What Can Brain Science Teach Us About Nasal Spray and Accountability?

In a recent study, researchers found that the neuropeptide Oxytocin leads to more trusting behavior, even in relationships where there’s built in conflict. Subjects that received Oxytocin through a nasal spray displayed more trust in the classic game Prisoners’ Dilemma than those that were administered just a placebo.

In Prisoners’ Dilemma, the logical bet is for both prisoners to look out for themselves and not depend on the other one being trustworthy. It’s a particularly interesting game for business because it mirrors life in most organizations. Each member stands to benefit from collective action, if everyone else is trustworthy. But if they’re not, looking out for number one is often the safer strategy. Or as a client once put it, “If it’s a question of my team being successful or sending my son to college, it’s a no brainer.”

Because of this, leaders have long struggled with the issue of trust, but now through the miracle of modern science, we have a solution. Everyone just needs a little sniff of Oxytocin nasal spray, which is apparently available on the internet for as little as $29.95 for a two week supply. That’s quite a bit cheaper than hiring a team building consultant.

Tempting as it may be, this is precisely the kind of lesson we don’t want to learn from brain science. It’s not only that the same spray could be used for dishonest purposes–imagine if it were pumped into the showrooms of used car dealers, but that we’re drawing the wrong kind of lessons from the latest discoveries. The real learning is that our behavior is driven less by the nature of any situation we may find ourselves in, than by the way we think about the situation. Change the thinking and we change the behavior, and we can it do perfectly well without recourse to pharmaceuticals.

Recently, one of my clients was distressed by the unwillingness of his direct reports to be held accountable. As a result, he was focused on how to improve the organization’s measurement systems and how to establish clear consequences for non-performance. While the right kind of measures are critical for any business and while people should not be immune from the consequences of a failure to perform, accountability is less of a problem to be solved than it is a symptom of a more basic issue.

When I talked to the direct reports, they weren’t unwilling to be held accountable. They just didn’t agree with what they were being held accountable for. Their objectives were set top down, and they felt that they didn’t match the reality of their businesses. Much as they respected and even admired their boss, they were convinced he was too far removed from operations to understand what they were up against. The perceptions of each were different and in conflict.

Our logical minds are deluded into either/or thinking. In fact, one of Aristotle’s laws of logic mandates that there can be no middle ground–something is either the case or it is not.  Either the objectives are fair or they’re not. Either the boss is right or the employees are. But when we move beyond logic and incorporate how the mind works, we appreciate that both the manager and his direct reports are right, from their point of view.

The solution to this disconnect is not tighter measures and more draconian consequences. It’s impossible to build an infallible system for accountability and threats of punishment hardly motivate people to give their all for the business. Instead, the conflict should be taken as an opportunity to rethink the business from the top down.

Our ideas are instantiated  in neural networks arranged hierarchically in the brain. Those at higher levels drive decision-making and behavior at lower levels that are in harmony with them. If we get agreement at the highest levels, operational conflicts disappear.

When I pulled together my client and his team to address the conflict over accountability, we started by agreeing on a vision for the business and a strategy to achieve it.  With everyone in sync on what they wanted to accomplish and how best to do it, the objectives and how to ensure they were met just fell out naturally. Even better, the managers now worked toward achieving their objectives because they wanted to, not because they were afraid of the consequences if they didn’t. The result was a tighter and more efficient organization, and far more engagement from everyone. In just a quarter, performance improved significantly.

A squirt of nasal spray might have made the direct reports more trusting of their boss and the boss more trusting of his people. But it wouldn’t have made the direct reports able to achieve objectives that didn’t fit their businesses. The best chance of improving performance is to address how people think at the highest level.

Tiger Woods on the Brain

In a recent interview, I was asked what effect all of the time we spend in front of a computer has on the brain. Setting aside the effect of staring at a screen might have on our neurons, I immediately thought of the incredible access we have to information over the internet.

Unfortunately, it’s a double-edged sword. It certainly saved me a lot of time and trouble writing my recent book, but I also find I know far more about Tiger Woods’s sexual peccadilloes than I care to. In the past, my knowledge would’ve been limited to what I could pick up from the tabloids while I stood in the checkout line at the supermarket. Now I’m just a click away from the article in the Hindustan Times on the “25,000 pounds on orgies with hookers” he spent, and it doesn’t even appear until tomorrow.

Despite the fact that I’m the one that decides to click on such articles, it’s easy to fault the internet for clogging my brain with garbage. But like every aspect of our experience, it’s not so much what something is, but what our minds do with it that determines its worth. The brain is a vast network of relationships, and when one piece of data is linked to another, the mind can generate valuable insights even from information that seems worthless at first glance.

The internet vastly extends the network of relationships, because it gives us access not just to bits of data, but to other minds making connections between the bits of data. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Gail Collins frames the “hysteria over Tiger Woods” as a useful way for us to gain respite from the really depressing news on healthcare reform and the escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

Sam Tanenhaus links the story to the historian Daniel Boorstin’s distinction between celebrity and heroism. Celebrity is created by the media, while heroism is a result of the acts of the individual. Our focus on celebrity is an indication of the decline of society’s values. But by trying to remain aloof, Woods has paradoxically allowed the media to define him, both for good and for ill.

