Understanding Brain Function Will Help HR Function

By Joanne Deschenaux Jun 29, 2011
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LAS VEGAS--“Most work in today’s workplaces involves thinking and influencing other people’s thoughts,” all of which happens in the brain, said David Rock, the founder and CEO of Sydney, Australia-headquartered global consulting and training firm Results Coaching Systems, who on June 29, 2011, presided over the final Masters Series session held here during the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 63rd Annual Convention & Exposition.

Titled “From Human Resources to Neural Resources,” the session focused on the newly developing discipline of "neuroleadership," which Rock defined as “the neuroscience of making decisions, staying cool under pressure, collaborating with others and facilitating change”—all essential tasks of HR.

The brain should matter to HR, Rock noted, because for HR to understand people, it’s important to understand their brains. “We are learning a lot about this process,” he said. The science is improving quickly. Last year, 200 books on the brain were published, he noted. This year, so far, over 1,000 books on the subject have appeared.

Although there is still a vast amount that we don’t know about the brain, we do know how the brain is organized, Rock told attendees. The human brain seeks to minimize danger and maximize reward, in that order, and all brain function is organized around that basic principle. Further, “the brain loves people first, concrete ideas second and intangibles third.”

Brain research to date has come up with four surprising conclusions—things that may be counter-intuitive to most people, Rock said.

First: Rational Is Overrated

“We put an emphasis on being rational,” Rock said, “but our rational resources tap out early in the workplace.” People are working “on automatic” about half the time, he said. Human beings’ ability to focus is limited. “We get a good two or three hours in the morning, and that’s it.”

So if we don’t solve problems rationally, how do we do it? Sixty percent of problems are solved in a way that people can’t explain, Rock said, using the example of trying to remember someone’s name. It just seems to come to us, he noted.

Studies have shown that the brain uses a four-step process in problem solving: awareness, which leads to reflection, which leads to insight, which leads to action.

“If you want to have more insights, go back to the reflection stage,” Rock said. When people are quiet, internally focused, positive and not trying to actively solve the problem, increased insights become more likely.

“That doesn’t describe brainstorming, does it?” Rock asked, adding “if the goal is creativity, brainstorming is a terrible way to proceed. Let people go walk in the park and see what happens.”

Second: We’ve Got Emotions Backward

The second surprise brain research has found is that our thinking around emotions is backwards, said Rock. “We think we shouldn’t talk about emotions or be emotional, and this is wrong.” Suppressing emotions leaves them the same or makes them worse. Identifying what you are feeling helps reduce the emotional impact.

In addition, because of the brain’s organization around danger and reward, people tend be either problem-focused (danger) or solution-focused (reward) when approaching tasks. And unfortunately, a problem-focused orientation is far more common, Rock said. This leads to the situation where threat is used to manage in the workplace, although using reward is more effective. “Companies need to be less threat-focused,” Rock remarked. Although this is how the brain is built, “we can rewire around it with some work.”

So once you have identified an emotion, try “reappraisal,” Rock suggested. Look at the situation and decide to change your response.

Third: Social Issues Are Primary

“We are more finely tuned to the social than we realize,” Rock explained, adding “We have underestimated the effect on the body of social pain.”

Social pain in the workplace stems from five “domains,” Rock said: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

“Can I give you some feedback?” immediately raises status concerns. Performance reviews attack status in a big way. “We may have to rethink this,” Rock said.

Feeling uncertain creates a strong response in the brain, as does the feeling that you don’t have a choice—the lack of autonomy.

As for relatedness, “the brain classifies everyone you meet as ‘with you’ or ‘against you.’ ” The brain loves a sense of social connection, he said.

Regarding fairness, Rock used the example of a pay raise, which is not intrinsically rewarding. Rather, it is only rewarding if it is seen as fair.

“You can’t maximize all domains, but watch for multiplying effects,” he cautioned.

Fourth, Attention Changes the Brain

The last surprise: Attention changes the brain.When you focus attention on something, the brain can actually change, sometimes in seconds, he noted.

“The brain changes by catching an experience and changing it.” This creates new neural pathways. “Training the brain matters,” Rock concluded.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is SHRM’s senior legal editor.

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