Leading with the Brain In Mind = Happy C.A.M.P.E.R.S.

Posted on September 25, 2014. Filed under: Linda Ray, Practical Strategies | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

In this post, Linda Ray, co-founder and co-director of neuresource group, looks at seven key influences of employee motivation, productivity and engagement.

As Sky is walking to the water cooler, her boss passes by.  He is clearly rushing to another meeting, but briefly pauses and says  “Hi Sky, I would like you to come by my office, I’ve got some feedback for you.  I will be available at 3:00pm.”   It is 11:30 a.m. 

49. Working girl stressed and exhausted

 So what does Sky do for the next few hours?  The word ‘FEEDBACK’ has elicited as great a fear response in her brain as walking down a dark ally and hearing footsteps behind her.  Sky’s brain is shouting loudly  “Danger, Danger, Danger”.

Because Sky is now pretty limbic, she will spend at least 42% of the time imagining and playing out in her mind:

·      What have I done?

·      What did I stuff up?

·      Who did I upset?

·      What have I forgotten to do?

·      What could he possibly want to give me some feedback about?

 Cortisol has begun flooding through her brain, and it impacts significantly on encoding of new information, so she probably won’t remember anything she tries to learn or pay attention to anyway.

Our brains crave certainty and this is why we spend so much time trying to predict the future…we usually get it wrong!   Sky doesn’t eat because she is sick with worry and she has a report due at 4:00 pm, but she is struggling to concentrate.  Sky’s brain has used up precious glucose trying to predict what her boss wants to meet with her about.   She even checks out Seek to see what jobs might be around.

As 3:00pm gets closer she finds her hands sweating and her heart is beating faster and faster.   When she arrives at her boss’s office, he stuns Sky by telling her he wanted to congratulate her on a piece of work she completed a few months ago and to see if he could persuade her to mentor a couple of other staff in the new ideas she had been implementing with her team.  Whilst very pleasantly surprised, Sky wishes she had been given a hint of this before she spent hours in a world of pain and now she has less than 40 minutes to finish that report and she feels exhausted!

What are your hunches about her productivity, her motivation or her engagement levels?

Generally we don’t set out to put people in a threat state, we often do this unintentionally. However, a simple phrase like “can I give you some feedback” can put us in a threat state.  “I am not sure about that idea”, “If I were you”, etc. are all well-intentioned statements, but they can unintentionally generate a threat response in your people.

Clearly this isn’t the state we want our people in, if we want them to remain productive and engaged. When people are in a threat state they become more risk adverse, their perspective narrows and creativity is inhibited as the brain seduces us to take the safest option.  In our work life our executive brain (pre-frontal cortex) helps us make decisions, prioritise, plan, inhibit and recall memories. The tricky bit is that the more limbic we get the more this part of our brain shuts down as the brain prepares us for the fight, flight or freeze response. It is a bit like a seesaw… as one goes up the other goes down.

Just as we have primary needs necessary for our survival, we now know that social needs are also treated by the brain as primary needs and when they are not met we can experience a strong threat response.

There are several domains of our social experience in the workplace that can activate a threat or reward response.   We build here upon the work done by David rock in his SCARF model. We also draw on the key points made by Dan Pink that motivation is served by autonomy, purpose and mastery.  The collective brain of one of our Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership groups merged these two ideas and proposed that in order to get the best out of people we want people to be happy C.A.M.P.E.R.S™ .CAMPERS

What can we do to keep people in a reward state?

There are 7 areas we need focus attention on:

Certainty – As we saw in Sky’s story, she spent a significant amount of time trying to predict what her boss was going to say. Certainty is a challenge in a world that is constantly changing. We need to give people as much certainty as possible and be clear about expectations.  Imagine how different it might have been for Sky had her boss added another sentence to his statement, which indicated the feedback, was going to be positive.

Autonomy – Do you like to being told what to do? We feel in a reward state when we feel we have choice and influence. It can be as simple as asking a person which issue should we tackle first? What do you think is the best approach? Micro managing is a killer for autonomy and generates significant threat in the brain.

Mastery – we all want to feel that we have the competence to do what is required of us. It is great to have autonomy but unless people feel they have the competence and skills necessary to do a task we can easily move our people into a threat state. We need to make sure we match a task or project with a person’s level of competence. We also need to ensure we have pathways in place for people to build competence and skill, this is key to keeping people engaged.

