Rock: 'Start Thinking About Your Thinking' to Improve Performance

By Jyoti Singh Visvanath Apr 5, 2013
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Leadership and organizational effectiveness expert David Rock, Ph.D., is the director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global initiative that brings together neuroscientists and leadership experts to build a new science for leadership development. In an interview with Jyoti Singh Visvanath, managing editor at SHRM India, Rock explained how neuroscience is helping us understand and optimize the brain at work. Below is an excerpt.

SHRM India: Do people need to be taught how to think?

Rock: We have tremendously powerful brains for doing the same task repeatedly or for undertaking physical tasks. However, we have a surprisingly small capacity to deal with new tasks, to process complexity or to innovate—literally, to think differently. That is because the region of our brain needed for this kind of activity is small, energy-intensive and tires easily. So, while we do not need to be taught how to think, we can definitely improve how we process complexity and how we innovate and how we share ideas with others. It turns out that understanding the brain itself can significantly improve these kinds of processes.

SHRM India: We all like to believe we are unique. Do we have some common constraints in how we can use the brain? How can we overcome these constraints?

Rock: We are all very unique; no two brains are alike. Yet we also have a surprising number of constraints in common. We cannot make complex decisions for hours, we cannot process large volumes of information, and it is hard to see the world through other people’s eyes.

We cannot necessarily overcome these limitations, but the more we understand them, the more we can work around them. For example, if you respect that your attention is limited, that you can only do maybe five to 10 hours of amazing work a week—for example, mostly Monday to Wednesday in the mornings—then perhaps you can start to choose what you do in those times. We need to learn about, and then respect, our limitations if we want to get the best out of our brains. We all seem to have that in common.

SHRM India: How can the use of neuroscience enable us to create collective wisdom in groups and overcome groupthink at work?

Rock: A big issue is that we do not process information from people who are not in our “in group”—people whom we classify as different from us. Until there is a sense of relatedness between people, collaboration is shockingly poor because basic data from others is not processed very well. This sense of “in group” is created by having shared goals. So the big takeaway is that shared goals are not “nice-to-haves”; they are critical for getting good work done in teams. The other aspect of collective wisdom is to hire for social intelligence; it turns out that people high in social intelligence literally make teams smarter.

SHRM India: How does neuroleadership account for followers?

Rock: Neuroleadership is largely about what happens in the brain when people interact, especially when one person wants to influence or motivate others. The findings are relevant not just to leaders but also to collaborating within teams, to helping customers find solutions or helping peers solve problems—any time we are trying to help another person achieve a goal. The research is really about interactions between people. The big insight about followers is the need for both leaders and followers to have shared goals.

'SCARF' It Up

SHRM India: Explain the SCARF framework. How does it enable collaboration and influence at the workplace?

Rock: The framework describes the five human experiences that are our strongest motivations: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. Status is about being better or worse off than others. Certainty is about our ability to predict the future. Autonomy is about having a sense of choice. Relatedness is about being connected to and trusting in people. And fairness is about equitable exchanges.

SCARF provides a language for recognizing what is causing strong threats or rewards in ourselves and others. We have better perception, cognition, creativity and collaboration when we feel rewarded versus when we feel threatened. So ideally, we want interactions that create ‘positive SCARF,’ where people feel rewarded, rather than threatened, from many or all of the domains.

SHRM India: How can individuals apply the SCARF framework to their work and personal life?

Rock: The best way to use SCARF is to predict ahead of time what will happen in an interaction. SCARF also can help you recognize in real time what you or others might be feeling, or it can help you explain after the fact why an interaction went a certain way. The big thing is to create positive SCARF where you can, especially in others. Try to increase people’s sense of competence, their sense of certainty, their feeling of control, their sense of being connected with others, and their sense of fairness.

Technology’s Influence

SHRM India: In the age of distraction, how do you think the brain will evolve to catch up with technology?

Rock: Brains evolve very, very slowly. However, our human practices and habits can, in theory, help us deal with changing times. In practice, people tend to change much slower than technology does. I think there is going to be an increasing divide between people who use technology well and people who are a victim of technology, in a similar way that television has done both good and harm. The key is metacognition and self-regulation—in other words, the ability to think about your thinking and then alter your practices to adapt to circumstances.

‘We are filling [our minds] with empty neural calories and getting mentally obese in some ways.’

SHRM India: Much has been said about how the ‘Media’ generation—always on and plugged in—is able to multitask. What are your views on the implications for when they join the workforce and how they will work?

Rock: New studies show that multi-tasking reduces our intelligence; at the same time, it makes us feel good. So it can be a bit of a trap. Also, people who are high media users develop a form of ADD—attention deficit disorder—finding it hard to focus on one thing. Technology does not necessarily make us smarter or more effective if it is not used well. So we need to use the tools around us more wisely than we are currently doing.

There are some jobs where being massively wired can be helpful, such as working in social media itself. But for most people, it is an addiction that can cause massive distraction. I think that our minds are becoming a bit like our waistlines: We are filling them with empty neural calories and getting mentally obese in some ways.

SHRM India: With the expectation of technology-enabled 24/7 responsiveness, levels of perceived and experienced stress have increased at work. What are the implications for how we use our brain at work?

Rock: We have all these great tools that now let us go really fast and far with our ideas, never disconnecting. But that does not mean we should aways be moving so fast. When cars first arrived, there were lots of nasty crashes until we developed some rules. I think the same is needed with technology today. We need to rethink work hours, vacations, where we work, how we work, in light of what we are capable of doing today.

In particular, technology can make it easy to be more efficient but less effective. We can execute ideas faster; yet all this activity literally makes us think less deeply because of over-activation of the brain. Too many e-mails or ideas in one day make it hard to process subtle signals, hunches, concerns beneath the surface of our mind.

Boosting Mental Functioning

SHRM India: You have designed the Healthy Mind Platter. What does it include?

Rock: There are seven types of things we should do every day if we want our brain to be most healthy. These include sleep time, downtime, time in—or reflection—playtime, focus time (which we do not get enough of), connecting time and physical time. It is important to have all these elements in our lives, similar to needing a range of nutrients in our diet and not just filling up on processed carbohydrates.

SHRM India: What can individuals do to optimize how we use our brains at work?

Rock: Start thinking about your thinking. Be aware of the quality of your thinking, and experiment with ways of improving it across your day, week and month.

Let your unconscious do more work. Your conscious problem-solving resources are tiny compared to what your unconscious can do. Listen to quiet signals and hunches more—these often contain a lot of intelligence.

Practice regulating emotions by putting words on your mental and emotional states regularly.The more language you have for internal states, the more you can regulate your attention.

Learn about the real drivers of human behavior—the social threats and rewards in the SCARF model. Start to notice how much of what we do is driven by avoiding looking bad or avoiding uncertainty, for example.

Practice creating positive SCARF wherever you can, especially when managing others. Find ways to minimize the threat response and increase the reward response.

David Rock, Ph.D., is the author of the business best-seller Your Brain at Work (Harper Business, 2009), as well as Quiet Leadership (Harper Collins, 2006) and the textbook Coaching with the Brain in Mind (Wiley & Sons, 2009). He blogs for the Harvard Business Review, Fortune magazine, Psychology Today and the Huffington Post.

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