This same theme is picked up by Belinda Luscombe in an article in Time. She writes that Woods’s wife Elin should take a lesson from Jenny Sanford, the “new hero” of “cheated-upon spouses.” “Sanford deftly and subtly grasped her part of the narrative and spun it. Hers is not the story of a dull wife who was passed over for an exotic soul mate in Argentina, but rather the tale of the true captain of a family ship, unbowed by the squalls.”

By refusing to stand by her husband at his news conference and through her own interview with AP and a profile in Vogue, she defined herself, preempting the media’s spin. We now see her through her own, self-created narrative.

My link is to organizational leadership.  Most cognitive scientists now believe that our minds work through stories, and we are defined both for ourselves and for others through the story we tell. As Tiger Woods has learned from his silence, in the absence of a carefully crafted story, others will impose their own story on events. The story we tell is not just a pejorative “spin,” but an heroic act.

All organizations have a collective story their members tell. In times like these, marked by devastating layoffs and examples of corporate greed, the story being told is not good either for the business or for the individual. It saps any sense of loyalty and desire to work for the common good, and it leads to lives of not so quiet desperation.

Leaders need to create a counter-narrative with an aspirational vision of the future that gets people committed and excited. The story is told with words, but it’s also told with decisions and actions. There’s no magic to creating stories, for they are just what the individual leaders need to tell themselves to ensure their own commitment.  By thinking about what we need, we’ll know what others need as well.

Maybe following the Tiger Woods saga isn’t such a waste of time after all, but one of those teachable moments we keep hearing about today. Then again, maybe every moment is teachable, if we make the right connections. To be valuable, internet links need more than just a mouse click. They need an open mind.

Do Unto Others

I am a firm believer that the world is what we think it to be. If  we’re feeling a bit down or if we’re elated, we’ll tend to focus on information that justifies our mood. Since our moods can quickly become self-fulfilling prophecies, it’s important that we recognize how much our prefrontal cortex can dampen the activity of the emotion producing amygdala. We can think ourselves into a better place.

However, there are times when there’s a greater cause for concern, and this may be one of those times. The struggling economy is taking its toll, not just on those families that are suffering from lost jobs, but on all of us that are forced to lower our expectations. Many of us are having to set aside our dreams for retirement or for a life with reasonable financial security. There just doesn’t seem to be anything on the horizon that will soon restore our lost prosperity.

The policy makers that are elected to help us in times like these aren’t proving to be much help. Whether it’s the initial stimulus package, the need for another, or the reform of a health care system that represents a sixth of our economy, there seems to be an unconscionable level of finger pointing and game playing.  One begins to sense that all too many are more concerned with whether they personally win or lose than whether they resolve the problems our country is facing.

The same  spirit seems to rule the media. So much of what I read and hear is about why the other side is not only wrong, but lacking the basic human values each side claims for itself. Conspicuously absent is an appreciation for someone else’s point of view and any attempt to use the competition of ideas to arrive at better ones than any of us can come up with on our own.

And having just endured the Monday morning commute, I see the same selfishness in our society at large. Too many drivers are unwilling to let others merge in front of them, as if the race to work is a life and death matter to be determined by the precious seconds one might lose.

There’s pretty good data that our species is driven by what Richard Dawkins has called the “selfish gene,” but there’s also abundant evidence that humans flourish because of their ability to cooperate.  Those individual sacrifices we are called upon to make in the short term pay huge dividends in the longer term.  The world we live in is made better by our collective effort.

So perhaps we need to stop looking to our elected officials for leadership and one by one, demonstrate it ourselves. Those mirror neurons recently discovered in our brains encourage us to mimic the thoughts and actions of others, and for others to mimic our thoughts and actions. In this way, adaptive behaviors become contagious.  In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes how a fondness for Hush Puppies spread through our culture.  Imagine what would happen if self-sacrifice and civility were to spread the same way.

It all starts with what some have call “random acts of kindness.” We let that stranger merge in front of us during the morning commute, and they then mimic the behavior and let another stranger merge in front of them.  Little by little, the behavior spreads until road rage is replaced with all of us politely nodding and smiling at one another. The pleasant mood we would all find ourselves in at the end of the commute might just carry over into our work and then into the rest of our lives.

With the norm becoming civility and cooperation, divisive politicians and journalists would find themselves shunned. It would soon become clear that the only way to get elected or sell products for your advertisers would be to focus on the common good.  Those that didn’t would be ostracized.  Soon perhaps even the bankers would feel compelled to set aside self-interest, and obscene compensation packages would become a thing of the past.

I know that this is a bit of a pipe dream, but at a local level, polite behavior does create wonders. Try going out of your way to be friendly and treat others with respect.  All of a sudden, people become friendly in return, and life seems less stressful and more fun. One begins to feel better about the human race and not as pessimistic about our prospects for the future.

We may not transform the world at large, but we will transform the world we live in, and that’s a pretty good start.

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