Purpose – we have a desire to feel we are contributing to something meaningful. Do your people know your why and how they contribute to your business purpose? People will always be motivated to fulfil their own goals – are they aligned with the business goals?

Equity – we all want to feel we are being treated fairly and equitably. We will compare our sense of fairness with others.  Are others in the team getting the best jobs, or are they being rewarded more than us?  When we experience a threat to fairness we can lose perspective and act in ways that makes no sense to those around us.

Relatedness – we are born to connect.  We want to feel part of a social group. Do you provide opportunities for people to spend time together, to get to know one another?  The brain treats every new person we meet as foe before friend until we assess there is something about the other person that is like us.

 Status – we all care about our sense of importance and where we fit with others in a social context. Status can be threatened very easily e.g. challenging an idea, saying, “If I were you”,  or taking credit for an idea that wasn’t yours. When was the last time you showed appreciation to your people?  It is such a simple and under-done strategy that creates a reward state in people.

We need to be mindful of how easy it is to cause a threat in each of these areas. A threat in one domain can have a domino effect in the other domains. Think back to the story of Sky…what domains was she experiencing a threat state in? What did it do to her levels of engagement, motivation and productivity?

We need to be keeping an eye out for opportunities to move people into a reward state and address the needs of the brain in each of these areas. The best companies to work for (e.g Atlassian with over 80% engagement levels) have nailed this and we can see the results in their engagement levels, in their levels of discretionary effort, in their capacity for innovation, lower absenteeism rates and in their bottom line profits.

Old practices of ruling by fear, by control and command, using pay for performance don’t facilitate people to be in a reward state. The evidence from science is clear. We need to be building brain-friendly cultures and leading with the brain in mind.

Linda-RayLinda is the Managing Director of NeuroCapability and the co-founder/director of neuresource group. These organisations are playing key roles in developing a new generation of thinking leaders through delivery of the Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership and other innovative programs informed by neuroscience. Linda is gaining recognition both in Australia and internationally as a thought leader in the neuroleadership field. She is actively contributing to the body of knowledge that supports the building of individual and organisational ‘neurocapability’.

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B.E.T.T.E.R. Conversations

Posted on September 9, 2014. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

Michelle Loch is a PCC qualified coach and an expert in Neuroleadership.  Her passion is educating and coaching leaders to high performance using neuroscience as a foundational theory.


Better Conversations_Original

I work with individuals who want to be better leaders, and with organisations that want to grow and develop better leaders. Leadership is about change, and change happens one conversation at a time. But often, the quality of our conversations in the workplace is poor; and as a result, leadership is becoming an unnecessarily time-consuming, exhausting and all-encompassing (read increasingly frustrating) activity.

Do you find that your team is constantly interrupting you to ask questions? Do you sometimes feel that you seem to be doing everyone’s job for them? Is it sometimes just easier to ‘do it yourself’’ or tell them what they need to know?

Research conducted by Judith E Glaser, author of ‘Conversational Intelligence’, found that as many as 95% of verbal exchanges in the workplace were ‘telling’ conversations.

When we are told what to do, we don’t have to think! And when we don’t have to think, we don’t engage! And when we don’t engage we don’t own!

The brain is ‘lazy’. It likes to conserve energy and will avoid doing the ‘hard work’ of thinking unless it is forced to! And we can do that through cleverly constructed conversations.

As leaders, we want to engage our team (and ourselves) in ‘effortful thinking’ and to find ways to create new thinking, and mental shifts. We want to be constantly moving the thinking of our people forward and into new places.  The ROI on effortful thinking is engagement and ownership of work-related issues and resolutions. And who doesn’t want that!

Recent discoveries, particularly in the area of social cognitive neuroscience, provide us with a fact-based, deeper understanding of how relationships are built and broken; how emotions impact us and how to better communicate with each other. We can use this new knowledge to our benefit in our workplace conversations.

We can have B.E.T.T.E.R Conversations!    

BETTER Conversations…

B: are Brain-friendly

E: are Emotionally balanced

T: are Toward focused

T: have Tested Assumptions

E: are Encouraging

R: challenge Responsibility

 And above all, BETTER Conversations are USEFUL rather than just INTERESTING! Think about how many conversations in your work day are really useful in terms of achieving your KPI’s. When you really look into it, we spend a lot of conversation and meeting time in the INTERESTING space, which feels good, but doesn’t leverage our time and productivity.

Let’s take a quick look into what a brain-based BETTER Conversation looks like, along with the associated mindSHIFTS that BETTER Conversationalists make in their skilled conversations.

