Sometimes it feels like 21st century life is at odds with being human, doesn’t it?
Take work, for instance. The fundamentals of our working lives have changed and continue changing, ever more profoundly and rapidly. However, recent economic and technological developments are not matched by improvements to how employees feel about their work.
In their recent report (State of the Global Workplace 2022 * link to full report), Gallup confirmed that 60% of us are emotionally detached at work and 19% are miserable – despite the long-held and widespread belief that engaged people are more productive.
This raises some important questions about work and our current relationship with it:
- Is growth a means of fulfilling purpose or an end in itself?
- Are the demands of change ‘retiring’ important values (e.g. respect, empathy, kindness)?
- Is more stress making or breaking us?
- Is technology (in practice, not theory) our friend or foe?
- Is autonomy disappearing and, if so, does it matter?
- What’s the impact of valuing individuality more than teams, for example?
Such questions are complex, and each is worthy of a full response. However, the focus of this article is simply to explore why we’re so dissatisfied with our work and offer some suggestions on what we can do about it.
Well, science provides us with some interesting and potentially helpful answers.
Developments in neuroscience are helping us understand why we’re increasingly conflicted in our work, what triggers this, and how we can help ourselves (and others) maintain wellbeing and performance.
But first, the bad news:
- WE’RE SURVIVAL GEEKS
You might already have realised we’re survival geeks, armed with brains wired first and foremost to detect and avoid threats. You’re probably also aware that our prehistoric ancestors’ strong ‘flight or fight’ response enabled them to flee predators and defeat rivals for their food and shelter.
However, our brains have hardly evolved since then and certainly not commensurately with the demands of modern working. We’re still brilliant at anticipating threats, but our ‘fight or flight’ response can distract us and compromise our higher cognitive functions – including those that support collaboration, innovation and decision-making.
Which is a big problem affecting everyone who doesn’t feel safe and secure at work.
2. WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT’S NEXT
Contrary to what we might claim about ourselves at job interviews, we prefer certainty in work and life and, consequently, expend considerable effort trying to anticipate the future. Which is quite challenging when we’re increasingly asked to live with uncertainty and avoid speculation – at least until our leaders have had time to determine the way forward and communicate everything to us.
But we can’t help ourselves, and it’s not our fault.
So, good luck to all the change agents out there wrestling with this one.
3. WE’RE BORN LAZY
Well, our brains are quite lazy or certainly not as industrious as we might like to think. This enables us to conserve energy for more important tasks – such as out-running a sabre-toothed tiger or brawling with a neanderthal. This might explain why some of us enjoy stapling documents so much – it doesn’t require much brainpower!
However, this tendency means we rely on our existing habits (since these require less effort) and avoid learning new things (since these require more). And this is true, however productive this might be in the long-term and irrespective of the recent discovery that this affords us cognitive protection as we age.
So, here’s a challenge to all you learning and development professionals: We’d rather not try to learn anything new – if that’s OK with you!
4. STRESS IS GOOD AND BAD
…depending on the dose. And the person, of course. And their situation or context.
It’s quite complicated. Too little stress and you won’t maximise the performance of your pre-frontal cortex (the area of the brain that enables you to control your goal-centred behaviour); too much and it simply shuts down.
Unfortunately, this might be challenging news for anyone who thinks stress is to be avoided at all costs, but no more encouraging for those who think you should merely ignore it and get on with your work. Get the dose wrong and you might be in big trouble, so don’t get it wrong.
Damn it, I’ve just increased my stress thinking about it!
5. WE’RE SOCIAL BEINGS
Being part of a tribe enabled us to survive. We simply might have been unable to out-run the sabre-toothed tiger or successfully wrestle a neanderthal for food without others’ help. And this very same survival instinct means our desire to connect with others remains strong to this day.
But make no mistake, social rejection is a performance assassin. It reduces our sense of meaning and purpose, negatively impacts our thinking and limits persistence with difficult tasks.
Which might make us think a bit differently about inducting newbies to our own teams.
Now, the good news.
There are things we can all do that complement our brain’s natural function, maintain our wellbeing and enhance our performance. This includes, but isn’t limited to, the following:
- FOCUS ON REWARDS
Because our brains are wired to detect and avoid threats, the consequences of using these to motivate performance are generally negative, sometimes significantly so. Threats cause our brains to prepare for a run or fight; when neither occurs, we feel anxious and distracted, our memory deteriorates, and our focus narrows. How unhelpful is that?
Conversely, focusing on potential rewards makes us feel more positive and increases empathy, openness, and willingness to collaborate. Consequently, we become more creative, innovative and resilient.
So, focus on rewards if you want to improve performance. But please don’t call it a no-brainer!
- PERSONALISE STRESS
Stress motivates performance by stimulating the brain’s prefrontal cortex (the area controlling goal-centred behaviour), but too much will overwhelm it. The trick is to provide the right level of support and challenge, although this varies from individual to individual, sometimes from one day to the next. The key is to understand each person’s context. So, if you want to get it right, make sure you know them well or ask them if it feels OK.
You see, stress is just our evolutionary friend, and getting the amount right for every individual is one of the most important contributions to performance you can make.
- BUILD TEAMS
Organisations typically emphasise individual accountability through goals, development and rewards particularly. However, teams outperform individuals, in part by leveraging the social connections our brains need to perform at their best.
Nevertheless, effective teams only emerge when all their members are committed to a common purpose and shared approach to its fulfilment…and only then when the culture is characterised by psychological safety (i.e. everyone’s free to be and express themselves) and mutual accountability (i.e. they hold each other responsible for their voluntary commitments).
So remember: ‘All for one and one for all’ make us happier and more productive.
- TEACH OLD DOGS NEW TRICKS
Recent developments have changed our understanding of learning as we age. Neuroplasticity is the term we use to reflect the capacity of our brains and neural networks to change their connections in response to new challenges or stimuli. In simple terms, we’ve discovered we’re more able to continue learning new things in our later years than we thought. Furthermore, doing this protects our cognitive function as we age – so it’s a win-win.
But remember: our brains are lazy and rely on old habits to conserve energy, so we might need encouragement to start and persist with this. This is where mindset comes in. A growth mindset means you believe your abilities can be developed through hard work, whereas a fixed mindset indicates you consider these innate – you have them, or you don’t. But growth mindset is consistent with neuroplasticity findings and strongly associated with better learning outcomes.
And the best news of all is we can all develop a growth mindset at any time.
So, why not get started on this right now?
For more information or support implementing any of these ideas, contact Co-Creation on 0161 969 2512, or email: email@example.com
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