Thursday, March 27, 2014

The world's best computer?

Check out this list of 10 things your brain does on automatic

Your amazing brain

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Great exercise for helping people manage feelings during change

This is a worthwhile talk on managing the human side of change from Jason Clarke, an innovation practitioner.

If you just want the exercise, it starts at 4.07

Friday, March 21, 2014

Don't let past memories sabotage you at work

Warning: what you don't consciously remember could mess with your career

Never forget that your unconscious is smarter than you, faster than you, and more powerful than you. You will never know all its secrets. Cordelia Fine in "A mind of its own"

Have you ever seen people at work react to something in a totally illogical way?

OK, I know that's a dumb question but it is rhetorical!

It is interesting to look at this in connection with our emotional memories. The role that emotional memory plays in our everyday interactions and reactions is profound. Not only do our emotional memories cause us to react to perceptions of physical threat but also to certain people and events as well.

The emotional memory function is part of our brain's emotional centre, the limbic system. That is also where the amygdala is, the part of the brain responsible for our instant emotional responses, our ‘I wasn't thinking' reactions.

We subconsciously use our emotional memories to help us recognise threats to our survival. I sometimes think of these memories as stored in our brain's ‘database of nasty things'. Emotional memories are made up of experiences, events, thoughts and feelings shaped and defined throughout our lives. When we form these memories in our childhood, we often do so with limited and inaccurate perception. Then these distorted memories may come back to haunt us in our adult lives.

When a situation or a person triggers an emotional memory of a threat, our brain goes into overdrive to protect us. Often this reaction is outdated, over the top and not even related to the present circumstances.

It's what I call The Almond Effect®.

Her new boss reminded her of her brother

Take this work scenario: Kylie had just been promoted. She had done such a great job in her time with the company that she was asked to train and manage a group of new staff. This meant a move in offices and a new manager. Kylie had heard great things about her new boss and was eager to impress.

Kylie arrived at the new office and was greeted by her new manager. At first, she was a little unsure of what to make of him. She was instantly intimidated which was unusual for Kylie, she even felt a little scared. She found it hard to communicate and was lost for words several times in their first meeting.

This was her emotional memory connecting the past to the present. Her new boss reminded Kylie of her eldest brother who throughout her childhood was dominating and physically abusive.

Kylie was petrified of her brother and those feelings flooded her brain when she met her new manager. This kind of emotional response is the brain's way of recognising and reacting to a perceived threat. The problem is that this threat, although real once, is not relevant to the present situation.

Sadly, after a few weeks, Kylie left the office emotionally shaken and convinced she could not work for her manager. She turned down the promotion and went back to her old job.

The Almond Effect® had taken its toll and it wasn't until sometime afterwards that Kylie realised what had happened. Even then, knowing how her brain had sabotaged her, Kylie said she would still feel uncomfortable if she had to work for the new manager in the future.

Don't let past memories sabotage the present

Can you relate to Kylie's experience? I can. I recently worked for a client and I thought it quite odd that I found it difficult to make ‘small talk' face-to-face with him. It was really weird because we had been exchanging emails and having phone conversations quite successfully for many months before we actually met.

I couldn't work it out so I simply reminded myself that sometimes you have to work with a person who for no obvious reason you don't really connect with on a personal level, but that's life and you get on with the work, professionally.

It was only when we were having coffee one day and the client moved in a particular way that I ‘saw' the image of a person from my childhood. The penny dropped and the reasons for my feelings became clear. He reminded me of someone who also had caused me great distress when I was much younger.

When I shared this in a workshop one day, one of the participants also had an ‘ah ha' moment and said: "I hadn't even thought of it before. I hate the fact that because of the recent re-structure, I had to change workstations and now I don't have a window. And in a CLM (career limiting move), I kicked up a real fuss.

I've just realized that when I was at school..." and then she told us about an emotional memory to do with sitting by a window, that she realized must have been subconsciously at work, in theory to protect her but in fact causing great unhappiness.

Fascinating isn't it? Think about situations or people who might be irritating you. I wonder if they are triggering an emotional memory buried deep in your limbic system? It might also be happening in your relationships outside of work.

Now you know, let it go

Becoming aware of what you are remembering and the feelings associated with that memory is the big first step to take back control over The Almond Effect ®.

Take time to revisit the memory and ask yourself whether it is appropriate that the memory still controls you. It's unlikely so take time to tell your limbic system, thanks but no thanks for the future. Retrain your amygdala that this situation or person is no longer a threat. Get your logical, rational thinking brain working.


One final word - sometimes that ‘gut feel' or intuition that you can't put your finger on, may be coming from an emotional memory. If no amount of logical self-talk gets you past your concerns, they may be real. So talk to someone else and seek assistance to work out where the concerns are coming from. Then you'll take the appropriate action for the situation.

