Why Organisations Fail by David Rock

We have hired and promoted generations of managers with robust analytical skills and poor social skills, and we don’t seem to think that matters.

By David Rock


FORTUNE — The technology to see very small things up close showed us we had much wrong about health. The technology to see big things far away showed us we are not the center of the universe.

More recently, a technology called fMRI, that lets us collect images of oxygen use inside an active brain, has shown us that some of our long-held beliefs about human motivation may be wrong.

Matthew Lieberman, one of the founding fathers of a field called social neuroscience, tells this story in his new book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.

As Lieberman explains, for a long time we believed that people were rational, logical agents, driven by self-interest, greed, and desire. While this is not untrue, it is only half the story. It turns out that people have another driver that is of equal, if not greater, importance: the drive to be social.

The studies tell the story: Giving to charity activates the brain’s reward system more than winning money. Painkillers like Tylenol relieve social pain the same way they relieve physical pain. Being socially rejected can lower your I.Q. score by 20% and cut your GRE score nearly in half. Seeing a friend regularly has the same effect on our well being as making an extra $100,000. Volunteering to help others regularly produces the same increase in well being as making an extra $50,000. When an employee meets a person who benefits from their work, that employee can double their productivity. People will pay $30,000 to be recognized as a high-status employee. And, finally, being socially connected is literally as good for your health as quitting smoking.

Clearly, social activity matters more than we have realized. Yet our institutions and organizations, from political systems to hospitals, schools and corporations, have been built based on a different set of beliefs: that people are motivated by money, that physical — not social — health is most important, and that social needs are “nice to have.”

Long ago, researchers discovered that every time people try to solve a problem — do math or anything analytical in nature, including thinking about goals — they activate the lateral region of their brain’s prefrontal cortex. In the 1990s, it was discovered, much to our surprise, that an entirely different system was engaged when we think about other people and their thoughts, feelings, hopes, and fears. In this case, people activate a network of regions within the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex.

The ability to work well with other people in a group depends on our ability to appreciate other individuals’ emotions. A boss who knows what his staff members really want and care about will be able to design a better team environment than one who is simply focused on the elements of a project.

The irony is that human beings are built to mentally “reset” and see the world socially anytime they enter a new situation. However, modern humans tend to value analytical over social thinking, and so we tend to override that natural behavior.

The system for thinking socially and the system for thinking about goals and concepts function like a neural seesaw. When you engage one region, it dampens the activity of the other.

Our organizational environments have systems and processes that nudge people to think rationally rather than socially. In the workplace, if you are in a mindset that discounts social cues, you are going to miss a lot of important information around you and a lot of opportunities for creative problem-solving. We end up thinking that a lot of problems have analytic solutions; you just have to crunch the right numbers. Yet many of the toughest business challenges require social solutions. What does the person, team, or whole organization need to feel good? People who feel good are generally more productive.

We have hired and promoted generations of managers with robust analytical skills and poor social skills, and we don’t seem to think that matters.

How bad is the problem? Recently, I worked with the firm Management Research Group to look into data on 60,000 managers collected over 10 years across four continents. We asked the following question: What percentage of managers could be considered among the top 33% of performers as measured by their ability to focus both on work goals and the needs of other people?

The answer? Only 0.77%. Less than 1% of leaders and managers seem to be reasonably strong in both areas. If we look at just being in the top 50% of performers, we still only get 5%.

A lack of social skills is behind some of the biggest challenges in organizations. Starting from the top, if leaders are not good at understanding others, they are likely to develop a strategy and expect everyone to get on board, without stopping to imagine how others may feel about that plan. In fact, just 30% of change initiatives succeed, according to 15 years of data from McKinsey & Co.

Executives often expect that employees will follow orders and execute a strategy as planned without taking into account the human factors at play. When it comes time to give employees performance feedback, HR departments provide data and expect people to just change without recognizing that criticism is like having someone threaten your life.

So, what can a positive story look like? Juniper Networks (JNPR) (full disclosure: a client of mine) got rid of performance management rankings entirely, recognizing it created social threats that reduced collaboration. The outcome of this experiment after four years so far? Increased motivation, greater pay differentiation, and wrong people leaving the company faster.

In short: We are deeply social beings, with social needs mattering more than physical needs in many situations. As Lieberman describes in Social, Maslow may have been wrong: Social is not up the pyramid, it is right down there at the base with physical needs. Until this insight makes its way into how we design our institutions, we may continue to see less than 30% of people in our organizations actively engaged in their work, and a number of our most important institutions failing.

David Rock is cofounder of the Neuroleadership Institute, a consultant and author of Your Brain at WorkHear Matt Lieberman present his thinking at the NeuroLeadership Summit in Washington, D.C, November 6 and 7. Watch the action via free live streaming if you can’t make it. 

