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Why creating a ‘brain safe’ workplace brings out the best in your team

Thursday, November 26, 2015 - 17:36

Guest post by Dr Jenny Brockis

With all the talk about teamwork, you would have thought that getting people to work well together would have been well and truly sorted. Except it hasn't. Too often attempts to bring together the collective intelligence of a number of talented individuals; managing their individual differences, expectations, interpersonal rivalries and petty jealousies can seem harder than herding cats.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised, because of the 7.3 billion people on the planet, no two brains are alike. Plus the brain's primary driver is to keep us safe, in times of difficulty our need for self-preservation kicks in - we become inherently selfish.

Can selfish brains ever truly collaborate?

Fortunately yes. Whilst self-preservation will look to prevail when we feel threatened, we have evolved as highly connected social beings. From an evolutionary perspective there is a lot to be said for safety in numbers, pooling ideas and sharing knowledge.

Safety first.

When faced with anything new or different our brain has to determine whether this is a potential threat or reward. Being safety orientated, the brain's default is set to assume danger first. The potential reward route is slower to reach its conclusion.

This means the socially savvy manager has to work hard to keep all team members in a 'towards' state for potential reward. Threat carries the risk of social pain that can stifle productivity and performance. How many people do you know who have been carrying around social hurt from snubs or insults sometimes for years?

Social pain hurts as much as physical pain because they share common neural pathways. While studies have shown how taking an aspirin can diminish the intensity of social pain, stocking up on aspirin isn't going to fix all our relationship ills. What matters is recognising how people skills along with technical expertise, leads to the creation of effective teams. Sadly this is rare. A survey conducted by the Management Research Group in 2013 of 60,000 managers over four continents revealed only 0.77% managers have the magic combination of people and technical skills. Happily this is exactly where the new brain science can step in to help.

Create a brain safe team environment

Group dynamics work best where diversity of thinking processes is encouraged, and ideas shared without fear of judgement or ridicule. We find this rewarding, which leads to our brain releasing greater quantities of dopamine that makes us feel good and want to repeat that activity again.

Establish trust.

Every relationship is founded on trust. By demonstrating our trustworthiness we build loyalty and mutual respect. It takes time, has to be earned and crucially has to be maintained. In the nanosecond trust is broken, that relationship may never fully recover.

Reward progress.

When we are rewarded for effort and process, we respond by trying harder, choosing more challenging projects and persisting in seeking a solution to a problem. Cultivating a group growth mindset is a key factor in motivating performance.

Play fair

To the brain, fairness matters more than money. The perception of unfairness engenders a deep sense of disgust and a retreat from further cooperation.

Include the 'C' factor

Collective intelligence depends on the level of social sensitivity of a group. This is raised by gender diversity and taking turns. Whilst there will always be the one voice that is the loudest, it's important all voices get heard. Sometimes it is the quietist voice that has the best idea.

Embrace failure

Not all group projects succeed. The statistics around successful organisational change initiatives hover around 30%. Managers that cultivate a team culture that learns from its mistakes will find it easier to initiate new projects with the expectation that some at least will suceed.

Teamwork can be fun, stimulating and challenging. Bringing out the best of all team members starts with creating a brain safe working environment for all brains at work.

Dr. Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner, speaker and author who specialises in brain health and the science of high performance thinking. Her new book Future Brain: The 12 Keys To Create A High Performance Brain (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores. www.drjennybrockis.com