Evolving Workplaces: Using all Our Brains in BusinessOct 20, 2022
From Head to Heart to Gut
We want to be using all three of our brains all the time to create the best outcomes in our workplaces and our businesses. As a result, we’ve incorporated all three brains throughout our various models and frameworks.
Why did we do this?
We believe the science behind performance is as important if not more important than the anecdotal experiences or even the research that demonstrates why particular strategies and approaches work over others. Additionally, the neuroscience of our three brains and how they impact our performance is a relatively new field of study which is constantly growing in depth and understanding. As it does so, we are learning entirely new concepts that have not typically been incorporated into the traditional business practices of the past. We believe by incorporating the latest scientific approaches into our business practices we can create an evolving model of business. A model that allows our businesses to continuously evolve as they face challenges and opportunities in the marketplace and allows them to achieve successful results.
How is that different from traditional performance practices?
Traditional business has been built around the head brain and we now know there are more neural pathways flowing up to the head brain than there are pathways flowing down from the head brain. What does that mean? It means that there are more messages our head brain is receiving from our heart and gut than our head brain is sending to our heart and gut. Which means understanding what messages are being sent to our head brain is incredibly important to understanding how to help people reach peak performance and achieve better results at work and at home.
Let’s address each of the brains and their core responsibilities so we can see why they each actually play a major role in the performance of people and thereby our businesses.
Head “Cephalic” Brain
The head brain is made up of 86 billion neurons and is responsible for cognition, thinking, language, and meaning making. The head brain leads with statements of “I think.” Our head brain is the basis for our logical reasoning, analysis, and planning. Based just on that description you can easily see how traditional business practices have been heavily influenced by our head “thinking” brains rather than the other two! Traditional businesses as we described earlier have a heavy focus on clear logical definition (roles, efficiency), detailed planning (achievement focused), analytical (aversion to risk), and limited decision-making (hierarchical).
Heart “Cardiac” Brain
The heart brain is made up of 40,000 neurons and is responsible for emotional processing, interpersonal connections, and values expression. The heart brain leads with statements of “I feel.” Our heart brains send messages to our head brains which tell them how to act. When we feel scared it is our heart that feels this emotion and sends messages to our brain to trigger our sympathetic nervous system to fight, flight, or freeze in response.
Let’s look at each of the major elements of the heart brain. Starting with emotional processing which is how we react or respond to various situations. An emotion is a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others. An emotion is instinctive or intuitive feeling which is different from reasoning or logic. In short, we don’t control our emotional responses – they occur automatically as result of our experiences and how we perceive our environment. Emotions are all about how we feel in response to the environment and experience we are having. In the traditional workplace, emotions are discouraged and make most people uncomfortable. Employees are encouraged not to express emotions, accept their circumstances, and focus on results. This approach ignores this core human intelligence and its potential value to the business as well as the harm it can cause when ignored.
Next, the heart brain is responsible for interpersonal connections which means the relationship or feeling of connection we have with others. In the traditional working environment connections were discouraged. Policies were written to prevent relationships or creating too much social connection in the workplace. People were instructed to leave their issues at the door. This approach again ignores the core human need of connection. If the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing during it taught us anything, it highlighted how important social and human connection really is to people. For many who lacked social connections in their workplace, this made the decision to move on more probable and was likely a contributing factor to the great resignation. People wanted to experience connection to others and if their workplace didn’t foster this, they were more likely to move on.
Finally, the heart brain is responsible for values expression which refers to what is important to us. What we choose to value will drive our passion and energy towards action and achieving results. When a traditional workplace ignores what their people value, they fail to tap into a critical intelligence that provides passion, energy, and excitement towards achieving goals and objectives. This approach fails to tap into this highly valuable energy resource and can even create a negative impact if their people’s values are contrary to that of the workplace.
Gut “Enteric” Brain
The gut brain is made up of 100 million neurons and is responsible for self-preservation (safety), mobilization, and core sense of self (self-identity). The gut brain leads with statements of “My gut tells me.” Our gut brains are also our oldest brains, they were the first neurons to form when we grew in the womb. Which means our oldest neuropathways were created in our gut – wired into our core identity of who we are as individuals.
Let’s look at each of the major elements of the gut brain. The gut is responsible first for self-preservation – think safety. We’ve all had an experience where we had a “bad gut feeling” about an interaction that felt unsafe or caused us to fear for our safety. We are neurologically wired at our core to act in a way that keeps us alive and safe, self-preservation! Which means when we encounter something that triggers our self-preservation response, we will react whether we intend to or not. In traditional workplaces, when employees have fears such as exclusion, loss of job, failure impacting their livelihood, they trigger the employees’ gut brain and can cause them not to perform at their best or to halt their performance. This approach fails to consider the critical importance of the environment and experience of employees in the workplace.
