Partner Head Heart + Brain
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How the brain works and the link to good business

1st Jul 2016
Partner Head Heart + Brain
Columnist
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Brain
Dmitrii Kotin/iStock

It's Neuroscience Learning Month on HRZone! You're reading one of the pieces that's been written to help you develop a sound understanding of why neuroscience principles are important to business, and a basic understanding of how you can apply them effectively. There's loads more content going live over the month to help you on your way, from articles to videos and podcasts, and it's all available in our Neuroscience Learning Hub. Head there today to read more!

Many of our assumptions about why humans developed a large brain, and particularly a large prefrontal cortex, rest on our abilities in logical, rational processing.

But another theory is that we're shaped by our social interactions and suffer when our social bonds are threatened or broken.

Our wellbeing depends on connections with others: this is a primary need in the brain. (In which case, we would say that Maslow got it wrong with his hierarchy of human needs: physical needs followed by safety needs, followed by social needs... Social relationships would be as essential as food, water and shelter.)

Why did the brain develop like this?

As humans we would be unable to survive without social connection.

A baby only survives because it can attract a carer who puts the baby's needs before their own. If humans are rejected from their group they cannot survive. This urge to connect is one of the reasons we have a big brain: because we've used our brain to connect within our tribe, and these connections motivate us to work together and develop rewarding social interactions.

And all this has an impact on the way we manage businesses.

Brain


Social pain

Research at UCLA by leading social neuroscientist Matt Lieberman and his wife Naomi Eisenberger came up with the rather surprising finding that the brain networks for physical pain are also used for social pain (the "pain" of rejection or humiliation, for example).

Whilst social pain may feel different, just as the pain of a stubbed toe feels different to stomach cramps, the networks processing it in the brain are the same.

Our wellbeing depends on connections with others: this is a primary need in the brain.

People around the world, in many languages, use descriptions of physical pain to express social pain: "she broke my heart," "he hurt my feelings..."

It turns out this is more than metaphorical: social pain is real pain. The connections are so close that the Lieberman / Eisenberger research also found, astonishingly, that social pain can be alleviated by taking conventional painkillers.

If you're feeling cold-shouldered by your colleagues, or offended that you're not invited to the management off-site, it might actually help to take an aspirin.

Lieberman says, "The things that cause us to feel pain are things that are evolutionarily recognised as threats to our survival and the existence of social pain is a sign that evolution has treated social connection like a necessity, not a luxury."

Social pain can be alleviated by taking conventional painkillers.

The implication for our work in business is that we should pay much more attention to the impact of social rejection: issues like giving feedback in public, challenging social settings and the importance of teamwork.

Social rewards

It also means we're missing out on the power of social rewards.

Connection to a social group is critically important for our emotional wellbeing; positive feedback about increased social reputation lights up reward pathways in the brain. Being treated fairly by others also increases activity in the ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, two key components of the brain's reward system.

A fundamental assumption in most organisations is that work is an economic exchange: time and skills are given in return for money.

People around the world, in many languages, use descriptions of physical pain to express social pain.

We assume that people are narrowly self-interested, focused on gaining benefits for themselves, and avoiding physical threats and doing things for others.

But this doesn't explain why so many people give their time and expertise freely: as volunteers and fundraisers, football coaches and school governors. Social reward is hard-wired into us, and it's a motivational end in itself; being connected makes us feel good.

These mechanisms of social pain and reward are fundamental to how humans work.

Understanding other people

Another social skill our brain has developed is the ability to understand what another person is thinking, and their goals and motivations, in order to be able to predict, to some extent, other people's behaviour. In many ways we need to be able to read other people's minds – and we can.

A fundamental assumption in most organisations is that work is an economic exchange.

We use these skills every day. For example, we make assumptions based on circumstances, gender and appearance, which enable us to cooperate. ("You're like me, you're not a threat to me, we can work together...")

This ability is not part of our general ability to think and analyse. We use our prefrontal cortex network for analytical thinking, but a completely different part of the brain – the default network – is used for understanding other people.

