July 25, 2012

When the brain stresses you really do lose it


These days many of us are more than a little pressed for time and pushing hard to deliver a high volume of output. While it may look great on the immediate balance sheet, we run the risk of putting ourselves under great mental and physiological stress. The effects can be more serious that you realise.

 When we're under stress, control of our behaviours tends to switch more to our emotional, primitive brain. While this allows for fast reactions and more intuitive decision making, it also can lead to more rigid thinking, lower empathy and poor emotional regulation. Even more importantly are the mental processes that get sidelined. 

 We experience a weakening of our prefrontal cortex (PFC) connections and corresponding functions. This has important ramifications for an area of the PFC that Daniel Siegel calls the "middle prefrontal cortex." This area has been found to be critical in regulating nine key mental processes that in turn, have important implications for leadership, performance and culture in the workplace. They are:

 1. Body regulation: Balance of the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (healing, nourishing, regeneration) branches of the autonomic nervous system. This allows you to rise to the occasion but also calm down, rest and regenerate. That feeling of burn out happens when your body is running too long in a sympathetic state.  

2. Attuned communication: The ability to understand or tune into another person’s state and communicate from a more interconnected place. You need to be able to calm your mind, pay attention to and actually LISTEN to another person to really understand their point of view. 

3. Emotional balance: Regulation of our emotions and the ability to calm ourselves when stressed.

4. Response flexibility: The capacity to respond versus react. Being able to pause long enough to reflect and choose the best options versus an automatic response or accessing past strategies. 

 5. Empathy: Considering the mental perspective and feelings of another person. Ever notice that when you're running around and pushing hard you lose the interest in what other people think and feel? Ever have that thought: "I don't care, just get it done!" That's low empathy. 

 6. Insight: Self-awareness and understanding of our own behaviours and emotions. Notice when you're running on overdrive you tend to focus less on your own self-regulation? 

 7. Fear extinction: The ability to calm our emotional responses to fear to allow for a more considered response to a situation. This isn't just a female thing. Men too can become over emotional and agitated when the pressure is on. At the time it seems real, but it's not until later on when you can step back and reappraise the situation that you notice that you've overreacted. 

8. Intuition: Being able to make decisions based on what feels right (gut feel). The ability to access our own inner wisdom. You need a quiet mind to tap into your higher thinking. 

 9. Morality: The ability to make the right choices in consideration of a greater good or social ideals. It's those moments of high stress that often lead to those "What was I thinking?!" decisions. 
 (Source: Siegel, Daniel J. “An Interpersonal Neurobiology Approach to Psychotherapy.” Psychiatric Annals, 36 4 (2006): 248-256.) 

 I hope this provides a wake-up call—you need to be aware of the toll on yourself and the people around you when you let things get too out of hand. 

 It may seem as if you can't always control your circumstances and you may be right. But you can always put a brake on your emotions and mental processes. It's certainly worth a moment or two of your time to stop and think if there's a better way.

July 17, 2012

Want your people to do better? Get them Doped!

That is....dopamine.

Researchers are discovering a great deal about the role dopamine places in learning, reward and motivation that any brain-savvy leader should know.

That little zing of reward you feel when something good happens or you have a bit of chocolate is a squirt of dopamine in your brain. We also experience it when learning new and novel things. For instance, you'll get a bit of a dopamine hit as you read this blog. Not just because of the chocolate photo.

Anytime we experience a positive event, something that triggers a reward response in our brain, dopamine is released. This includes positive social interactions such as experiencing praise or acknowledgment.

Dopamine helps put us in a state of flow. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a state where we are fully immersed in what we are doing, time stands still and we are performing at a level we can sustain for long periods of time. Simply put, it's when you'll get the best out of your people. They'll think more clearly and creatively, respond more proactively and effectively and be more likely to avoid burnout.

As well, dopamine helps promote the learning and retention of information by regulating our working memory and prompting us to seek out and repeat meaningful events and behaviours. When what we are learning is of interest to us, dopamine and endorphins (the brain's natural opiates) work in tandem to deliver a sustained feeling of pleasure that supports the retention of information.

When dopamine and endorphin levels are low, intrinsic motivation and interest in learning declines. That's when your people start behaving like bored teens in a classroom.

Want to maximise your greatest investment? Ensure your people are engaged in meaningful activities by linking what they do back to both the greater company goals and their own personal ambitions. Learn how to communicate better through understanding how the brain processes information. Ensure you deliver praise when warranted and feedback that is constructive, promoting reflection and learning. It a good start to building sustained peak performance.

Interested in learning more about how to bring out the best in your people? Contact me to find out about my newly updated programme, "Communicating With the Brain in Mind".

July 11, 2012

Why Marius Kloppers may be a Brain-Friendly Boss

Yesterday at 12:15pm as I was sitting at an open-plan desk working away, the tantalizing smells of someone's beef stew wafted past my nose and alerted me to the arrival of lunch time. While I had originally intended to break at 12:30, for the next fifteen minutes my head was nowhere in my work.

It made me think that Marius Kloppers may actually not be too far off the mark.

While BHP's new office rules generated mixed responses from accusations of draconian methods to resigned acceptance of a rigid new order, I'm inclined to believe that the author of these rules knows a thing or two about how the brain works. Especially after yesterday's stew incident, the smells of which permeated the entire floor for the rest of the afternoon. I'm still salivating at the thought and never even got a taste.

Here's why Marius Kloppers may be a brain-friendly boss:

Distractions are everywhere. They chew up critical time and energy, are exhausting to deal with and can lead to an experience of overwhelm.

Phone calls, text messages, emails, casual conversations, sudden emergencies all derail us from our given tasks at hand, chewing up valuable time and energy. Studies have found distractions cost an average of 2 hours per day of your time. Remember that wish for more time in your day? Forget about it unless you can get rid of distractions.

Even worse, it can take up to 25 minutes to get your head back into what you were doing before you were pulled off course; just in time for another one to arrive. No wonder we're experiencing time pressures.

While we often have little control over the interactions that are a necessary part of our workplace, there are things we can do to minimise distractions and give ourselves a sense of being more in control of our day.  One such practice is having a clean desk.

Research has shown there to be a direct correlation between clutter and productivity. For instance, on average, workers waste over 4 hours per week searching for papers. 

The prefrontal cortex is energy-intensive and bandwidth poor.  

Ever feel like your brain is full? That's because your working memory has a small capacity. If you try to hold too many things "top of mind" at once you can literally overburden your brain.

The brain continually scans the environment, then makes predictions based on the information it receives. A cluttered desk can send a signal to your brain to be overwhelmed before your day has even begun!

The greater the clutter, the less clarity one has about what is actually on your desk leading to an sense of uncertainty. This can drive a threat response in the brain adding to rest.

I must confess as I write this I look to my left at the pile of papers I've yet to deal with today and notice my brain starting to worry about what I missed. Sound familiar? Maybe it is time to rethink your desk policy?

The downside to these new initiatives may be more in how they were implemented than the actual policies. People always respond more readily to engagement and education versus directives. Both fairness and autonomy are very important to the brain and giving people an experience of choice in the matter will always lead to a better result.