been more discoveries about how the brain works over the past 5 years than perhaps the last 150 combined…and more is coming out every day.
Okay, you might ask. So what? While knowledge for its own sake is nice, why is brain science so important? And why now? I’m a pragmatist and tactician by nature. It’s the applicability and bottom-line implications of new information that ultimately determine its value to business. So from my perspective, here are a few new insights from brain research that every leader and manager should be aware of.
Praise pays…directly to the bottom line.
Anecdotal evidence abounds pertaining to the value of praising peers, subordinates and even those above you in your organization. It’s always been thought of as a good human relations skill and practice. But praise is more than just a “feel good” policy. It makes sense from a productivity standpoint as well. New research reveals the chemistry behind the conventional wisdom. According to Ellen Weber, Ph.D., from the MITA International Brain Based Center:
“Social fairness and respect help employees learn. If a manager shows interest in employees, supports them and praises them genuinely, he ‘squirts’ a chemical called serotonin into their brains. Serotonin opens employees’ minds to ideas, and creates desires to get to know managers better and to support whatever the managers need done. However, if you diminish me, you ‘squirt’ cortisol into my brain that shuts it down and closes it off to new ideas and my willingness to help you.”
Implication: Culture is king. Creating and reinforcing behavioral norms that value, esteem, engage, and treat employees with equity and fairness has long-term, strategic value. If you’re not a “people person”, learn to be one. You can’t afford not to.
Communicate constantly to minimize uncertainty.
Uncertainty arouses the fear circuits in the brain and is an absolute killer to employee productivity. When people are unsure about the stability of their organization, their standing with their boss or supervisor, or a clear understanding of what’s expected of them, most assume the worst. The ensuing stress decreases the amount of a chemical called dopamine in the brain, a chemical that is critical for clear thinking and reasoning by the prefrontal cortex. Continuous uncertainty can also increase the levels of cortisol in the body, too much of which can permanently damage both the brain and the circulatory system.
Implication: Keep people informed as best possible. Let them know exactly how they are doing and what they can do to improve their value to the organization. Develop a culture that does not tolerate hidden agendas and devalues politicking, both of which hamper open communications.
Help yourself and others – learn by teaching.
Corporate America spends millions of dollars each year on training. Training for new hires, training for leaders and managers, and training for individual contributors. But the efficacy of this training is often questionable. One of the things we can do to make sure knowledge transfer is more reliable is to get training recipients to share their new-found knowledge and skills with others as quickly as possible. When we teach others what we’ve just learned, the transfer of that knowledge to long-term memory is much more thorough.
Change is good for the brain.
Contrary to popular opinion, old dogs can learn new tricks just as easily as younger ones. In fact, the topic of neuro-plasticity is one of the most exciting fields of study in organizational development right now. What’s important to realize is the type of new tricks we learn can be very important for long-term brain health and thinking capacity. The best kind of learning is that which develops an entirely new capacity for a person. While there would be minimal “stretching” involved with a pianist learning to play a new song, there would be considerably more value (as far as the brain is concerned) with he or she learning to play a new instrument.
Implication: The logical application of this practice at work is cross-training. If you’re trying to increase the overall capacity of your employees, look for opportunities for them to develop competencies well outside of those required by their current job descriptions.
Finally, be good to your brain.
While I will undoubtedly be writing more about the implications of brain science in the future, I like to wrap up this post by reaffirming the importance of exercise and sleep for long-term health. While most of us are already aware of the cardio-vascular benefits of exercise, it turns out that the brain and nervous system benefit just as much. According to Sharon Begley, former Science Editor for the Wall Street Journal and author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, voluntary physical exercise triggers the formation of new brain cells from neural stem cells. And sufficient sleep gives our brains time to integrate these cells and transfer information from short-term memory into long-term memory…which is required for all sustained learning and performance improvement.