Next, the gut brain is responsible for mobilization or moving a person to take action. Every person is motivated to act or mobilize by different things. In traditional workplaces, they typically assume everyone will take action to get paid and keep their job. This approach fails to consider the multitude of more common motivators that cause people to act and generate results and outcomes. The speed with which people act or perform their role is tied to this level of motivation which stems from their environment and experience.
Finally, the gut brain is responsible for our core sense of self. As the first brain we develop, our gut houses who we see ourselves as a person, our identity. In traditional workplaces, they at best ignore this intelligence and, at worst, they actively try to align their employee’s identity around the traditional approach to work or the culture of the business. Employees are encouraged to assimilate themselves to fit in, be part of, and be included in the political groups within the workplace. This approach causes significant harm to the individual nature of human beings and creates false personas where people must put on a façade when they go to work. Trying to execute work is hard enough without trying to change who you are to be accepted while doing it. This wasted energy has a negative impact on performance of people.
How do we incorporate the heart and gut brains into our business practices?
Although we will be applying all three brains to every part of our business framework, we believe one element of our framework is impacted heavily by these two intelligences: the Engaging Environment and Experience. This element of our framework focuses on how the business is executed – how it feels, looks, and the cultural experience people have interacting with and working within the business. This element addresses how the business impacts others in terms of how it looks and how people feel when they work for or with the business. It also addresses the values of the business – how the people in the business behave.
How does the heart and gut apply to the Engaging Environment and Experience element?
If Engaging Environment and Experience is about how we do the work, then each of the elements of the heart and gut intelligences must be included in this element.
- Addressing Emotions: In an evolving workplace, emotions are addressed early and often. The culture fosters and supports taking a reasonable amount of time to deal with emotions (rather than wasting an unreasonable amount of time working around them – Brené Brown). Managers and employees are trained on how to identify and process emotions rather than ignore them and how to coach others to navigate through the emotional challenges that are inevitably faced in the workplace.
- Creating Connection: In an evolving workplace, connections are fostered through all elements of the employee experience at work and at home. Employees are encouraged to create lasting connection and relationships with each other, to support one another’s growth, and to encourage success for everyone. Employees feel connected, included, and valued in the workplace. Customers can sense this close connection and want to partner with the business as a result. They feel the sense of commitment and energy that comes from strong connections and support each other in the workplace.
- Aligning Values: In an evolving workplace, values are clearly defined, and employees must be personally aligned with those values in order to be part of the workplace. Different workplaces create different cultures based upon their values and this is a good thing as people all value different things! But it means the workplace must be very clear with their values and demonstrate their importance in everything they do to foster and create an engaging environment and experience aligned with those values.
- Creating Safety: In an evolving workplace, employees are supported with an environment that is transparent, with frequent and clear communication, and one that encourages addressing fears rather than instilling them. The workplace works to create an engaging and energizing experience for employees that fosters growth and encourages risk-taking in a safe and inclusive environment. The environment must be created to establish a culture where employees’ fears are not triggered, or if they are, there is the means to address them early and often without consequence.
- Empowered Action: In an evolving workplace, employees are empowered to act within flexible frameworks that create boundaries and guidance while trusting them to make good choices. Rather than being stuck and unable to take action employees are each empowered to act. They are also individually motivated in their unique way towards taking action tapping into their inherent why rather than assuming all employees are motivated by the same things.
- Inclusive of Identities: In an evolving workplace, employees are encouraged to be their true self, differences are valued and appreciated, and considering multiple perspectives is encouraged. Rather than a business with a singular identity everyone must conform to, evolving workplaces allow individuals time and space to establish their own identity, share this uniqueness, and apply it meaningfully to their work environment. Employees can truly bring their “whole self” to work and need not be worried about hiding their true identity while working.
What do workplaces need to do to create this engaging environment and experience?
I am willing to bet just about every workplace you asked would claim they care about their people. Every strategic leader knows you must say your people are important in order to be successful. However, what we see quite often is the workplace’s inability to demonstrate their words through their actions. They may define values that sound good; they may say they want a safe, empowered, and inclusive environment or experience; they may claim they support connection and are willing to be vulnerable. But very few actually incorporate the practices necessary to achieve these outcomes. As a result, when you pull back the curtains, what you see is really not pretty at all.
The most important thing an evolving workplace must do is intentionally cultivate the engaging environment and experience they want employees to have with clearly defined actions (not just words). For example, leaders must actually learn how to be vulnerable with their emotions and demonstrate this vulnerability regularly. Employees must be given ample time and methods for creating meaningful connections which extend beyond the coffee pot and bathroom! Values must be incorporated into everything the business does and considered regularly. Everyone must be trained on respect and inclusive practices, and everyone was committed to and create a culture of safety by shifting how managers respond to employee fears or challenges. The culture must be built on the highest level of trust running both directions from leaders to employees and employees to leaders by incorporating frequent communication and strong focus on people and performance practices.
Check out the Evolving to Exceptional Podcast Episode that talks about this topic more in depth here.
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