Cowboy taming a brain

One Way To Tame Your Brain

By Dr. Jon Finn
Founder of Tougher Minds

October 18, 2018

Editor's Note: I’m (obviously) fascinated by the different approaches practitioners take to applying the science of decision-making. Some call it “behavioral science,” some say it’s “neuroscience,” and others spend (waste?) their time arguing over the terminology.

For our purposes, I’m interested in listening to and gathering ideas of all sorts, no matter the terminology or the focus, so long as they’re credible and offer a peek into a possible future of applied behavioral principles. Jon’s piece does that and more.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Jon is from the United Kingdom, so please don’t be freaked out by how he spells “behavior,” “organization” or “program.” It’s for science.

Today’s workplaces require a radically different mindset to flourish.

Why? The challenges posed by what we call the volatility, unpredictability, complexity and ambiguity (“VUCA”) of changing working practices and new technology in our professional and personal lives.

We are now required to behave and think very differently. If we are not equipped for this, our well-being, morale and performance can all suffer. In turn, this can spill over into business, including reduced productivity, less innovation, lower morale and difficulties keeping pace with the competition.

A recent report by the UK Government showed that increased workplace stress and professional burnout costs the economy between £73 billion and £97 billion each year. Meanwhile, technology and restructuring impact employment. Organisations like banks are using technology to boost profits, while reducing staff. The Financial Times wrote that increasing automation could see Citigroup’s investment banking business lose half of its 20,000 technology and operations staff in the next five years.

It is obvious there will be major consequences for the lives and jobs of many working people and those in leadership and management positions. 

We are not hard-wired to flourish

So, how can an organisation equip its people to survive and thrive in this new, VUCA world? 

The first thing to recognize is that there is a major obstacle to us consistently being our best: our brain. It can make life difficult by exaggerating problems and stopping us fulfilling our potential. Evolution means the human brain focuses on survival and not on how to support health and happiness as we measure them today (see this).

At Tougher Minds, we draw on neuroscientist Paul MacLean’s metaphor of the “triune brain” for the term the “A.P.E.” The limbic regions of the brain concentrate on keeping us Alive, how we are Perceived by others, and conserving Energy. Unsurprisingly, the APE brain can dominate our thoughts and habits.

By focusing on threats and prioritizing physical safety, the brain drives basic instincts. This once helped us survive, but it’s not helpful in modern life.

It also drives our worries about what others think. And from our origins as hunter-gatherers, rather than supermarket shoppers, we are predisposed to conserve energy. So the A.P.E. brain prefers us to avoid mentally challenging work, and watch our screens instead of exercise. 

Science also indicates humans have evolved to procrastinate and be impulsive. Our ancestors needed to quickly satisfy basic survival needs, so short-term goals were prioritized.

Today, in the VUCA world, these once advantageous traits can undermine well-being and performance. They encourage us not to pursue excellence, but to succumb to short-term temptation. We overlook the long-term goal setting that helps maintain focus, discipline and diligence. In turn, this makes it difficult to perform to our potential, reach our objectives, or feel fulfilled in life and at work. 

This evolutionary process can result in us lacking self-control, which is described by Professor Roy Baumeister as “the greatest human strength.” As Baumeister explains, the ability to do it well not only allows us to be healthier and happier but also at our best more often:

There is more data coming out all the time showing that people who have good self-control are more successful in school when they are young, and at work when they are older and grown up, they make more money, become more prominent and successful. They are also better at relationships. They are more popular with other people. People trust them more. They have stronger marriages, intimate and romantic relationships. They are happier. They have lower stress… They are better adjusted. [They have] fewer drinking problems, and drugs and eating disorders… Overall [they have] better mental health, better physical health too. They behave better, commit fewer crimes, are less likely to be arrested, fewer traffic accidents and partner abuse, and prejudice and everything like that. And at the far end of life they live longer.

Good self-control, or emotional regulation (the neuroscientist’s label for self-control), allows people to resist unhelpful thoughts and actions. We call this helpful attention control (H.A.C.). Recognize that you are thinking or doing something that is unhelpful for your health, happiness or performance, and then refocus onto something that is more helpful. We describe this process as H.A.Cing your brain, which is the central component of being resilient.

Becoming resilient and effective in the new world

With this understanding, we can see that ambitious organisations need to support their people to consistently use the “self-control” part of their brain. This helps you to overcome your primal impulses, making it easier to be at your best more often.

It is not enough, however, to give people ideas about what will help them. Even a demonstration of the skills they might need is insufficient. 

Behaviour change science shows that any group or organisation aiming to foster positive and helpful change for their people must implement sustained, long-term programmes to improve well-being and develop new mindsets. Only by consistently reminding and triggering people to act can their most helpful behaviours become hard-wired habits.

During the past 17 years, our approach to create successful programmes to improve well-being and develop new mindsets requires several key components:

First, they must give people an insight into how the brain works and its potentially damaging consequences in the VUCA world. This understanding provides a sound foundation upon which to build.

Second, people should also be given an understanding of how they can use techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy to regulate their emotions. This can involve showing them how to refocus their attention onto helpful thoughts and supporting them to plan their days, so they build better thinking habits for the long-term. 

Next, any progress people make in their roles should be reinforced. People should also be given consistent reminders of their purpose within any team or organisation and how they are successfully contributing to overall objectives.

Another key change that can aid well-being and performance is environmental design, which can encourage helpful habits and beneficial behaviour. If we want people to make a significant change in their lives, we need to design our environments much more purposefully. This helps to reduce stress and time spent thinking unhelpful thoughts. Changes could include encouraging light exercise during the working day or offering resources that promote structured daily planning and reflection.  

People are hard-wired to feel fulfilled and happy when they make personal progress in work and life. This is a win-win for business. Programmes that help people to be their best more often lead to improved personal performance and greater well-being. Indeed, many of the people in our training report that learning to be more resilient is life changing.  

They also report “reduced stress,” “improved morale,” and “improved employee engagement.” These attributes underpin improved leadership development and better performance under pressure. A growing number of businesses and organisations regard this as the best investment they can make if they want to prosper and flourish in the VUCA world. 

What is the overall effect of helping your people to build daily new helpful habits? Robust data and our clients tell us it makes it easier for everyone to be at their best, more often. That’s a recipe for success in today’s VUCA world as well as that yet to come.

By Dr. Jon Finn
Founder of Tougher Minds


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