22 Questions & Answers
1. What do you mean by “brain science is turning management on its head?”
Now that we know so much more about how the mind works, it’s imperative that we apply this knowledge to how we manage. If we do, many of the most commonly accepted management practices will be abandoned, because brain science teaches us that most of what we do as managers produces the opposite of what we intend.
2. Is there really anything new here?
Most of our management practices just rely on theories or the way we’ve always done things. Brain science gives us good, hard, scientific data to show what works and what doesn’t. It challenges virtually everything we’ve come to take for granted, and gives us a new set of practices, which while they may seem counterintuitive, produce much better results.
3. What fundamental management practices has the latest brain science proven wrong?
Virtually all. We now know that a manager’s performance feedback and the use of rewards to motivate produce the opposite of what we intend. Organizations waste resources vainly trying to thwart our natural inclinations. Our quantifiable objectives cause us to focus on the short term at the expense of the long term.
4. Armed with this new knowledge of brain science, what are some ways we can manage better?
We need to manage both mind and behavior. Managers shouldn’t direct their employees but instead should use questions to engage them. They should stop worrying about the right incentives to motivate good performance and should instead leverage the universal human desire for meaningful work. Last but not least, we ought to design our organizations to channel our innate selfishness rather than attempting to counter it.
5. There’s a lot of talk in the news now about salary caps and big bonuses. What does brain science tell us about the effectiveness of such financial incentives?
Quite simply, they don’t work. The brain produces feelings of pleasure when we are fully engaged in our work, not when we receive a reward. In fact, monetary rewards actually decrease our intrinsic motivation. When we hold out financial incentives, performance goes down, not up.
6. How can findings from brain science guide today’s managers as they face such challenges as laying off workers and motivating those that remain despite low morale?
The fear people feel during layoffs slows down the brain, diminishing the number of connections made, and narrowing vision. The result is that people become less productive. So when we cut expenses, we need to focus on managing the mindset of our employees, helping them feel confident in their ability to weather the crisis, and perhaps even benefit from it. By soliciting their participation in coming up with ways to cut expenses, they will feel more in control and be more engaged.
7. Why doesn’t a manager’s feedback work?
No matter how constructive, critical feedback is always perceived negatively. In defense, we try to discount it or rationalize it away. Because it summons up aggression, it becomes in our best interests to continue the behavior that is being criticized by our boss.
8. So if feedback doesn’t work, how are we supposed to correct those errors in behavior and the bad habits that will inevitably come up with employees again and again?
It’s not the feedback itself that is the problem, but the source. When employees are asked to appraise their own performance, with the assistance of whatever hard data is available, they have greater ownership of any shortfalls. It then becomes in their best interests to correct them.
9. What’s wrong with goal setting?
By themselves, numerical objectives narrow our mental bandwidth, eliminating the emotion that enables our brains to access the past experiences our forethought depends on. We become very short-term focused. Objective goals should be in the service of a larger mission than just profit.
10. What’s wrong with performance reviews?
The discussion of performance falls victim to the same dynamic as feedback, and scheduled reviews encourage putting off the kind of ongoing dialogue that builds a positive managerial relationship. Besides, employees don’t even pay any attention to the discussion of performance because they’re so focused on the issue of salary.
11. What are the implications of your notion that we all experience different versions of reality in our work lives?
Our versions will almost assuredly not agree with those of others. We can’t count on correctly interpreting the actions of others, or others correctly interpreting ours. The result is that we don’t get the results we expect. But the more we manage with an awareness of these differences, the better chance we’ll have of eliciting the results we want.
12. How can metaphors help us manage better?
Metaphors change our view of the world, and the actions and decisions we take as a result, so they overcome the biggest obstacle to improving performance. They also bring both the emotional and intellectual brain into play, making us smarter. For example, thinking of an organization as an orchestra prompts us to ensure that our actions are in sync with those of others. The metaphor changes the role of the manager, shifting the focus to encouraging cooperation.
