Today's methods of conducting business impede employee productivity. Many organizations operate with incredibly high expectations for creating quality deliverables in an unreasonably short period of time. Employees are expected, or even required, to work long hours with very little time for balance and rejuvenation. This work culture is counterintuitive to the kinds of brain functions that enable people to be productive. On the other hand, learning when and how the brain is most effective and efficient assists leaders in helping employees make complex decisions as well as experience creative and innovative insights.
Brain-based model of employee effectiveness
It's no secret that the brain is complex. In any environment, work-related or otherwise, each experience a person encounters is either familiar or unfamiliar. Familiar events, such as turning on the computer when first arriving at work, activate the basal ganglia in the brain. This area is where habits are formed, and therefore, it can function efficiently with minimal use of energy. In fact, many daily routines are conducted without much conscious thought since these patterns have been "learned" and are stored in the basal ganglia.
A classic example of this is driving to the office. Because driving to the office is routine, the brain (basal ganglia) has learned how to do this activity without expending much energy. Many times, a person will arrive at work with no recollection of actually driving the car to get there. If, however, there is an accident on the way to the office, the employee then needs to find a new route to get to work. Suddenly, the employee is focused on every exit, red light, and street sign, concentrating on arriving at work on time.
Unfamiliar events such as driving a different way to work, preparing a proposal for a new client, or attending an unexpected meeting with the boss stimulate the executive center of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain expends the most energy and is the most engaged component when going through a learning process or involved in a mildly stressful situation. These types of tasks require employees to think beyond what they already know and to then apply problem solving skills - processes that are taxing to the brain.
The prefrontal cortex can only retain a small amount of information in comparison to the capacity of the basal ganglia. Imagine that the amount of information the prefrontal cortex can hold is equal to one 8-oz glass of water; in contrast, the rest of the brain can hold the amount of water in the ocean. Leaders impose expectations on their employees to hold more information than can fit in the prefrontal cortex. Additionally, they do not allow them the opportunity to encode this information into their long-term memory. This is why the prefrontal cortex is oversaturated so quickly and needs time to rejuvenate throughout the day.
Another factor that affects employee effectiveness is the relationship between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. The limbic system is involved with emotional behavior and emotional association with memory. The onset of a perceived threat, such as new tasks or some misfortune that happened on the way to work, also arouses the entire limbic system, creating a teeter-totter effect. As the level of threat and limbic system arousal increases, the ability of the prefrontal cortex to function effectively and remain in higher-level thinking decreases. Judgment is impaired, and employees are left with only the ability to make decisions driven by emotion rather than higher-level rational cognitive thinking.
Ultimately, because there is only so much energy available to the brain, these situations leave employees exhausted. In other words, the amount of time employees are able to produce high-quality ideas is restricted. Yet in today's society, many are required to work past the point of physical exhaustion, without the benefit of rejuvenation. This leaves them unable to function at the highest level simply because their brains are tired. Many will recognize this point, when the brain feels like mush, and even simple thoughts are difficult to remember because the brain is so strained.
Forgetfulness is common in these instances. Short-term memory is activated first in the prefrontal cortex. The brain has the ability to remember three to four concepts accurately through short-term memory. So unless this part of the brain is given the proper amount of balance and focus, ideas are easily forgotten.
For example, if after working hard and feeling stressed all day, employees are expected to attend critical meetings late in the afternoon or in the evening, their ability to solve problems and make complex decisions is hampered. Without giving the brain a chance to rest (for example, taking a nap or a walk, listening to music, or talking to a colleague about something other than work), the brain (and therefore the employee) will not work efficiently.
Regrettably, many organizations don't recognize how important it is to enable employees to rejuvenate their brains. Instead, they penalize employees if they are a few minutes late or take a break that lasts longer than 15 minutes. When this happens, leaders are ignoring their role in positively influencing brain functions. It's a simple fact: if leaders can reduce the amount of stress their employees are exposed to in the work environment, they will increase productivity.
The knowledge society
Unlike in the industrial era of decades past, today's work culture is composed of a knowledge society in which our brains are in constant use. Pressure, tension, long work hours, little sleep, and office distractions contribute to decreased productivity. Additionally, because everyone is so connected via cell phones and computers, their brains are not truly given a chance to rest. This limits the functionality of the brain's default network to defrag, or in other words, to give the brain a chance to organize. A brain's organization time is crucial - it eliminates irrelevant and redundant information, resulting in an enhanced ability to access critical information and refocus on the project, initiative, or problem when necessary.
As employees stay connected to technology tools during typical nonwork hours such as nights, weekends, and even on vacations, they deny their brains much-needed opportunities to relax. When stealing time away from sleep to continue working, deep sleep (the most restful sleep) is affected, reducing the best possibilities for the brain to rejuvenate. Therefore, the brain grabs time throughout the day to perform this organization. This is more commonly known as daydreaming or wakeful rest, which is the brain's way of shutting down the prefrontal cortex to organize information for optimal operating efficiency.