Brain-friendly:   We have a great capacity for complex and creative thinking. Unfortunately we have habitually developed ways of interacting that interfere with that capacity.  Brain-friendly conversations are structured to account for how our brain is principally organised and follow a process that creates the optimal environment for focus, insight, solution-focus and social connection – all the ingredients for employee innovation and collaboration.

BETTER Conversations are designed to reduce the myriad of potential threat responses in the brain that draw precious brain fuel away from the pre-frontal cortex, our thinking brain, to our primitive limbic system (our emotional and survival centre) – resulting in a literal ‘logic shutdown’.  Brain-friendly conversations also focus deliberately on questioning techniques designed to enable insight – the AHA moment – which is a underused, powerful motivator in terms of employee engagement and behaviour.

SO….the brain-friendly mindSHIFTs a BETTER Conversationalist makes are:



Emotionally balanced:  You would know from your own experience that you cannot be really upset and think logically at the same time. Perhaps you have experienced making some less than desirable decisions in a moment of excitement?

Our brain cannot be limbic (emotional) and logic (PFC focused) at the same time. BETTER Conversations include the use of techniques and skills to manage and capitalise on our emotional responses to get the best from our brain and our collaboration efforts.

SO….the emotional mindSHIFT a BETTER Conversationalist makes is:


Toward focused:  Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to rewire itself based on response to experience. It’s how we adapt to our environment, and it is one of the ‘big neuroscience discoveries’.

Hebb’s Law tells us that ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. We create and strengthen neuronal connections and pathways through attention and focus. The more attention we give to a particular pathway the stronger it becomes and the more prevalent it will be in our thinking, particularly when under stress when we have less executive brain to control where our thinking goes.

Creating new thinking means creating new neural pathways, and that happens via attention. BETTER Conversations deliberately focus on the Toward State – where we need to go and how we need to get there. So many of our work conversations focus on where we have been, and the issues at hand…which is interesting, but not particularly useful!

SO….the focus mindSHIFT a BETTER Conversationalist makes is:


Tested Assumptions:  If there is one thing that I would say creates the greatest barrier to great thinking and effective collaboration, it’s assumptions we make. Of course, assumptions are merely our brain’s way of using its energy effectively. It saves energy by accessing past memories and hardwiring to make sense and meaning of what is occurring in the moment. Unfortunately, that information may not always be the most useful or appropriate for the situation.

Our brains are also biased, again, a survival mechanism. BETTER Conversations are curious. They take the time to examine our assumptions, to test the possibility of bias and to bridge the gap between one person’s reality and anothers allowing for leveraged productivity and outcomes.

SO….the assumption mindSHIFT a BETTER Conversationalist makes is:


Encouraging:  Taking time to encourage the right thinking, and then hold attention on the right brain wiring can fast-track behaviour change. Carol Dweck’s work ‘Mindset’ suggests that we can operate in either Fixed Mindset or a Growth Mindset.   BETTER Conversations are great at creating Growth Mindsets, and people with growth mindsets….grow!

SO….the encouraging mindSHIFT a BETTER Conversationalist makes is:


Clear Responsibility:  And finally, BETTER Conversations are clear about who is responsible for doing the thinking in an interaction. We pay our people to think, but we often end up doing the thinking for them. Instead we need to support them to engage in their own effortful and insightful thinking.

Instead of asking ‘How can I help you with this problem?’ and ending up with the problem squarely in your court, you can ask ‘How can I help you think this though?’ As a leader, your role is to facilitate great work, rather than always being the consultant and driver of that work.

BETTER Conversations make it clear that people are responsible for their own thinking, and skillfully support them to do that thinking as well.

SO….the responsibility mindSHIFT a BETTER Conversationalist makes is:


Of course there are times when information simply needs to be shared, however even in those situations, using a brain-based approach to any conversation adds much value in making stuff stick.

Are you a BETTER Conversationalist? It’s a skill, and a skill that can be learned…after all, our brains are designed to make new connections and to learn and grow. Becoming a BETTER Conversationalist may require you to rewire you brain around how you engage with your people…but it’s worth it for the leverage, productivity, engagement and connection you will create in your team.

Michell Loch     Michelle Loch is the Founder and Director of UnLOCHed Potential and one of Australia’s leading experts in developing High Performance through NeuroLeadership, Team Engagement and Brain Fitness.
As a highly experienced Executive Coach, Facilitator and HR Consultant with over 25 years experience in the corporate arena, Michelle has helped countless business owners, management teams and entrepreneurs around the globe hone their thinking, improve their decision-making, and increase their ability to communicate, connect, inspire and engage with their team.