Thinking about ourselves

This area of the brain also largely manages our thinking about ourselves. If you're thinking about your favourite sweater, remembering a childhood birthday present, or reflecting on your personality ("Am I lazy, or am I having a relaxing Sunday?") you will be using this area of your brain.

It's also the area that enables you to be influenced by others. The more active the medial prefrontal region is when someone is trying to persuade you (for example to adopt a new policy, or hire a particular candidate), the more likely you'll be to do it.

Lieberman says that our minds are less like hermetically-sealed vaults that separate each of us from one another, and more like "Trojan horses": letting in the beliefs of other people without our realising the extent to which we're being influenced.

It has the effect of ensuring that we have the same kind of beliefs and values as people around us, creating the social harmony we depend on.

This network for mind-reading goes quiet when we're busy with cognitive kinds of thinking like solving a maths problem or thinking about business strategy. And when we're engaged in the mind-reading type of thinking we quiet the cognitive circuitry.

As soon as the cognitive thinking or task is done the social network (the default or mentalising system) is activated.

These two work a bit like a see-saw: one is active (up), the other is quiet (down).

Brain structure


Thinking about other people when we're learning

The mentalising system is active, like a reflex, whenever we're not engaged in a task or analytical thinking. And if we're primed to be thinking about the motivations of others, we will be more likely to notice and understand them.

And the more this network is activated when you are reading, hearing about an idea, or learning new things, the more likely you are to pass on the new information to other people.

Organisations tend to focus on systems and processes, and this pushes leaders to think rationally rather than socially.

Learning with a view to helping other people activates this network. And it makes us more effective at learning than when we use our analytical brain. It seems we can't do both at the same time.

This has significant implications for us at work.

Organisations tend to focus on systems and processes, and this pushes leaders to think rationally rather than socially. Over time this rational thinking becomes a habit – it's the way things are done – and less and less attention is paid to social connections.

Leaders will be missing lots of social cues, and the information and opportunities which could provide relational solutions to problems. They end up focusing on analytical solutions: "we just need to run the numbers." Yet many of the toughest business challenges require social solutions (engagement, motivation, productivity… to mention just three).

Interestingly, the degree to which your own medial prefrontal region has been active whilst reading this is indicative of how likely you are to discuss these ideas with other people.

Threat and reward

One of the fundamental ways in which our brain is "wired" is that we move away from threat and towards reward.

And a "threat" doesn't have to be someone about to punch you, and a "reward" doesn't have to be a bonus. We could equally use the terms "avoid" and "approach" to distinguish the things that make us feel uncomfortable or comfortable.

These reactions happen at an unconscious level, so we seldom put a label on why we act the way we do.

Let's look at an example...

Imagine this scenario: there's a woman in your cross-function project team that you know you should build a relationship with.

She's influential, and has a lot of insight into the politics of the organisation. It would make sense for you to understand more about what's going on and to have her as a supporter. But you just don't manage to hang back and chat to her after project meetings, or get around to making that lunch date. She makes you feel uncomfortable, and your discomfort overrides the logic that says you should get to know her better.

What's actually happening in your brain is that you're picking up some unconscious signal that this person is a threat.

Once we understand how the brain works we are no longer at the mercy of our unconscious reactions.

That may be real, or an association: she may remind you of someone you distrust and you're linking the two people. Or she may have caused you some kind of embarrassment in the past – perhaps she challenged you publicly and you don't even remember it now, but your subconscious does.

The emotional, limbic system of your brain is activated: it perceives a threat and signals you to avoid her.

Once we understand how the brain works we are no longer at the mercy of our unconscious reactions: we can engage the prefrontal cortex, the rational, goal-setting system of the brain which allows us to override the avoid response.

We'll have coffee with this colleague and realise that her off-putting manner is because she's ill-at-ease, and find that she's actually quite likeable as well as very useful.

Not surprisingly, the reward response often operates as the mirror-opposite of threat. You feel good about a situation or a person so you look forward to the interaction with pleasure: you're more willing to engage, you're more open to ideas, and probably more energetically creative.

