Business Books: The human brain in the workplace

Thu Nov 5, 2009 2:10pm EST
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By Martin Langfield

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The modern workplace is an emotionally charged landscape of constant threats and unconscious fears that can addle or even destroy our brainpower, according to three recent books on neuroscience.

The flow of brain chemicals triggered by common workplace experiences -- feedback session, anyone? -- can erode our ability to think straight, harming productivity and diminishing our capacity to solve problems or work well with others.

Yet when approached with greater regard for how our brain operates, work can also be a deeply rewarding, creative experience. Getting there, though, may require ditching some of our more counterproductive work habits, the authors say.

"One of the things organizations need to do is respect the deeply social nature of the brain. People are not rational, they are social," David Rock, author of "Your Brain at Work" (HarperBusiness), told Reuters in an interview. "The social brain is such that we are really driven to increase social rewards, and we are really driven to minimize social threats."

Rock, the founder of a company that applies the insights of brain science to leadership coaching, lists five areas in which our brain's threat mechanisms are easily triggered at work: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

When we feel threatened in any of these spheres -- a superior displays power over us, rumors circulate about the future of our job, our work is micro-managed, we are excluded from colleagues' conversations, or our work is unjustly overlooked -- our brains focus our attention on the threat.

In doing so, the brain diverts scarce resources away from the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the area we use to set goals, make plans, control impulses, solve problems, visualize the unknown and think creatively -- in short, the part of our brain we use to do good work.

The PFC is the seat of our conscious thinking. Deprive it of fuel, and we make mistakes, lose our train of thought, forget key information, miss patterns and waste time. Productivity falls, and so does job satisfaction.   Continued...

<p>An undated image of the human brain taken through scanning technology. REUTERS/Sage Center for the Study of the Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara/Handout</p>