• Robb G. Best

The Unbalanced Brain: a Cautionary Tale

Last week, I talked about whole brain strategy.

This week, a look at what happens inside a workplace when a company or organization tries to implement a new policy without understanding how the human brain works. If you've ever witnessed a giant disconnect between the systems a company claims to use, and the way their employees actually operate (call it Ghost Ship Syndrome, if you will), unbalanced brain strategy may very well be to blame.

So without further ado, I give you:

The Top Six Errors in Unbalanced Brain Strategy

1. Ignoring the importance of habit

53% of our day is composed of habits, or bits of neural code that dictate specific behaviors. For example, we tend to sit in the same chair every night for dinner, even when all the chairs are identical to each other.

Habits are built through repetitive action, which gradually reinforces certain neural pathways by adding layers of an insulator called myelin. Habits take roughly 21 days to create and 63 days to lock into place. After that, they are almost impossible to eradicate. The best one can hope for is to build a more powerful habit that supersedes the existing habit.

Change requires forming new habits. Without a careful strategy to reinforce the new habit, old habits will tend to dominate. This is precisely why even though a new piece of software or process has been introduced, employees don’t always end up using it.

a. Failing to create an adequate reward system to build the newly desired habit

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that rewards specific brain behaviors. This is the “feel-good” aspect of what we do. The feeling you get from eating, sex, and exercise are examples. In forging new habits, a reward cycle is critical. Studies show that monetary rewards are not necessarily the most effective. Rewards that revolve around self-esteem have been shown to have significant impact.

2. Magical thinking, or believing you can add to an employee's schedule without removing other activities or tasks

When engineers design elevators, the standard process calls for the full load strength to be eleven times greater than the stated required load. They build in a safety factor for obvious reasons.

When leaders assign new tasks, the first question should be, “What is the safety factor that has been built into this employee’s schedule?” In other words, if your employee has a margin of 10% available time, additional work can’t exceed 10%, even during peak time.

If an employee has zero non-tasked time, that person is not eligible to take on more work without freeing up some time. And the freeing up of tasks needs to be a one-to-one corollary to the newly introduced workload.

It is magical thinking to believe that an employee has a limitless amount of physical or mental energy available, and that simple desire (or request from a superior) should be enough to capitalize on this infinite store of energy.

3. Failing to understand the value of employee self-perception

Our identity, our entire concept of self, is built on past experiences, our own thoughts and feelings, and how we believe others see us.

Respect is critical to a healthy self-perception. A person’s output and work quality is directly connected to how they feel they are perceived by their boss and peers.

Studies show that once an employee hits a salary mark of roughly 50k, money becomes a less important measure of their happiness within an organization. After this point, the key to employee satisfaction is knowing their opinions and skills are recognized.

4. Failing to explain the value of a new strategy or process

A fundamental aspect of human nature is to weigh decisions by asking “What’s in it for me?” How does this new process or strategy help me?

In order for employees to embrace a change and form new habits, they must first see the personal benefits to making the change. It is critical to establish this early on. Prior to implementing a strategy, leaders must gauge the impact on the individual employee, and establish a process to address this.

5. Failing to create a learning atmosphere that guarantees employee success

We tend to avoid situations that might expose our lack of abilities in a given task. More than imparting a new process, good teaching creates an atmosphere conducive to protecting an employee from embarrassment.

Learning and habituation are crucial to the success of any new plan. It is easy to underestimate the amount of time necessary to bring new concepts to practical application. The brain’s working memory is small, meaning that any lasting change must be built into the long-term memory.

There is another factor in place as well.

To use a computer analogy, healthy brains all have essentially the same operating system. However, each person tends to run one of four distinct programs.

These behavior types are determined by the relative amounts of certain neural chemicals: dopamine, estrogen, testosterone, and serotonin.

In any educational situation, it’s impossible to engage everyone without incorporating learning styles that will appeal to each of the four types.

This is why many programs that take a “one-size-fits-all” approach only help those individuals whose personality matches up with a particular learning style. (This is the downfall of many learning systems.)

6. Discounting the role of creativity

The creative process, the inventive force behind breakthrough money-making ideas, is the hallmark of successful companies. From the Post-It note to iPhones, we delight and purchase uniquely interesting and functional products.

At the heart of the creative process is the philosophy of “copy, combine, transform” (see Kirby Ferguson). How do we enhance creative enterprise? By championing a culture that allows the brain’s executive control center (the prefrontal cortex) to periodically relax so people can ruminate on ideas.

3M was one of the first companies to recognize this. They allow employees to spend 17% of their time just thinking through new ideas. 75% of 3M’s successful innovations have emerged from this process.

So whole brain strategy makes a lot of sense if a corporation, company, or organization wants to be in its right mind—or better yet, think whole brain...


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