Are you neuro-smart?
Most organisations want to know how they can be more productive. Competition and work pressures grow, and there is also increasing concern about employee mental and emotional well-being. In some countries, depression and stress have overtaken musculoskeletal problems for being the biggest cause of work days lost.
What can business leaders do about productivity and stress at work?
Some answers are emerging from neuroscience. As our understanding of the brain increases, we can identify what helps the brains of employees stay focused and keep performing at their best. We can also know what human brains need to stay calm and well-balanced.
One challenge we face is in trying to get the best results and the best conditions for brains that are not designed for the twenty-first century workplace. “Work” has been repeatedly transformed in recent decades, let alone centuries. However, our brains evolved over a massive succession of generations from pre-history, and modernity is just a relatively tiny speck of time.
Our brains are better designed to deal with life on the savannah rather than the stressors in our offices and factories.
Fortunately, neuroscience brings us practical insights about modern work, which can benefit businesses.
Human and software resources
At the same time as this revolution of self-understanding is taking place, we are also witnessing another, very different revolution. We are extending human minds and willpower through software.
More and more of our knowledge is stored in computers, more and more of our work is done by them, and more and more decisions are made by software, from traffic control to manufacturing production.
Who works more - humans or software colleagues?!
Software has become an essential part of the workplace, taking a huge role in communication and forwarding information: it can monitor, alert, control workflows, and of course it works in tandem with humans on calculations and information.
The working relationship of people and software is so intimately bound together that it’s practically impossible to tell exactly how much work is done by humans or by their software “colleagues”.
The better understanding of humans and software has huge implications for the workplace and how jobs should be designed. When increasing business efficiency is the goal, our biggest under-used resources are in the huge human mental power our staffs possess and in the equally impressive software power available.
Funnily enough, properly designed corporate software could go a long way in soothing humans! To understand why and how, let’s revisit our ancient past. The original instinctive main driver of the human brain is survival.
To enable us to survive, our brains want to do two key things: avoid threats and find rewards. Of these two, the brain’s strong first priority is to avoid threats -- the lions, tigers, wolves, hyenas, snakes or whatever else which killed ancient humans.
Threats at work in modern times are not deadly like those, but our brains were made with threats “in mind”. Our modern working threats take many different forms – the difficult boss, conflicting deadlines, unpredictable demands, lack of control, being micro-managed, being negatively compared with others, and feeling like an outsider on the team.
When our brains are consciously or subconsciously in a threat state, we cannot think at our best.
Software affects how we perform
Business leaders can learn how to avoid their employees feeling threatened, and good workflow goes a long way towards achieving this. This is where software plays an essential part. An ever-increasing percentage of companies now rely on some sort of corporate software to control workflow.
Whatever the software directs becomes the de facto way employees will go about their everyday work. If good workflow reduces stress and increases efficiency, and software provides the backbone for the workflow, then it follows that software will have a crucial part in how our staff will feel or perform.
Choice is very important for our brains, so leaders need to identify where they can provide autonomy. No one likes to be micro-managed, and that risk can be avoided by good workflow, together with staff understanding the results the company is expecting of them. Both of these can be supported by software.
The advantage of doing so is highlighted by imagining its opposite. For example, if we choose and operate the wrong software system which does not fit the corporate culture, it creates tension in the workflow and just makes things worse, no matter how expensive it is.
Achieving good workflow is far from easy: the company’s products and services must be understood, jobs streamlined, and the software installed to bind it together. The system can then provide clarity for employees knowing not just about the tasks they have to perform, but also getting automatic feedback to help them adapt to requirements.
When software provides some of the feedback, there is reduced pressure on management, so that less-than-superhuman bosses can do their jobs without making their work groups’ lives either miserable or under-performing. In this way, employees perceive less threat, can perform better and reach higher productivity.
Good workflows will obviously not remove all threats in our modern-day threat list. Changes can be positive or forced, necessary or desirable, responding to opportunities, competition or market changes. Whichever way, organisational change can be very disruptive for human productivity.
Change Management techniques can greatly mitigate disruption, and fortunately software can help us here in intriguing ways too.
First though, neuroscience also explains why we find organisational change so difficult. Change means we are faced with uncertainty, and whatever is unpredictable and uncontrollable is particularly stressful to the brain.
Since our brains have the compelling desire to protect us, we find uncertainty both very uncomfortable and distracting. It creates a “fight or flight” response and reduces our ability to think.