13. What about stories?
Since they’re the way the brain naturally works, we immediately identify with them and take them as our own. Because they can capture where we are, where we need to be, and what it takes to change, they’re particularly useful for transforming a business. When we think in stories, our decisions and actions are in sync. One client told the story of everyone coming together to overcome the mistakes of the past and move from autocracy to democracy, echoing the spirit of the American Revolution. It inspired people to change.
14. What are mirror neurons and what do they have to do with how we manage our relationships with our customers, suppliers, peers and boss?
Influencing others requires that we understand where they’re coming from. Since mirror neurons fire when we observe the actions of others and they capture intent, they enable us to empathize. We essentially become the other person and so know how to garner their support. It’s much more effective to proactively manage our bosses by imagining the pressures they’re under and how they view us. We then know what to do to ensure their support and approval.
15. What do free markets and management have to do with each other?
Trying to thwart our genetically driven selfishness is a waste of resources. We’re much better off leveraging it, and that’s what free markets do. The more we can get employees to think as if they’re running their own businesses, the better their performance will be.
16. What should change about business strategy?
It should never target just numerical objectives without a broader mission that engages people. Rather than just leverage strengths, it should turn weaknesses into strengths to catch competitors flat-footed. Since most strategies fail because of a lack of execution, they should be formulated with an eye to the capability of the company to execute.
One small high tech company used their small size to quickly change the terms of service in their industry. The larger competitors would have had to revamp all of their business systems to match the offering. The key to the success of the strategy was the mission of reinventing the way services were delivered. Execution was ensured by an open organization with people empowered to serve their customers as they saw fit.
17. What’s wrong with how most companies execute corporate change initiatives?
Our minds automatically reduce any information in conflict with our view, so most change initiatives are never even noticed. If there’s a history of initiatives, the current one will just be seen as the initiative du jour, which too will pass. Change initiatives must change minds with a marker that grabs attention, and everything must be aligned to send a consistent message.
18. What’s an example or two of a well-known company you’re aware of that uses the right approach to management and has succeeded as a result?
Certainly, Apple and Google are the most prominent examples, but we have to be careful when we analyze the success of such companies. There are so many variables at play, including the nature of the industry, that identifying the causes of success is difficult. Today’s stars can quickly become tomorrow’s dogs. We’re much better off focusing on what individual managers can do, and we have lots of data linking the right management practices to increases in performance.
19. What’s an example of a company that experienced a prominent failure due to an outdated approach to management?
The industrial landscape is littered with them. We’ve watched virtually every integrated steel company with top-heavy bureaucracies and rigid control systems fail because of a lack of innovation. In contrast, upstart mini-mills were quick to jump on new, lower cost technologies and performance enhancing practices like self-managed teams. But certainly the best example of how not to manage is GM. For over two decades they’ve had a partnership with Toyota to build small cars, but they’ve failed to implement on a broader basis what they should’ve learned about management.
20. Why do you say managers should spend less time thinking?
Logical thinking that excludes emotion reduces our mental bandwidth. On a more personal level, thinking detracts from the full engagement in the work that leads both to pleasurable feelings and enhanced performance. We need to think, but we also want to turn it off when it gets in the way. Great athletes think before they’re engaged in their sport, not during their performance.
21. Why do you say that integrity is profitable?
When people have integrity, their decisions and actions are driven by values we deem worthwhile. Mirror neurons immediately pick up on integrity, and motivate support. Employees will do what we need them to, and customers will trust our products and services.
22. What’s the first thing managers can start doing tomorrow to rewire their management practices according to brain science?
The beauty of what we’re learning is that there are no complex algorithms to master. You just need to think about the insights of brain science, such as using stories, acting with integrity, and engaging rather than directing. Once the ideas are embedded in the mind, you’ll know both what to do and what not to do. If you’re willing to learn from mistakes and ask for feedback, you’ll continuously improve. It takes discipline and practice, like any physical or mental exercise, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll find it easy and you’ll notice measurably improved results.