5 Techniques to Tame Our Lizard Brain

lizard brainWe all react impulsively from time to time.   “He flipped out”, “She went off her head”, “I saw red”, “She lost her mind” are all shorthand for having an amygdala hijack.  We can be triggered for a variety of reasons based on our own individual wiring and the stories we tell ourselves.  Sometimes the smallest issue (an interruption) can result in the biggest eruption.  You’ll know you’ve had an amygdala hijack if you find yourself saying “OMG.  What just happened” or “How did that get out of hand so quickly” or “I can’t believe I just said or did that”.  Why is it that we strike first and ask questions later? We know that intense emotional circumstances  cause us to react and that’s the lizard brain or the reptilian/limbic part of our brain going to work. Rather than thinking through the problem and responding based on reason, we act on our emotions which often causes a quick and irrational response or an amygdala hijack.

The experience of an amygdala hijack is described as:

  1. The onset of a sudden emotional reaction
  2. A sense of being “taken over” by that emotion
  3. A sense of regret for your behaviour: Why did I do that

We are wired to move away from threatening situations.  We will defend ourselves (through fight, flight or freeze) when we perceive danger.  Our amygdala is always on the lookout for situations that could be dangerous and preparing to guard us against danger. When we feel anxiety or stress it increases the “danger alert level” at a biological level.  We become even more sensitive to threats.

How amygdala hijacks happen in the brain

How amygdala hijacks happen in the brain

So, what’s happening at a neurobiological level?  The amygdala is the emotional centre of your brain.  When you perceive something through any of your five senses, the thalamus in our brain directs the impulse to the cortex (the thinking part of our brain) for processing. The cortex makes sense of the impulse and then sends a signal to the amygdala where a flood of peptides and hormones are released to create emotion and action. This is the usual circuit (the high road) when we are not being hijacked.  The diagram above demonstrates the usual track with the black arrows.

An amygdala hijack occurs when the thalamus has a different reaction.  When the thalamus (which acts as somewhat of an air traffic controller) senses a threat, it sends a signal directly to the amygdala.  The threat may not be a life threatening event but this makes no difference to our brains. Name calling, questioning your authority, cutting you off in traffic, unfair treatment all register as a threat to the thalamus. In these situations the cortex (the thinking part of our brain) is bypassed and the amygdala receives the signal. This path (the low road) is demonstrated by the red arrow in the diagram below. The amygdala then reacts based on previously stored patterns.

The good news is that we are not prisoners of our limbic system.  We can learn to circumvent this runaway response by the emotional brain in a few different ways.  Here are 5 simple techniques you can use when you notice your lizard brain is taking over.  Try them out and see which works best for you.

1.     The STOP technique

The STOP tool (developed by Tim Gallwey) allows us to remain conscious.  STOPs can be of any duration and for any circumstance (e.g. before you speak, at the beginning of the work day, to correct miscommunication, to rest etc.) This technique involves an intentional pause to make a conscious choice about if and when to interrupt what you are doing. Using this tool will save you from being overwhelmed and becoming reactive.

S: Step Back (from action and emotion)

T: Think (about what’s most important here)

O: Organise (your thoughts to create coherence)

P: Proceed (with purpose so the next steps are clear)

2.     The PAUSE principle

“Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”  Victor Frankl

As this famous quote suggests thinking before you act is a way of not letting the amygdala take over. When the fight or flight response is triggered the brain is flooded with chemicals.  It takes approximately six seconds for these chemicals to dissipate.  Use these six seconds to take six deep breaths, think about six fun things you want to do over the weekend or anything that will help you to re-engage your thinking brain until this initial reaction to lose control subsides.

 3.     Name it to Tame It

Labeling the emotion is a critical part of regulation your emotions.  When you don’t know what your are feeling it is difficult to take any steps to mange the emotion.  When you label the emotion, the prefrontal cortex is activated which tells the amygdala to calm down. Naming emotions is like like applying a brake to the lizard brain.

 4.     Take a Breath

This technique is self-explanatory.  It involves taking 4 deep breathes to oxygenate the brain and shift our of reaction and into intention. Research has shown that mindfulness and meditation have been found to result in less activity in the amygdala and allow clearer and calmer thinking.

5.     Reflect

The amygdala operates on past information if the cortex has not been involved.  If you can identify what triggers you and what you do when you are triggered (pattern) you can learn to respond to those triggers in a different way in the future.   Journaling and pattern sheets are useful tools for this process.




Elevating your Leadership in 2013

As the new year begins and before they are drawn into the routine of their day to day working life, effective leaders step back from the busyness of the New Year and ask themselves 3 essential questions.   iStock_000013075147XSmall

1.  Where am I going in 2013?

This includes exploring where they want to be by the end of 2013 (Vision), why that is important (Purpose) and how they will achieve this (Strategy).