Constant daydreaming indicates that the brain is lacking in sleep and rejuvenation. When leaders provide employees with this needed "down time" throughout the day, the result is more effective employees who have the energy and resources necessary to concentrate on work. Down time doesn't have to be anything official; it can be as simple as making it acceptable for employees to take short breaks to walk, work on a puzzle, or take a brief nap.
Distractions in the workplace
Our knowledge society also has led to rampant mini-distractions in the workplace. For example, the cubicle environment of a typical office adds to the constant technological distractions due to noise. When this happens, employees are unable to fully concentrate. After an interruption, it takes an average of seven minutes to refocus on the task at hand. Just think, if an employee is interrupted 10 times during the day, that accounts for more than an hour wasted, simply due to distractions. These distractions adversely affect the prefrontal cortex, making it more difficult for one to fully focus on the project at hand.
Multitasking is another form of distraction. In terms of concentration and attention, an employee cannot do more than one task at the same time and do both activities well. Yet, how many times do people check their e-mail while participating in conference calls? Tasks involving motor skills are part of the long-term memory and can be performed with minimal thinking and require the least amount of energy.
Conversely, mental tasks such as organizing, planning, complex decision making, and interpreting and synthesizing information require the use of the energy-intensive prefrontal cortex. The energy required to continue engaging in this higher-level thinking quickly drains cognitive resources, leaving the prefrontal cortex depleted. Switching between tasks requires energy, and accuracy suffers when multitasking with mental tasks.
In addition to the brain-related disconnects due to the distracted work environment, leaders make several miscalculations in the "brain game" when it comes to managing employees. Three of the most common mistakes are:
- abruptly pulling employees out of their comfort zone
- creating a stressful work environment based on threats rather than rewards
- mentally exhausting employees, thereby sabotaging performance.
The common thread in these situations is placing employees in positions where their brains need to engage their prefrontal cortexes instead of their basal ganglia. The brain is wired to view change as a threat and will react accordingly by increasing the employee's stress and discomfort levels, leading to withdrawal and disengagement. In some instances, these reactions are viewed by leadership as insubordination. Eventually, employees may become accustomed to these stressors, but there is a cost. They may gain weight, exhibit other detrimental health effects, or be unable to sleep deeply or fully concentrate on their work.
Leaders do have the capabilities to limit the kind and amount of stress their employees experience. Here's how:
- Recognize that new concepts require more brain power than familiar ones.
- Create an environment where employees feel more in control about the change or the task by giving them choices.
- Implement procedures to reduce distractions and increase opportunities for discovering solutions.
The value of creating insights
Discovering a solution means that an employee is either using the standard process of analysis and accessing known data or is experiencing an insight. Insights ("aha" or "Eureka" moments) come from the ability of the brain to access multiple regions throughout the entire brain where the information lies and put this information together differently to create a new solution. Specific to bringing forth insights, there are two types of waves in the brain - alpha and gamma.
The alpha waves help limit distractions and quiet the brain. When individuals close their eyes, their alpha waves increase in the visual cortex. This increase limits the distractions internally in the brain and limits visual information, allowing the brain to search for the necessary information projected by weaker low-impulse signals. The highly charged gamma waves increase when there are limited cognitive distractions. They begin to access and link these weaker signals (within the network of familiar information) together to form brain maps to manifest potential solutions.
The alpha waves start decreasing since they've completed their job. An insight is realized at the point where the accelerating gamma waves intersect with the decreasing alpha waves. This means that the brain map that was accessed is the appropriate solution for the problem and is known to be absolutely correct, leading to a surge of energy and celebration, experienced as the "aha" phenomenon.
Insights are often experienced when first awakening because the brain is the most relaxed and is not cognitively alert to the point where it is constantly functioning, focusing, and thinking. They are also experienced when the employee is doing something completely disconnected from the actual problem. Unfortunately, the typical work environment does not allow employees to function at these optimum levels and experience insights when solving problems. Instead, employees' prefrontal cortexes are so overloaded with information that it's virtually impossible for insights to occur.
Therefore, leaders need to create environments that enable insightful thinking. Applying old strategies to new problems may not be the answer. In fact, many employees get hung up in trying to force an incorrect approach to solve the problem. Teach employees to take breaks when working on complex issues to allow for the insights to occur. Encourage them to focus on something unrelated to the problem at hand, and allow them to have fun to help quiet the brain of complex thinking, thus increasing their capacity for insights.
Productive brain functions = productive employees
Unfortunately, many companies are bound by the traditional ways of conducting business. The work environment is stressful due to the current economic conditions, putting employees (and leaders) in constant threat mode. Employees are expected to accomplish more with less - less staff, resources, and time to complete tasks. All this is happening while customer demands are increasing.
Effective leaders are the ones who create optimum environments, allowing employees to function at the highest level. They support and enable employees to be who they truly are without forcing them to fit into some artificial corporate setting. Additionally, they create work cultures where employees can have a little fun, relax, and rejuvenate. By understanding how to use the prefrontal cortex productively, leaders assist their staff in functioning effectively and efficiently.T+D