Everything Rewired

When Americans are asked what they do, they don’t respond with “I do volunteer work at the community center,” “I build ships in bottles,” or “I try to ensure the survival of my genes.” No, we answer with a description of our jobs. While other, more civilized countries may see us as a bit obsessed, the workplace is the center of our lives.

We spend the majority of our waking hours at work, commuting to and from work, or trying to forget about work. Our success at our jobs, or lack of it, determines the material quality of our lives, our freedom to control our own destiny, and the psychological state with which we approach activities outside of work.

Because of the central role work plays in life, rightly or wrongly, I’ve devoted mine to improving the conditions under which we perform our labor. The discoveries of cognitive neuroscience are tremendously useful in that regard. They teach us how to improve the performance of organizations and, dare I say, how to make work more fun.

The latest lessons highlight the importance of relationships. Because we all perceive situations differently and make our decisions emotionally rather than logically, conflicts are inevitable and costly. When managers and employees don’t see eye to eye, productivity suffers. When we fail to appreciate the perspective of our customers, sales, revenues, and profits all decrease.

But neuroscience doesn’t just identify the problems, it offers solutions as well. It demonstrates that questions summon forth more engagement than declarations, that stories are more persuasive than arguments, and that big ideas have the power to change the world. Taking the lessons of this new science to heart makes us more successful at working through people to get things done.

Life outside of work is all about relationships as well. Whether with our families, the airline gate agent assigning us a center seat, or the police officer pulling us over for speeding, our facility for managing human interaction determines how much peace we enjoy at home, the elbow room we have on a five hour flight, and the percentage of our income lost to traffic fines.

The ideas we learn rewire our brains, changing the way we operate. Knowing its impact on the bottom line, the corporate world devotes significant resources to teaching managers how to improve relationships. In our personal lives, we should be just as focused on proactively and intelligently managing our interactions with others.

Life’s better when we all just get along.

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.