AUTHORS: KLAUS DÜRRBECK AND PÄIVI MAYOR
Setting the stageWe all experience the world changing faster and faster creating increased pressure on people to be more productive and perform at higher levels both in work and private life. There is a constantly growing amount of literature and training programs that claim to help and improve individual performance under these challenging conditions. However, there is little evidence that these often postulated “miracle recipes for instant success” actually work. Trying to do more with less or faster misses the goal.
Instead, there seems to be an answer to such challenges that is far closer to us than most of the previous approaches: our brain. Latest neuroscience findings helped to create principles that can help us to react to challenges more effectively, work more productively, and finally achieve better results. This can be achieved by gaining a deeper understanding about the functions of our brain, the individual triggers, and subsequent reactions or behaviors.
To illustrate these in practice, we would like you to imagine the following case that might look familiar to many of us.
Anna, who recently took over a middle-management function in medium size service company, is entering her office on a Monday morning, after she spent the whole weekend with her family. She starts her computer, immediately recognizing that some 50 emails arrived since she left on Friday. While she starts to answer them in order of priority, she is frequently interrupted by phone calls and some of her employees who come into her office with request and reports. More and more exhausted by this constant task-switching she realizes that it is almost 12 a.m. and that she missed an important telephone conference with a client an hour ago. Still struggling with her body’s stress response after this shock she receives a call from her superior who immediately wants to see her. Skipping the small talk, her boss Lucy confronts her with the complaint of the client who did not receive Anna’s call for the conference and is now thinking to switch the provider. Following this, Lucy informs Anna about her decision to hand over the prestigious project to a younger co-worker of Anna, who seems to be more capable of handling the issue. Leaving the boss’ office, Anna remains rather unproductive the rest of the day, grieving about her failure and the loss of her project.
So, what went wrong here? Clearly some points, but let’s view the challenges and issues from a neuroscientific perspective.
Especially in today’s business reality, one will get overflowed by information easily. We tend to work on several tasks at once, responding to interruptions immediately. But as neuroscience suggests, our brains are built to process information sequentially rather than simultaneously. Neuroscience shows that a certain level of stress is actually a prerequisite for any form of performance.Also, switching tasks constantly, leads to increased brain fatigue, resulting in weak quality of results and on average much longer time to complete a single task.
Hence Anna should have initially prioritized her work through pre-planning the daily tasks. Thereby, she likely would have remembered the important conference. Furthermore, she should then have minimized distractions to work on i.e. her most important emails by closing the door of her office and putting the phone on mute.
Manage threat and reward
Even though modern man seems to think and act rational, we are prone to fall back into rather primitive behavior when facing stressful situations. Like an innate autopilot-mode the brain follows an overarching principle to initially judge any stimulus (i.e. verbal information) as either threatening or rewarding. The former leads to an avoidance-reaction and the latter to an approaching-reaction which is closely related to person’s motivation.
The neuroscientifically grounded SCARF© model provides a basis to reduce threat and maximize reward of business situations. It includes five dimensions which have implications on individual motivation and which every leader should use to create a positive environment for their teams. The SCARF model stands for:
1. Status. Getting a good status and relative position towards others.
2. Certainty. Feeling certain about future events.
3. Autonomy. Feeling to be in control of situation.
4. Relatedness. Belonging to a social group.
5. Fairness. Subjective feeling of equal/fair treatment, (compared to peers). (figure 1).
These points can also be found in the motivation research of Steven Reiss (2008), for example, who discovered that status is also an important intrinsic motivator for human beings, unlike presented by some other researchers.
In the above-mentioned case, Lucy reduced Anna’s status by taking her off the project lead and transferring it to a colleague. This was the main reason for the diminishing motivation of Anna in the following time, leading to low performance. She rather should have offered support to Anna e.g. by providing the co-worker as a consultant and giving her a second chance to save the project. This learning opportunity would likely have boosted Anna’s motivation.
Figure 1: The SCARF© model and actions to trigger threat or reward in the individual dimension. (Based on Rock 2008)
Handle stress and reach peak performance
Stress usually carries a negative connotation and is related to burnout and other adverse health issues. However, neuroscience shows that a certain level of stress is actually a prerequisite for any form of performance. Only if high levels of stress are prevalent over a longer period of time, they will lead to negative effects. Everybody has a certain threshold of stress required to perform at a peak level (figure 2). However, when exceeding this point, performance will dramatically drop, causing fatigue and eventually panic.
Anna immersed herself in constantly high levels of stress the whole day, leading to dramatic performance lacks. If she would have known her own threshold for optimum performance and observed the limited availability of this peak performance, she might have yielded better results. The right ratio of tension and relaxation is key to sustain high levels of performance while maintaining mental health.
Figure 2: Invertal U-curve model of arousal with respective performance levels depending on stress levels. (Based on Yerkes & Dodson 1908)
As illustrated, neuroscience provides scientifically proven concepts that help individuals and organizations to reach goals. Especially, leaders who are required to act as transmission between corporate goals and the workforce can utilize principles of neuroscience to improve individual’s motivation, team performance, and lastly business success.
Dürrbeck, K. 2016. Neuroscience and Leadership. Awareness, Relevance and Applications of Neuroscience Principles within Leadership Development in Germany. Tampere University of Applied Sciences. Bachelor’s Thesis.
Reiss, S. 2008. The Normal Personality: A New Way of Thinking about People. Cambridge University Press.
Rock, D. 2008. SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. NeuroLeadership Journal (1), 44–52.
Yerkes, R. & Dodson, J. 1908. The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology (18), 459–482.
About the authors
Klaus Dürrbeck is a recent double-degree BBA graduate from Tampere University of Applied Sciences (TAMK) and University of Applied Sciences in Munich (MUAS). He has a 12-year career as officer in the German Armed Forces, including functions as Public Affairs Officer and leader as well as trainer within leadership development programmes. He has worked in Spain, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Afghanistan, Lithuania, and The Netherlands. Currently Klaus works as a consultant and trainer with Munich Leadership Group in Germany.
Päivi Mayor, Ph.D, has 20 years experience in the area of human resource development and leadership development. She studied business in Finland and gained her Ph.D at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland in the area of strategic management and innovation. She has lived in Switzerland, Finland, Germany, France and UK and worked for different international organisations. Currently Päivi is a lecturer at TAMK International Business department and in different Master programs where she teaches leadership and international business.