MT EXPERT: Zen and the art of management

Alain de Botton thinks you can't achieve fulfilment at work - but managers just need to change how they think, says Jan Hills.

by Jan Hills
Last Updated: 18 May 2015

I heard philosopher Alain de Botton speak on professional fulfilment recently. He said we shouldn’t expect to be fulfilled professionally, that the ancient Greeks thought anyone working for a salary was a slave.

But are we setting our standards too low? Has de Botton himself been mired by unfulfilment and interpreted his findings in a way that underestimates the potential of leaders to create an environment where fulfilment can be achieved in business? I think employers would be wise to ignore De Botton and concentrate on making their workforce as fulfilled as possible – because an unfulfilled workforce costs employers in the form of higher absenteeism and increased staff turnover.

The results of an international study into worker satisfaction undertaken by recruiter Randstad conducted across nine countries, every quarter, over the course of the last three years, interviewing more than 45,000 workers in total suggest that, in the United Kingdom alone, 10 million people are professionally unfulfilled. The study also showed workers in the US, as well as the UK, were less fulfilled than those in Canada – this is not just a problem for depressed Brits.

If British and American organisations are to improve fulfilment levels to Canadian standards, in my view it is the leaders who will make the difference.  No leader can make an employee fulfilled but they can create the environment.

Leaders have got into a bad habit, the habit of telling people what to do.  It is, after all, far easier than taking the time and effort to set a purpose, engage people in the goals, get to know people and their ambitions and manage the myriad of ‘people issues’ that engaging the team’s view creates.

But, like any habit, this telling style has a rational reason for its existence. The brain will always try to take the most energy efficient root. Behaviour which is repeated is moved to the older parts of the brain, the habit centre or basal ganglia, making it available out of conscious awareness and saving energy and processing power in the newer prefrontal cortex.

A telling style of leadership is a habit in business. Maybe this is why we hear much more about a socially connected purposeful leadership style in newer businesses like Facebook, businesses where the old habits have not had a chance to take root.

So what new habits should leaders adopt and what’s the evidence they will work?

Purpose and strategy

The brain is designed to solve both intellectual and social problems. An fMIR study asked managers to consider strategic and tactical workplace dilemmas in a scanner. The best strategic thinkers showed more activity in brain regions associated with empathy and emotional intelligence, such as the insula and anterior cingulate cortex. This finding suggests that considering social implications of a decision may lead to more satisfying and potentially rewarding outcomes for employees.

Balance thinking

Matt Lieberman, who runs the social neuroscience lab at UCLA, suggests leaders who are poor at managing and understanding social interactions are missing important opportunities.

He believes a human’s ability to understand others is unique. The brain circuitries through which we do this are largely the same areas that enable us to think about ourselves. Scientists call this ‘Theory of Mind’ or ‘metalizing’. This suggests that the better we are at understanding ourselves, the better we will also be at understanding others.

But this brain circuitry reacts a bit like a see-saw. When we are thinking about ourselves or others and activating the metalizing circuits, we close down much of the rational, executive functioning pre-frontal cortex. So it is not possible to be creating business strategy, for example, and thinking about the impact of that strategy on others. Many leaders are chosen for their goal-focused abilities and get out of the habit of noticing the implications for people. Shift this habit by taking time to reflect on the team and put yourself in their shoes.

Stop telling people what to do

The difference between being told and having insight is all about creating new mental maps. If you are thinking about something like how a new process will work or the reaction of your team to a new strategy you are creating a mental map. These new thoughts are energy-consuming from a brain perspective, so you might find yourself doing this when your brain is freed up from other activity like in the shower or on the walk to work.

This type of thinking often creates what we call an ‘aha moment’ or an insight. This is literally new connections happening, a new map or part of a map is formed. If you are told how to carry out the new process or what the strategy means for your job, you still have to create that mental map.

To take any kind of action people have to think it through for themselves. They can do this and immediately create the map when the leader asks questions that create insight or they do it later after they have been told.

The additional issue with telling is that it is more likely to set up a threat response as the individual’s predictions and connections are different to what was expected. This difference creates an error message and a sense of pain in the brain. This in turn moves people away from the new information and increases the likelihood of resistance.  Working out the implications for themselves increases insight, motivation and produces brain-based rewards.

Connect socially

This is more than walking about smiling tentatively at your team. Connect by getting engaged with what they are doing, asking questions about how they are feeling, not just the task, and involving the team in developing the tactics on projects and the implementation of strategy.

The science shows social needs are primary in the brain - something many forget at work. Social pain activates the same regions as physical pain. When someone is put down, or their ways of working are controlled, or they are told what to do, especially publically, a threat response is activated, reducing the ability to think clearly. You know that feeling – 'I’m just blank, I have no mental space'. The frontal cortex is drained as the limbic system hijacks all of the energy.

With these new ways of working leaders create an environment where employees can connect to their work and each other; essential ingredients for fulfilment.

Oh - and leaders may just get an unexpected bonus. A sense of work fulfilment themselves from their new habits.

- Jan Hills is a partner at consultancy firm Head Heart + Brain

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