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Surprising Troubles and Triumphs Emerge When the Brains in the Workplace Interact

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 15, 2009
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
The brain is a social organ, workplaces are social systems, and scientific research is producing more understanding of why employees who feel isolated, unrewarded, unfairly treated or oppressively controlled can't fully engaged in their work. Leaders and managers who value high performance can learn how to address the social brain in productive ways that avoid neurological sabotage.

"Managing with the Brain in Mind," an article by David Rock in Strategy + Business, presents some compelling research evidence and reminds leaders that all their actions and decisions either support or undermine an environment that fosters commitment and productivity. Rock reports on several new studies examining the "threat and reward" response, which he calls " a neurological mechanism that governs a great deal of human behavior. " The threat response is powerful, long-lasting, and often triggered by social situations. Rock says it is mentally taxing and deadly to productivity: when people feel threatened, oxygen and blood glucose are diverted from the parts of the brain where working memory functions and new information and ideas are processed. Analytical and problem solving abilities and creativity suffer as a result.

Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman, neuroscience researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles, have done experiments showing that when people feel isolated, excluded or snubbed, activity is stimulated in the anterior cingulated cortex-the same region activated in the experience of physical pain. The two researchers think the shared circuitry of social and physical pain in mammals may be evolutionarily adaptive because the young urgently need maternal care, immaturity is prolonged, and separation threatens survival. John Cacioppo found loneliness and lack of social interaction are profoundly stressful for people.

Rock says research suggests five particular social qualities enable employees and leaders to minimize threat responses and activate the reward responses that allow people to be more creative, open minded and less susceptible to burnout. The five qualities are status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness, and intriguing brain research has been done in each of these areas. "Because they can be expressed with the acronym SCARF," Rock writes, "I sometimes think of them as a kind of headgear that an organization can wear to prevent exposure to dysfunction."

For instance, Rock says, the reduced perception of autonomy, as is produced by micromanagement,induces a threat response. Understanding the role of status as a core concern can help managers avoid counterproductive threat responses generated by negative feedback, performance reviews and pitting people against each other to make them work harder. Learning a new skill increases the perception of status, and nuanced understanding of fairness can promote reward responses. Leaders who impose top-down directives and hide or disguise their feelings may trigger threat responses that promise failure. So Rock says self-awareness among leaders is vital. Read this article and "The Neuroscience of Leadership," an earlier S+B article Rock co-authored, to learn more.

"The Young and the Neuro," a New York Times column by David Brooks, also describes some scientific findings managers might ponder. Keely Muscatell, one of Lieberman's doctoral students, studied how people from varying social strata reacted to pictures of menacing faces. People from low-status families were more fearful than people from high status families. Cultural background and preference is also influential. Brooks cites research by Jonathan Freeman of Tufts who studied the reward centers of the brain which include the caudate nucleus. He found that among Americans, the region was likely to be activated by dominant behavior, while among Japanese, the same region was more likely to be activated by subordinate behavior.

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