Step-by-step adaptive change - achieves more, costs less
To make things worse, business owners usually have an urge to complete change as soon as possible. They naturally want to keep costs and risks low, but the ripple effects of sudden shock can shatter and collapse structures which could otherwise adapt flexibly, given a little more time. This can all be considered when designing and installing new software to facilitate change and improvement.
Change can be broken down into small and tolerable stages. Moreover, the cost of making sudden change, and the damage it causes, are actually higher than step-by-step adaptive change.
For example, where the company already has some kind of an information system -- paper, digital or integrated -- the first stage of change should be about no more than building the new platform resembling the old one.
To the obvious question of why spend so much money if we get the same old stuff, the answer should be because you will get a platform from which you can safely launch the next stage, and disruption will be well-tolerated, maybe even welcomed by the team. This would save their minds from falling back into “protective mode”, and they can face the current non-frightening challenge directly.
Good relationships in the workplace are much more important than has commonly been realised. We have a deep-rooted need to know that someone is on our side and takes an interest in us.
We are mammals and if we did not have someone looking after us through the first few moments and years of our lives, we would not survive. Even after this, together we are infinitely more powerful as a society than as individuals.
This need for social connection carries on throughout our lives, and, if we feel rejected by the group, this has a detrimental impact on our ability to think, solve problems, stick at difficult tasks, remember and learn.
What’s expected in job performance?
However, our built-in social skills are not designed for the varied and often huge communities we nowadays have to work and live in.
Most people, including business leaders, do not have the skills or patience to communicate their feedback or requirements clearly. This leads to most bosses being frustrated about not knowing how to give appropriate feedback to under-performing staff.
More than half of employees complain that they don’t know what is expected of them. This can be a vicious circle, hurting productivity.
Yet again, software can come to the rescue because it can be the perfect mix of the impersonal and the personal. It is impersonal in the sense that it does not fear, is not shy, and it is personal because it can deliver very individual messages.
For example, employee and leader can agree on objectives for the job and the purpose-designed software can take care of automatic feedback measuring these objectives. This lets the leader take a more coach-like, guiding kind of role instead of being the bringer of threat and of bad news as well.
Understanding the human brain better means that we can also identify what will help the brain to perform at its best each day at work. The good news is that small things can make a big difference to the brain’s performance. An example of this is breaking down long-term goals into smaller ones that people can achieve each day.
Achieving goals creates a perceptible positive balance of chemicals in our brains that sets them up well for the next challenge.
Tasks can be prioritized by a software system so that employees focus on the most important ones, such as upcoming due dates, urgent tasks, bottlenecks and so on.
This can also help on two further grounds. What is really important gets done. Secondly, our inner “threat-meter” detects that the worst has been dealt with, and our brain is more inclined to give us a break. So we keep performing better and without exhaustion, even maybe after hours of hard work.
The software can also gather and provide information for decision points. The brain craves information, and people appreciate reaching their own insights about why a course of action is the best one rather than being told that it is.
Neuroplasticity or using the brain’s natural flexibility
From the world of neuroscience comes another astonishing finding -- not only does software resemble us, but we resemble computers also. We all know that more memory can be added to computers but it is far less known that the same thing can be achieved with our own brains. This comes from neuroplasticity – the ability of our brains to learn, and restructure as a result of what we learn.
This was discovered by neuroscientists at University College London when they realised that the hippocampus in the brains of London’s cab drivers, who have to learn “the Knowledge” -- the thousands of roads, routes and landmarks of London -- had grown physically larger as a result.
Some parts of our brains cannot get better with age – and sensorily, hearing and sight decline over time – but some areas can continue to develop. The saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” has been proven to be wrong. We can learn well into old age, if we choose to.
Applying neuroscience in the organisation is still quite new. Becoming more “brain-savvy” improves our understanding of what motivates people and modest changes that can improve performance.
Successfully applying good software design to serve distinctly different companies is also new. Attempts used to be expensive and failure-prone! Now, with improving technology and methodology, individual company software has made its breakthrough.
Company-fitting is smart
Partly thanks to understanding how our brains were formed, corporate software takes significant insights from neuroscience. Along with continuing advances in computer technology, the scope of software development is being re-conceived. An example of this is smartERP methodology, able to focus on humans and corporate performance, fitting each company consistently, even through changes.