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5 things you can do to as a leader to make your organisation more productive

Posted on July 18, 2014. Filed under: Our Leaders Say, Practical Strategies | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, looks at how applying neuroscience to work practices can make organisations more productive.


Artist: Egon Philipp

Photo: Egon Philipp

Most organisations are committed to keeping apace of technological advances, updating equipment frequently, and devoting resources to state-of-the-art processes and materials. The general feeling is that constant upgrades are a necessity to survive in an increasingly harsh and competitive economic climate. It’s perplexing, however, that this attitude doesn’t extend to any organisation’s most important resource – its people. Dated thinking, old-school beliefs, and outmoded approaches are all-to-often applied to how people work together. And leaders are left wondering why productivity falters. Outdated management thinking insists the psychology is not relevant to business. However, what we are discovering about the brain tells us that this just isn’t the case. We now have scientific evidence that what goes on inside the brain, from emotional responses to higher cognitive skills, impacts everything we do and should be incorporated into how we structure work. Brain functions affect perception, emotion, and conscious thought. More and more, leaders are borrowing from neuroscience research, and we are beginning to see practical applications – and big rewards – in the workplace.

The top five ways to use what we’re learning from neuroscience to improve productivity

Manage expectations Because motivation plays a critical role in how and why people function the way they do, it’s important to understand that the brain is essentially a social organ. Research clearly shows that the brain’s primary organizing principle is to detect whether incoming stimuli is a reward or a threat.  It’s part of our early survival mechanism that allows the brain to quickly classify the “danger” level of any situation. Understanding this, it’s possible to manage expectations of employees and clients alike. Because no two brains are alike, this can be complicated, but it’s well worth the effort to learn what motivates each person and to what degree. Wolfram Schultz of Cambridge University in England has studied the links between dopamine and the brain’s reward circuitry. When a cue from the environment indicates you’re going to get a reward, dopamine is released. Interestingly, unexpected rewards release more dopamine than expected ones. This means that the surprise success, like unexpected praise, for example, can positively impact your brain chemistry far more dramatically than an expected promotion or pay rise. On the other hand, if you’re expecting a reward and don’t get it, dopamine levels fall steadily. It could take some time for a person to internalise this disappointment, re-frame it, and regain lost momentum at work. The savvy leader anticipates where expectations might be overshooting the mark and works to minimise them as much as possible. Keeping expectations low avoids disappointment if a goal isn’t achieved and sets up a situation for happy surprise and delight if it is. Understand emotions Remember, emotions are contagious. The moods of others, especially those in positions of power, can have a real and lasting effect on individuals and groups. Toxic bosses, bullying environments and aggressive cultures can infect every one. Leaders play an important role in their ability to influence the spread of certain types of emotions over others. Your emotions matter because they impact on those around you. A growing body of evidence emerging from the social cognitive neuroscience field suggests that many of our emotion regulation strategies not only don’t work but are bad for our health and those around us. Matthew Lieberman, of UCLA, found that learning to label our emotions maximises cognitive ability.  He’s found that using simple language to ‘name’ anticipated and experienced emotions, actually lowers the arousal of the limbic system producing a quieter brain state. This in turn, allows the prefrontal cortex – the brain’s CEO – to function more effectively. Suppressing emotion is the most commonly used emotion regulation strategy. Studies show that suppressing emotion physiologically impacts on those around you and increases heart rate and blood pressure of those you are interacting with. The discovery of mirror neurons has also shown how we are wired to detect and mirror emotion of others. The brain is highly tuned to emotions in others, which can in turn generate reward or threat cues. Many studies examining the emotion contagion effect are showing their impact on morale in an organisation. Fear, anxiety and anger are contagious but remember so is enthusiasm and joy. Develop attentional intelligence Attentional intelligence allows you to effortlessly but ‘mindfully’ notice where your attention is at any moment and to intentionally choose where you want it to be. This kind of mindfulness can have a huge impact on productivity. In a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, conducted by Zindel Segal and colleagues, mindfulness meditation has been found to be as effective as antidepressants to prevent depression relapse. If it’s that powerful for people overwhelmed with troubles, imagine what it can do for those who are healthy and motivated. Greater focus, more effective planning, and greater stress reduction are just a few of the benefits. If we operate in the present, rather than brooding about the past or feeling anxious about the future, our minds are clear to deal with the issues at hand. It’s a simple principle, really: what we pay attention to gets accomplished. What we think, what we do, and what we focus on actually changes the structure and function of our brains. But, like any training, it takes practice for this to take full effect. It ultimately enables you not only to become calmer but also more creative. Cultivate creativity Image of young man sitting on floor looking at photosA number of large surveys done in the past few years show creativity at the top of the business leader’s wish list. It’s instructive to know then, what creativity needs to thrive.  Old notions still prevail about creative types – that like leaders, creatives are born, not made. This just isn’t the case. We are all creative. In fact, it’s one of the defining characteristics of being human. However, creativity does require cultivation. Different parts of the brain and different areas of focus yield different results. For example, holding big picture ideas and day-to-day details in your mind at the same time can lead to major stress. This common problem was first identified by J.P. Guilford in 1967 as two different types of thinking that occur in response to a problem: divergent thinking generates ideas, while convergent thinking sorts and analyses these ideas towards the best outcome. This concept explains why we find it so difficult to come up with a snappy title that completely illustrates everything in that detailed power point presentation you’ve just written. Respect your limitations Respecting our limits isn’t something modern Western culture encourages us to do. We are taught to break down barriers, reach for the stars, and never-say-never.  However, acknowledging that you are tired or burned out or unmotivated can be incredibly liberating and ultimately restorative. As long as you take positive action to rest, relax, and nourish yourself. As long as we are grounded in our human bodies, there are basic needs and limits that warrant respect. Eat when hungry, rest when tired, say no when too busy. Attitudes towards sleep also plays a role against ‘nurturing’ the seeds of creativity and productivity. Yes, sleep! Getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis can do wonders for productivity. When our alertness dips mid-afternoon, as it’s genetically programmed to do even when you are well-slept, responding with a powernap is a proven way to boost mood, concentration, alertness and memory.   An awareness of how advances in neuroscience might best be applied to the workplace can bring about amazing results in performance and productivity. The best news of all is that it doesn’t take a big organisational overhaul. Incorporating small shifts in thinking and doing yield big results.


  . Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest passion. . . .  

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Overhauling productivity with the power of daily ‘rhythm’

Posted on March 6, 2014. Filed under: Events, Human Capital | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Thea O’Connor, Naptivist and Founder of NapNow, looks at why it’s time to overhaul our approach to ‘productivity’ and put some rhythm back into our working days. 

neuresource group is hosting Thea at our next working breakfast on Friday, 28 March 2014. Join us for an engaging discussion on the “Antidotes to Tiredness & Fatigue in the Workplace”. The breakfast will be followed by a half-day masterclass for those who want to delve deeper.  Please register by 20 March to secure your place. Download a brochure for more information.


Image: Wallcoo

Image: Wallcoo


Working harder no longer offers a competitive edge – everyone’s doing it.

Besides, national statistics indicate that this approach to productivity is leaving too many people, energetically speaking, in the red: tired and stressed, with personal health and relationships taking the brunt, as well as workplace performance.

    • one in three fulltime Australian workers and almost one in two fulltime working mothers say they are “extremely tired or completely exhausted all of the time”, according to the Australian Work-Life Index 2010.
    • 60% of respondents to Australia’s largest sleep survey conducted to date, said that lack of sleep impaired their productivity

At the same time, our world is in the midst of a make-or-break search for more sustainable ways of living. Do you get the irony of ‘burning out’ while trying to solve the earth’s energy crisis?

It’s time to try a new approach.  Especially when future predictions only point to an increase in complexity and rate of change in the workplace.  Creativity and energy will be prized more than ever before  – inner resources that are not cultivated by working long and hard like machines in a linear fashion.  Rather, we need flexible, non-linear ways to quickly refresh our focus and spark fresh thinking.

So what can we learn from the experience of human burnout as well as our attempts to conserve and wisely use our planet’s limited energy?

Well, there appear to be some common pathways to energy depletion, both of the earth and in the human body.  These include:

    • ipad-art-wide-candle-snuffed-420x0a disregard for the real limitations on our energy reserves
    • an over-reliance on non-renewable energy sources
    • a drive to sustain intense output over a prolonged period without pause, and
    • a tendency to ignore the early signs of depletion

Here are a few thoughts about how we might avoid falling into these traps.

