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Published: August 27, 2009

 
 

Managing with the Brain in Mind

A perception of reduced autonomy — for example, because of being micromanaged — can easily generate a threat response. When an employee experiences a lack of control, or agency, his or her perception of uncertainty is also aroused, further raising stress levels. By contrast, the perception of greater autonomy increases the feeling of certainty and reduces stress.

Leaders who want to support their people’s need for autonomy must give them latitude to make choices, especially when they are part of a team or working with a supervisor. Presenting people with options, or allowing them to organize their own work and set their own hours, provokes a much less stressed response than forcing them to follow rigid instructions and schedules. In 1977, a well-known study of nursing homes by Judith Rodin and Ellen Langer found that residents who were given more control over decision making lived longer and healthier lives than residents in a control group who had everything selected for them. The choices themselves were insignificant; it was the perception of autonomy that mattered.

 Another study, this time of the franchise industry, identified work–life balance as the number one reason that people left corporations and moved into a franchise. Yet other data showed that franchise owners actually worked far longer hours (often for less money) than they had in corporate life. They nevertheless perceived themselves to have a better work–life balance because they had greater scope to make their own choices. Leaders who know how to satisfy the need for autonomy among their people can reap substantial benefits — without losing their best people to the entrepreneurial ranks.

Relating to Relatedness

Fruitful collaboration depends on healthy relationships, which require trust and empathy. But in the brain, the ability to feel trust and empathy about others is shaped by whether they are perceived to be part of the same social group. This pattern is visible in many domains: in sports (“I hate the other team”), in organizational silos (“the ‘suits’ are the problem”), and in communities (“those people on the other side of town always mess things up”).

Each time a person meets someone new, the brain automatically makes quick friend-or-foe distinctions and then experiences the friends and foes in ways that are colored by those distinctions. When the new person is perceived as different, the information travels along neural pathways that are associated with uncomfortable feelings (different from the neural pathways triggered by people who are perceived as similar to oneself).

Leaders who understand this phenomenon will find many ways to apply it in business. For example, teams of diverse people cannot be thrown together. They must be deliberately put together in a way that minimizes the potential for threat responses. Trust cannot be assumed or mandated, nor can empathy or even goodwill be compelled. These qualities develop only when people’s brains start to recognize former strangers as friends. This requires time and repeated social interaction.

Once people make a stronger social connection, their brains begin to secrete a hormone called oxytocin in one another’s presence. This chemical, which has been linked with affection, maternal behavior, sexual arousal, and generosity, disarms the threat response and further activates the neural networks that permit us to perceive someone as “just like us.” Research by Michael Kosfeld et al. in 2005 shows that a shot of oxytocin delivered by means of a nasal spray decreases threat arousal. But so may a handshake and a shared glance over something funny.

Conversely, the human threat response is aroused when people feel cut off from social interaction. Loneliness and isolation are profoundly stressful. John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick showed in 2008 that loneliness is itself a threat response to lack of social contact, activating the same neurochemicals that flood the system when one is subjected to physical pain. Leaders who strive for inclusion and minimize situations in which people feel rejected create an environment that supports maximum performance. This of course raises a challenge for organizations: How can they foster relatedness among people who are competing with one another or who may be laid off?

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (W.W. Norton, 2008): A scientific look at the causes and effects of emotional isolation.
  2. Michael Marmot, The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity (Times Books, 2004): An epidemiologist shows that people live longer when they have status, autonomy, and relatedness, even if they lack money.
  3. David Rock, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long (HarperBusiness, 2009): Neuroscience explanations for workplace challenges and dilemmas, and strategies for managing them.
  4. David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” s+b, Summer 2006: Applying breakthroughs in brain research, this article explains the value of neuroplasticity in organizational change.
  5. David Rock, “SCARF: A Brain-based Model for Collaborating with and Influencing Others,” NeuroLeadership Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, December 2008, 44: Overview of research on the five factors described in this article, and contains bibliographic references for research quoted in this article.
  6. Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman, with K.D. Williams, “Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion,” Science, vol. 302, no. 5643, October 2003, 290–292: Covers the Cyberball experiment.
  7. Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman, “The Pains and Pleasures of Social Life,” Science, vol. 323, no. 5916, February 2009, 890–891: Explication of social pain and social pleasure, and the impact of fairness, status, and autonomy on brain response.
  8. NeuroLeadership Institute Web site: Institute bringing together research scientists and management experts to explore the transformation of organizational development and performance.
  9. For more business thought leadership, sign up for s+b’s RSS feed.