Again, most of this happens unconsciously, but it influences what you do and how well you do it.

When people learn about the threat/reward response in the brain, and apply it to their own situation, very often a light bulb comes on.

Their insight enables them to formulate new strategies to overcome unconscious responses and do what will be best for the organisation, and their own career. Sometimes it's enough just to understand the science and why we've been responding in a particular way.

At other times people may need tools or coaching to put together new strategies.

In-group and out-group

Another organising principle of the brain is to categorise; it's a shortcut that helps our brain to be more efficient.

Rituals like induction, team off-sites and sharing common goals are important for breaking down initial out-group judgements.

The trouble is that we categorise people into in-group and out-group at work too. Our in-group is the people we see as similar to ourselves. Our out-group is the people who are "different."

Once categorised, our brain filters all new information in accordance with the category, so it's hard to think of someone as friend if our initial judgement of them was foe.

This all happens in a nanosecond, out of conscious awareness, but for HR professionals it means that rituals like induction, team off-sites and sharing common goals are important for breaking down initial out-group judgements.

This becomes even more important in teams that work remotely where there may be little opportunity for the personal encounters which can quickly break down initial judgements.

Our inefficient brain

Our brain is not as efficient as we might think. The executive functioning areas, those parts of the brain responsible for planning, goal attainment, rational thought and inhibiting impulses tire easily. The brain runs most activity in the energy-efficient older area of the brain, the basal ganglia, also known as the habit region.

Do you assume your brain has infinite capacity?

Columbia social neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner (a former colleague of Matt Lieberman), believes that 70% of what we do is governed by habit, and that includes how people do their jobs. It's a much more brain-efficient way of working but it can cause difficulties when change is necessary.

Many HR policies and cultures work against rather than with this habitual tendency, and implicitly assume our brain has infinite capacity.

But as anyone would recognise, brains are quickly fatigued when we have to make a lot of decisions, and this can result in poor judgement.

Likewise, multi-tasking is a myth that leads to poor productivity and reduced cognitive functioning.

All decisions have an emotional element.

For most efficient working we should plan for our creative or difficult tasks early in the day, and avoid routine tasks, like emails, in the morning. 

Emotions matter

Many people in business still find emotions unacceptable in the workplace, and few leadership development programmes help leaders to understand and manage their own emotions, or the feelings of the people they work with.

But work by the internationally-recognised neuroscientist Antonio Damasio at USC has shown that all decisions have an emotional element.

Trying to maintain some kind of "stiff upper lip" at work is both damaging and unproductive.

Brain structure, Head Heart and Brain

Matt Lieberman has found that using simple language to "name" emotions lowers the arousal of the limbic system, producing a quieter brain state which allows the prefrontal cortex to function more effectively.

The implications of findings such as these for HR are profound: if people suppress their emotions in order to be "professional" they actually make it harder for themselves to function professionally, and create physical stress.

We go into more detail on these findings in the individual chapters and also suggest ways to use your understanding of the brain in HR policy and practice as well as your own performance.

It's Neuroscience Learning Month on HRZone! You're reading one of the pieces that's been written to help you develop a sound understanding of why neuroscience principles are important to business, and a basic understanding of how you can apply them effectively. There's loads more content going live over the month to help you on your way, from articles to videos and podcasts, and it's all available in our Neuroscience Learning Hub. Head there today to read more!

References

Here are references to the science mentioned in the article:

Abraham Maslow (1943). Hierarchy of needs A theory of human motivation. Psychology Review 50.

Naomi Eisenberger, Matthew Lieberman and Kipling Williams (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science 302.

Matthew Lieberman (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. Oxford University Press.

Kevin Ochsner (2010). The Formation of Habit. Presentation at the NeuroLeadership Summit, Boston.

Antonio Damasio (1994). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Putnam Adult.

Matthew Lieberman, Naomi Eisenberger, Molly Crockett, Sabrina Tom, Jennifer Pfeifer and Baldwin Way (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity to affective stimuli. Psychological Science 18.

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