Respect our physical limitations.  Respecting our limits isn’t something modern Western culture encourages us to do. We are taught to break down barriers, reach for the stars, and never-say-never.  Well, personally, I have found that respecting my own limitations by choosing to do less is incredibly liberating and restorative. As long as we are grounded in our human bodies, there are basic needs and limits that warrant respect. Eat when hungry, rest when tired, say no when too busy.

Increase our reliance on ‘renewable’ sources of energy.  Most of us rely on a coffee to get us going in the morning, a sugar hit to get us through the afternoon and good dose of stress that keeps us wired.  These ‘non-renewable’ sources of energy are sure ways to over-ride tiredness short-term, but in the longer term, they lead to depletion.

Instead, good food, enjoyable movement, mindfulness, short breaks including powernaps and a good night’s sleep are some proven ways to renew our energy. Getting off the addictive adrenaline train can be really challenging, but its ‘s refreshing for our adrenal glands, as well as our capacity to think well.

Tune-in to the rhythms of our living system.  All of our ‘operating systems’ – such as our cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, and hormonal systems, are cyclical, not linear, with ebbs and flows over a 24 hr cycle.  Imagine enjoying a work ethic designed around such biological rhythms, rather than over-riding them.  I do, and that’s why I’m such an advocate of normalising the mini-siesta in our work culture.  When our alertness dips mid-afternoon, as it’s genetically programmed to do even when you are well-slept, responding with a powernap is a proven way to boost mood, concentration, alertness and memory.

“Nature never hurries, yet everything is accomplished”.  Lau Tzu.


If you like the idea of honouring your body’s rhythms, and valuing downtime as much as uptime, why not take the pledge to Unplug on March 7–8 for the National Day of Unplugging.  Can you last from sundown to sundown without your technofix?  NapNow is hosting a breakfast seminar and workplace Nap-In at Hub Adelaide to celebrate.


Screen Shot 2013-01-22 at 2.03.34 PMThea O’Connor is a health and business writer, speaker & facilitator and founder of NapNow—normalising the mini-siesta in our working lives.  Her passion and specialty is creating workplace cultures that encourage and reward ‘renewable energy breaks’ including powernap breaks.  She offers a range of services designed to prepare, educate, facilitate and support workplaces in utilising this refreshing solution to daytime sleepiness. Thea recently presented a Radio National feature on the science of napping & the workplaces that are embracing it.

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The Neuroscience of Sleep: Great Leaders Know its Value

Posted on August 7, 2013. Filed under: Attention Matters, Our Leaders Say, Practical Strategies | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, looks at the neuroscience of sleep and how even a quick siesta after lunch can build neurocapability, enhance productivity, and bring joy to the world.


Dreamscape: Lauren Hildreth

Dreamscape by L Hildreth

Why do we sleep?

It’s something we spend a third of our lives doing. For those of us in the Western world, it can amount to more than twenty-five or thirty years over a lifetime. Yet scientists are still unclear as to why we must sleep and how much is optimal to engage in productive, satisfying activities when we are awake. There have been different theories over the last decades, but with the new understanding of the brain brought about by the field of neuroscience, we might finally get some answers.

According to Oxford professor Russell Foster, a researcher with the Centre for Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience at Brasenose College, we sleep for:

    1. restoration—to replenish and repair metabolic processes
    2. energy conservation
    3. for brain processing and memory consolidation

The last reason is the explanation that deeply interests Foster. Other research on sleep supports Foster’s view and goes beyond it to show many different reasons sleep is important in the business and organisational context.

For safety

tumblr_lksdinlltU1qaiveqo1_500A recent poll taken by the US National Sleep Foundation illustrates the extent of the problem. Twenty percent of American adults reported being so sleepy during the day that it interferes with their daily activities at least a few days per week, and a frightening 17% reported falling asleep while driving within the last year. According to an editorial in Nature, the risk of sleep-related accidents is compounded by the fact that people are unable to judge the likelihood that they will fall asleep, and by the misconception that falling asleep is a slow process, stating that:

…sleep-deprived people commonly enter so-called ‘microsleep’ states, where they fall asleep for brief episodes lasting several seconds, during which time they are perceptually ‘blind’, often unaware that they have even fallen asleep.

Microsleep states can result in a variety of errors and miscalculations. There’s the amusing story of the tired German bank employee, who was supposed to transfer just 62.40 euros from a bank account belonging to a retiree, but instead “fell asleep for an instant while pushing the number 2 key on the keyboard”—making it a huge 222,222,222.22 euro ($293 million) order.