2.  Do I have the talent needed to make this happen?

Effective leaders understand who the people are that need to be nurtured or developed to achieve or even exceed the workplace goals. They have a plan to manage or acquire the talent they need.

3.  What development do I need to make this happen?

Effective leaders want to expose their blindspots and continually grow as leaders.  They use a S.E.L.F™ checklist.

  • Am I up to date on the latest Science around leadership?

Brain science research shares what the leader needs to do to optimise brain matter.

  • Is my Emotional intelligence (self awareness, self regulation, self direction) where I need it to be?

85-90% of the difference between outstanding and average leaders is linked to Emotional Intelligence.

  • Is my Lifestyle balanced and am I putting first things first?

We know from the research that optimal performance occurs through a process of integration between the mind, body and spirit/purpose.

  • Will I be able to sustain my Focus to succeed?

Focus is often divided and distracted due to constant busyness.  Effective leaders have strategies to maintain their focus, attention and energy.

Melissa Donaldson



The Impact of Stress on our Health

The more tranquil a man becomes, the greater is his success, his influence, his power for good. Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom. – James Allen

iStock_000010265267Small-1The stress caused from constantly being under pressure can be dangerous as highlighted in this Huffington Post article (http://huff.to/14CxaHo).  Here is an overview of some of the key findings.

It Shrinks the Brain

A study by Yale University suggests that stressful events such as going through a divorce or being laid off can actually shrink the brain The reduced gray matter  (potentially signaling future psychiatric problems) occurs in regions linked to emotion and physiological functions.

Stress and Cancer

Research shows that managing that stress could improve outcomes of the disease. Researchers at the University of Miami found that undergoing a Cognitive-Behavioral Stress Management program seemed to have a positive effect on breast cancer patients’ immune system cells.

A recent animal study (Wake Forest University) showed that stress could help cancer cells survive against anti-cancer drugs.

Could Affect Your Offspring’s Genes

The effects of stress on a person’s genes may be passed on from generation to generation, according to a recent Science study.  This suggests that the effects of stress not only impact the person but may also impact the person’s offspring too.

May Contribute to Depressive Symptons

A study in mice suggests stress could play a role in the development of depression. I think the findings fit well with the idea that stress can cause depression or that stressful situations can precipitate depression,” study researcher Heather Cameron, chief of neuroplasticity at the NIMH, told TIME.

Increases the Risk of Chronic Diseases

People who were more stressed out and anxious about the stresses of everyday life were, in turn, more likely to have chronic health conditions (such as heart problems or arthritis) 10 years later, compared with people who viewed things through a more relaxed lens.

Raises Stroke and Heart Attack Risk

Stressed-out people may have a higher stroke risk than their more mellowed-out peers, according to an observational study.  Feeling anxious and stressed is linked with a 27 percent higher risk of heart attack — the same effect smoking five cigarettes a day has on the heart, the New York Daily News reported.

Lowers Immune Function

Research shows that stress has an impact on our immune systems, with one recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences even showing it can make colds worse. That’s because when you are stressed, your body produces more cortisol, which can then wreak havoc on your body’s inflammatory processes.

Here are some tips on managing stress:

  • Take deep breaths to calm your mind and give you perspective
  • Understand your triggers and take a 6 second pause
  • Visualise a peaceful place – thinking about or looking at a peaceful place will allow you to be present and help manage your emotions return moment
  • Change your emotional state by going for a walking, stretching and doing something different with your body
  • Play music

What other techniques do you use to manage your stress?



Good Companies v Great Companies

trainingHave you ever wondered what differentiates good Companies from great Companies?  It turns out that leadership development is a critical ingredient.

Hay Group (find out more about the Hay Group Study here) recently released the “Top 20 Best Companies for Leadership Study”.  The study ranks the best companies for leadership around the globe and examines how those companies develop current and future leaders. This year, General Electric topped the list, followed by Procter & Gamble, Intel Corporation, Siemens and Banco Santander.

How does your organisation stack up?

Consider how well your Company rates against the top 10 things best leadership Companies do.  Does your Company….

  1. Expect employees to lead, regardless if they have a formal position of authority?
  2. Manage a pool of successors for mission-critical roles?
  3. Collect leadership development best practices from subsidiaries and share them?
  4. Give all employees the opportunity to develop and practice the capabilities needed to lead?
  5. Get local leaders to participate in decisions made at HQ to share ideas and best practices?
  6. Promote cultural diversity and respond to the challenges of competing in a global economy?
  7. Have a ‘family friendly’ corporate culture to support employees raising children?
  8. Have programs to develop leaders who can bring together resources across the organization?
  9. Pay male and female employees the same rate?
  10. Have programs to help expats deal with the local culture?

How does your Company stack up?

We work with Executives to determine their leadership framework which goes a long way towards achieving some of these outcomes.   What’s your experience?