Why understanding brain science is a best practice

September 26, 2018

We need people to maximize their thinking at work, but there are numerous aspects of the workplace that inhibit thinking. Fortunately, brain science can shed some light onto why this occurs.

I am often asked to provide workshops on identifying and practicing specific brain-based strategies that will improve thinking, motivation, and engagement for healthcare professionals. I always start with a simple question: What percent of your job requires you to think? I typically get a resounding “100 percent.” But when I ask participants where they do their best thinking, the answers I typically receive are: in the car, in the shower, before going to sleep, exercising, and during quiet reflection time. Rarely is work the place where their thinking is optimized!  

We know that many factors interfere with people’s ability to think, plan, organize, and collaborate (all critical to success) while at work. So the dilemma is clear – we need people to maximize their thinking at work and yet, there are numerous aspects of the workplace that inhibit thinking. Fortunately, brain science can shed some light onto why this occurs. 

First and foremost, it is important to understand that the brain’s number one job is to keep us alive, so it has evolved as a master threat-detector. When we encounter a perceived threat of any kind, the amygdala (which does not differentiate between real and perceived threat) activates, setting a series of responses in motion – all geared towards dealing with the threat. Research has revealed a fascinating discovery (which we all intuitively know): that social pain is perceived in the brain in very similarly to physical pain. For example, being rejected by people you care about “hurts” in a similar way that stubbing your toe does. So social threats cause the amygdala to activate, much like physical threats do. And of course, almost everywhere we go, there are people and social interactions! That means the potential for social threats and pain at work is very real. 

When the amygdala (embedded in the limbic system) is activated, there is a concurrent deactivation of the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), that energy-intensive, critically important part of our brain responsible for activities that fall under “executive functions.” Simply put, the more triggered a person becomes, the more compromised his or her higher-level functioning becomes, including the ability to self-regulate. While the PFC can help effectively manage low levels of threat, the longer the threat lasts and/or the more intense it is, the less control we feel over it and the more the PFC is rendered less effective. 

Learning and practicing strategies to minimize threat will help leverage the cognitive abilities of the PFC. Identifying factors that trigger the amygdala is a good first step. Become aware of your triggers to help you to develop coping mechanisms so you can bring your best self to work. Notice what is going on when you feel inpatient, annoyed, anxious, or frustrated. For your staff, involve them in creating a more “brain-friendly” work environment to reduce stress for them and consequently, for patients. Encourage teamwork and collaboration, provide opportunities to design and implement efficiencies or patient-centered projects, and ensure open and frequent communication.

Keep in mind that our patients often are in a heightened state of threat when they come to our office (they may be in physical pain, they may be anxious about their symptoms, they may feel impatient due to long wait times, etc.). So the more we can do to lessen stress and threat the better. Ensure that there are patient-centric policies and procedures in place and solicit and respond to patient feedback to create a more brain-friendly office environment for patients. Offer acknowledgement of how a patient feels to calm the amygdala and put the patient at ease.

Because there are many more structures in the brain oriented towards threat detection than reward seeking, the human brain has evolved to develop a negativity bias  – unpleasant events (like getting a patient complaint or making a mistake) are remembered more, last longer, and are felt more intensely than do positive ones. One simple strategy that counteracts the impact of this bias is the use of positive experiences – at the rate of about nine to one. For example, if you tend to engage in self-critical thoughts, shift to noticing and acknowledging things you do well. The positive focus needs to be specific and genuine The same goes for your interactions with others. Strive to provide significantly more positive, genuine, and specific feedback to others over critical feedback. When working with staff, patients, and even your own family, aim to “catch them” doing things right rather. 

In my next article, I will outline some specific strategies (using a model I developed call CONNECT) to create a more “brain-friendly” work environment for you, your staff, and your patients. 

Catherine Hambley, PhD, is a consulting psychologist who offers brain-based strategies to organizations, leaders, teams, and healthcare providers to improve their effectiveness and promote greater success. She can be reached at catherine.hambley@gmail.com.