Brain Science Can Lead Us Out of the Doldrums

Even the most cheerful optimists have got to be depressed by the economy. Every time we get data that suggests we’re finally coming out of the Great Recession, it’s followed by more that indicates we’re not, lately even in the same report. Perhaps we need to set aside the wishful thinking and just accept what we’ve got: an economy that isn’t falling off a cliff, but isn’t going to come roaring back any time soon.

It’s tough for the bipolar financial media to recognize that it is what it is, because there’s no news in a so-so status quo. It’s the really good or really bad that drives us to buy newspapers or visit websites. But it’s also tough for managers. Nobody gets rewarded or excited when earnings are flat, and most businesses have already cut all there is to cut to bump up their bottom line.

Part of the problem, we’re told, is that there’s no hot new technology like computers or the internet to help us dig out of the hole of debt we’ve created. But I think there is a hot new technology, not right in front of our noses, but behind them. Neuroscience’s incredible advances in understanding how the mind works have enormous potential to transform the way we run our businesses.

I’m not talking about pills that supposedly make us smarter, nor do I believe that using neuro-feedback to teach managers how to mimic the brain wave patterns of great leaders will make them great leaders. Such approaches are just too far out there for me or, I suspect, my clients. And while brain scans┬ámay help us understand what product features stimulate the release of the pleasure inducing dopamine, it’s still a long way from that knowledge to a product that will delight customers and make a profit. The real gains come from just factoring in how the mind works when we make business decisions.

A number of years ago, Ernst and Young came up with the tag line, “There’s not a business we can’t improve.” While a marketing campaign that insults the capability of potential clients is ill-considered, and evidence of not paying enough attention to the mind, the firm was correct in it’s assessment. Because our conventional way of thinking is flawed, according to neuroscience, it inevitably leads to flawed businesses.

I would bet anyone that has worked in the corporate world would agree that organizations are hugely inefficient and that much of what managers do is self-defeating. At the same time, there is a solid body of data on which organizational designs and management practices improve performance. The reason we don’t replace what doesn’t work with what does is exactly what the latest research in neuroscience teaches us.

Because the brain doesn’t record our experience of the world, as conventional wisdom asserts, but creates it, as neuroscience has established, we live in a world of our own making. But most of what we do as managers is based on the assumption that we all see things the same way. The feedback I give employees is objective and for their benefit, the rewards I dispense are generous, and this time I’m serious about change.

But employees don’t see things the same way as managers, so they don’t respond the way we expect. Our feedback comes across as punitive and is rejected, our rewards are so small they’re seen as insulting, and change is just more of the same. Worse yet, I see what I believe, so all I become aware of is evidence that what I do as a manager is effective. Given the self-deception our brains are capable of, we’re just not good judges of what works or doesn’t.

And much of what has been proven to work flies in the face of our common sense. Self-management improves performance and open organizations that give up the illusion of control outperform traditional ones. Engaging narratives are much more effective at changing minds than logical arguments, and inspirational visions trump measurable objectives in driving performance.

Because of the kind of thinking our culture has historically valued, we pay inadequate attention to the minds of those we interact with. In an objective world, there’s no reason to. But neuroscience teaches us that the world we live in isn’t objective, and if we take the lesson to heart, it dramatically changes how we manage.

Calculate the savings if managers no longer waste their time doing what doesn’t work, if we dispense with all of the organizational control systems people cleverly find ways to work around, and if we no longer spend money on change initiatives that don’t change anything. Now add in the increased productivity that comes from highly engaged people eagerly contributing their best thinking to further the success of the business. Factor in, as well, the increase in revenue that would come from designing and marketing products that leverage how and why customers make buying decisions, and the gain in market share that would come from strategies that confound the thinking of the competition.

The total would dwarf any savings coming from cost-cutting or the implementation of new information technology. This isn’t science fiction or some pipe dream of what the future will bring. We have the knowledge and the means to apply it today. In fact, there are companies already reaping the benefits of this new scientific approach, and not just in Silicon Valley but in the heartland as well.

No new technology indeed!

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