But a similar situation could result in disastrous and tragic consequences. Christopher Barnes, a researcher at the University of Washington and an expert on sleep as it relates to the workplace, cites several high profile incidents as examples of how a lack of sleep can create unsafe work environments:

In the US Air Force, Class A Mishaps are accidents involving permanent disability, fatality, or property damage of $2 million or more. A 2003 study conducted by Luna indicates that fatigue played a role in 8 percent of all such incidents. Nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Davis-Besse, and Rancho Seco all occurred in the early morning (2:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m.), a time of day that naturally produces sleepy employees.

Studies in Japan, Finland, Canada, and the U.S. confirm this, finding that regardless of training, equipment, or procedures, if employees work while short on sleep, their odds of making dangerous mistakes will increase. This means that if we want safe workplaces, we all need to get more sleep.

For memory

Studies show that if you prevent people from sleeping after a learning task, their ability to retain that new knowledge or ability is essentially non-existent. Even worse, the ability to come up with novel solutions after a complex task are reduced after sleep deprivation.

The U.S. National Institute of Health has funded research to study this complex relationship between sleep and memory.  “We’ve learned that sleep before learning helps prepare your brain for initial formation of memories,” says Dr. Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “And then, sleep after learning is essential to help save and cement that new information into the architecture of the brain, meaning that you’re less likely to forget it.”

Sleep expert Dr. Robert Stickgold of Harvard Medical School agrees:

When you doze off, sleep seems to be a privileged time when the brain goes back through recent memories and decides both what to keep and what not to keep. During a night of sleep, some memories are strengthened.

His research has also shown that memories of certain procedures, like playing a melody on a piano, can actually improve while you sleep.

This new understanding about sleep also means that a likely consequence of sleep deprivation is memory impairment. For example, it has been shown that a particular type of memory consolidation—improvement after practicing a visual discrimination task—does not occur until many hours after practice has ended. Using cleverly designed sleep deprivation experiments, studies demonstrate an absolute requirement for sleep within 30 hours of training. Importantly, it was the occurrence of sleep and not the simple passage of time that was critical.

For judgment

Dr. C. Nathan DeWall, of the University of Kentucky, has lectured and written on self-control and self-regulation depletion.  He has documented how metabolic depletion (lack of energy) and sleep deprivation limits one’s self-control.  “The act of using self-control draws upon this fuel, which exhausts the fuel. Thus, one’s ability to exert self-control can become depleted,” he says.

His findings have been confirmed by Christopher Barnes who, in a recent article for the HBR Blog Network, points out that:

The workplace has many temptations that employees must resist, from the petty impulse to claim credit for someone else’s work to the unscrupulous lapse of lying in a negotiation context, to the criminal act of misrepresenting financial numbers. Recent research indicates that self-control is a key determinant of whether or not people fall to or resist such temptations. When their ability to exert self-control is high, they can resist.

According to Barnes, sleep deprivation drains glucose in the prefrontal cortex, which means that a lack of sleep robs the fuel for self-control from the region of the brain responsible for self-control. On the other hand, sleep restores glucose. Building from this research, Barnes and his colleagues investigated the effects of sleep on unethical behavior. Across a set of four studies in both laboratory and field contexts, they found that a lack of sleep led to high levels of unethical behavior. Significantly, they found that this was due to sleep deprivation leading to a lack of self-control, which in turn led to unethical behaviour.

Executives and managers should keep in mind that the more they push employees to work late, come in early, and be available to answer emails and calls at all hours, the greater the chance unethical behavior will creep in. It’s important for organisations to give sleep more respect and to support employees’ sleep health rather than disrupt it.

For afternoon productivity

Tricks_to_sleep_in_office2All of this is familiar terrain to NapNow‘s Thea O’Connor, an advocate for napping in Australia. Through NapNow, O’Connor aims to establish the mini-siesta as a socially acceptable and valued practice—not only in our personal lives but also in the workplace. She encourages savvy managers to embrace napping as a simple, inexpensive, but highly effective tool that has been proven to increase productivity. Ultimately, O’Connor would like to see more and more organisations develop a “napping policy”.

Mental health experts support this initiative.  Dr Moira Junge, a health psychologist who specialises in treating people with sleep disorders comments:

Perhaps as a more comprehensive theory of sleep emerges, common attitudes about sleep will also change. For instance, napping is considered normal in children, but in adults it carries a stigma of laziness and inefficiency, despite the fact that it can be extremely effective in improving alertness for many hours afterward.

