Industryweek 2117 Iw0611brain

Putting Brain Science to Work in Your Company

June 14, 2011
The author of 'Emotional Intelligence' says management science has much to learn from neuroscience.

Every manager faces the same challenge-how do you get the most from the people on your team? In his latest book, "The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights," author and psychologist Daniel Goleman says the key is to keep your employees in the "flow."

People operate in three neurological states, says Goleman. The first, disengagement, occurs when employees are in a low-motivation state where they are distracted and inattentive to the task at hand. "Disengagement is rife in the manufacturing sector because so many people are not inspired, motivated or engaged in the work they do. They just do good enough to keep the job," he says.

Daniel Goleman:
"That is a smart mission for any company, to get as many people as possible in that state where they love what they are doing, it is meaningful, it is serving a larger objective and is engaging."
Frazzle, the second state, prevents people from being productive because they are upset with something. It may be a problem with their boss, a coworker or they just have too much to do and too little time. As a result, the body unleashes a cascade of stress hormones, and the person focuses on the problem bothering them rather than their job.

Flow represents, in Goleman's words, a "state of neural harmony, where only what is relevant to the task at hand is what is activated." It maximizes cognitive abilities and is where people are at their best and most productive, Goleman says.

How do you help keep employees in the flow? Managers should strive not to overwhelm employees but to challenge them by understanding what they are good at and what they want to get better at. Goleman recommends they conduct a "coaching conversation," a one-on-one talk where the focus is on what the employee wants from life, their career and their job. That enables the manager to determine what stretch assignments to give the employee. Goleman says that is a "fantastic way" to motivate people and help them improve.

Goleman says managers can also improve employee performance by making work meaningful to them. He notes that in a crisis or when facing a big deadline, employees will rise to the occasion if it matters to them. Mission statements try to establish this shared purpose, but Goleman says they often fail because they are too abstract and distant. "It is better and more powerful if this comes up in a natural conversation with people," he recommends.

"That is a smart mission for any company," Goleman says, "to get as many people as possible in that state where they love what they are doing, it is meaningful, it is serving a larger objective and is engaging."

Time for Creativity

While most businesses put a huge premium on creativity and innovation, the world almost seems "designed to destroy productivity and creativity," Goleman observes. " That's because when employees are constantly interrupted by phone calls, e-mails and conversations, they are not operating in an environment conducive to creative thought.

The brain has limited capacity for attention, Goleman says. "The idea of multitasking from a cognitive science point of view is complete fiction," he says. People can't focus on two things at once. Instead, we switch back and forth. Each time we switch, we lose momentum. For example, when we interrupt what we are working on to read an e-mail, he says, it takes an average of 15 minutes to get back to where we were.

"To have the most creative moments, you need to allow people to have focused, uninterrupted time to work on a problem," Goleman says. He says employees need a "bubble," a protected time and place where they are not distracted. During such periods, he explains, the brain takes information gleaned from a variety of sources and processes it, developing new connections and ideas. In these periods, scientists can observe a neurological sign, a "gamma spike," that signals a creative idea developed from different parts of the brain.

Managers should look for ways to encourage employees to structure their time so that they have an opportunity for this focused, creative time. He says they may want to encourage employees to take an hour each morning where "they don't look at their e-mail, they don't take phone calls, they just work on what is really important."

Goleman notes that organizations such as 3M and Google encourage employees to take time to pursue their own interests and focus on important projects. "That is the creative engine for those organizations," he notes. "That is when they are free to think and create."

Creativity occurs less often from someone having the "big idea" than from a multitude of small steps, Goleman says. He says everyone has the ability to contribute a creative insight or new way of doing things. By understanding this, he says, it moves creativity and innovation out of the "R&D silo and distributes it throughout the organization."

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