Please feel free to forward this to a colleague

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

It's not fair!

How many times have you said: ‘it's not fair'? How many times have you heard others say it? How does it make you feel when you sense injustice? How does it impact your energy and commitment levels? What impact do you think it could have on an employee's level of engagement with their employer?

Let me tell you about Jane. We were talking about bullying and harassment at work as she was considering lodging a grievance.

She told me that her boss was always asking her to do things that were not in her job description. She said:

"It's not fair. She isn't capable of doing her own job yet they promoted her. Now she asks me to do the work she should be doing but that's not what I am paid to do nor do I expect to do it. I would be happy to help out but she is so awful to me. It's just not fair. She gets more money than me, got promoted and then hassles me to do her job!"

Our fair brains

Neuroscientists have been conducting experiments for over 25 years on what happens in our brains when we experience something as being fair or not fair.

This is interesting research. So often we see people become demotivated and not perform to their best because they perceive an unfairness eg: that someone is getting paid more than they should; that someone has a promotion that they didn't deserve; that someone got the blame or bore the brunt of management's wrath for something that wasn't their fault; that someone was asked to stay back late at work.

Demotivation means less willingness to change, lower levels of commitment, lower productivity, poor energy levels and as for creativity, innovation and initiative - well, what do you think?

An Ultimatum

The original experiment in this field is the Ultimatum game, first reported as far as I can see in 1982. It's been repeated many times by many different researchers and the results seem to come out the same.

Here's what happens:
Two participants, A and B, are given a sum of money, say $100, to divide between themselves. A has to decide how to split it up. Whatever offer A makes, if B accepts it then they both get to keep their share of the money. If B refuses A's offer, neither gets anything.

What would you offer if you were A and what would you accept if you were B? The experiments have shown that if A offers B around half, ie $50 then B will accept. And at that time, B's brain's reward circuitry (including the amygdala) lights up. They feel OK about the deal.

However if A offers a smaller amount, eg $20 - B will typically refuse.
Curious isn't it? You would think that if B was acting rationally, B would take the view that something is better than nothing and take the $20.

Instead, what happens is that an area of the brain associated with disgust and pain lights up at the perceived unfair deal. Indeed, some Bs reject the offer outright so that both A and B lose the lot!

When an B does accept a low portion of the $100 and gain something rather than nothing, and even though the offer is perceived as unfair, the experimenters report that B's fMRI scans show that an area of the brain associated with self-control lights up - the prefrontal cortex.

This is the same part of the brain that we help people learn to engage to be a STAR (Stop Think Act Rewire) in response to The Almond Effect®, when our amygdala sends us a false alarm.

It's the principle that counts!

The interesting thing is that our brains probably react in the same way as in the Ultimatum Game whenever we feel we have been taken advantage of. We may feel we've paid too much for a car, a home, a new suit or even the laundry detergent!

I experienced that the other day, when I discovered that I'd paid $50 more for a vacuum cleaner than I needed to because I didn't notice the department store across the road had the same vacuum on ‘special'.
In these situations our brain senses it wasn't fair.

And it seems to me that there is a struggle going on between our pre-frontal cortex - and our emotions, ie between being practical and logical vs. a sense of what's right, fair, just. Emotions vs. self control - sounds like The Almond Effect® in another of its guises to me.

As a former barrister, I would love to see research into what's happening in the brains of litigants who outlay a fortune in the legal system spending far more than the original amount involved saying "it's the principle that counts". I suspect the results would show their limbic (emotional) brain is much more activated than their prefrontal cortex - just as in the Ultimatum Game.

It's not the money

So let's go back to Jane. Jane was on a very good salary and enjoyed working for the company. She loved her work. What she didn't enjoy was that sense of being put upon and being taken advantage of.

Unfortunately too, the manager had some issues around the way she managed Jane and, deep down, had her own fears and insecurities about taking on a role she didn't feel qualified for. She had never received any people management training and was way out of her comfort zone. That's another Almond Effect® story for another day.

Jane ended up filing a grievance and she and her manager are scheduled to have a mediation discussion in the coming weeks.

Injustice and performance

In some organizations I have been involved with, ‘give them more money' has often been the response to deal with issues of poor engagement, demotivated staff, unhappy staff, change fatigued workforces, sub-optimal teamwork - even staff who say they are being harassed or bullied.

What we know from how our brain works is that this is never going to provide a complete answer unless the perceived injustice is truly about financial inequities.

The application of neuroscience research makes it clear that what we have to do is to start exploring what's going on in people's perception, with their emotions - and these are not capable of quick fix ‘rational' responses.

Learning about The Almond Effect® and the STAR model for developing self control is just the beginning.

Please feel free to forward this to a colleague