She promotes a mini-siesta as an antidote to the afternoon slump, a natural effect of our circadian rhythms and something that occurs even after a good night’s sleep.  A brief nap can improve your mood and productivity, alleviate tiredness, increase alertness and reduce errors made at work.  A nap as brief as ten minutes will produce these results.

For quality of life

Speaking at TEDWomen, Arianna Huffington shares a “very small idea” that can awaken much bigger ones: the power of a good night’s sleep is the essence of good leadership. Instead of bragging about our sleep deficits, she urges us to shut our eyes and see the big picture.

“We can sleep our way to increased productivity and happiness—and smarter decision-making.”  Huffington says.  In her words: “What is best for us, giving us more joy, gratitude, and effectiveness in our lives, and what is best for our own careers, is also what’s best for the world.”




Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest adventure.


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Attention Matters: Working with a Mindful Brain

Posted on July 30, 2013. Filed under: Attention Matters, Linda Ray | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Linda Ray, the Managing Director of NeuroCapability, continues her series on ‘attentional intelligence’ by examining how controlling our attention is the single most effective way to sculpt the brain, alter habits of thought and behaviour, and develop personal and professional neurocapability.


53. Womans eye with business concepts

Balancing act

Where your attention goes, energy flows. And what flows through your attention sculpts your brain. With the recent discoveries in neuroscience, we now know for certain that it’s possible to train and strengthen attention like any other mental ability. This is something I call developing attentional intelligence.

According to Bernard Baars (1997), the brain must be able to keep important information in the foreground of awareness, something he has identified as “the global workspace of consciousness”. This concept is also commonly referred to as the “mental chalkboard”. The idea is that, at a given moment, this mental chalkboard holds incoming information, old information retrieved from memory, and mental operations relating to both. The brain constantly updates the chalkboard with incoming information. At the same time, it works hard to avoid the many distractions we constantly face.

Unfortunately, the brain is too often guided by habits and automatic behaviour. According to Ellen J. Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of The Power of Mindful Learning and Mindfulness, we too often act mindlessly, as though “the lights are on but no one is home”. We  may not even realise that we are behaving out of habit unless there’s a problem—an accident for example. And this is usually too late.

In their book Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius, both medical doctors, argue that the brain is continually involved in a neural balancing act, needing to juggle different aspects of attention. They explain:

When you hold something in mind, such as a presentation at work, the cortical regions that support working memory are relatively stable… To keep them this way, a kind of gate protects working memory from all the other information coursing through the brain. When the gate is closed, you stay focused on one thing. When a new stimulus comes knocking, the gate pops open, allowing new information in to update memory. Then, the gate closes behind it, keeping out other information.

stones for meditationThis balancing act is further complicated by the fact that the brain is designed to seek stimulation, but too much stimulation can wreak havoc on focus. For example, the gate stays closed as long as the contents of the working memory are moderately stimulating. When interest decreases, dopamine levels drop. The brain then requires fresh input in order to return dopamine levels to their optimal amounts, and the gate opens wide to allow new information to flow into the working memory. However, too much stimulation also causes the gate to open, which makes us vulnerable to the many distractions that prevent focus and productivity.

Aspects of attention

Researchers have identified three aspects of attention, each of which comes with its own challenges. And, of course, everyone responds differently to these challenges. Because we are all different, we each have a unique profile of ‘attentional capacitity’. In developing attentional intelligence, it’s important to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of your own particular attention profile.

For example, someone with a tendency to hold onto information can be seen to be obsessive or overly-focused, which can interfere with personal and team goals. On the other hand, not holding onto information (forgetfulness, in other words) can indicate a small working memory or attention fatigue. Ideally, we should aim for good concentration, supported by nourishment, rest, regular breaks, and changes in activity.

The ability to update awareness is another aspect of attention. Someone who tends to update awareness frequently will show signs of distractibility and sensory overload, while someone who doesn’t update awareness enough can appear oblivious, flat, and closed to new ideas.  The ideal here is to adjust awareness to allow in just enough new information to be be flexible, accommodating to the ideas of others, and open to assimilating input appropriately.

The need for stimulation is the third aspect of attention. Someone with a high need to seek stimulation can appear hyperactive, thrill-seeking, and risk-taking. Someone who avoids stimulation might be stuck, seeming to be apathetic and lethargic.  The goal is to seek enough stimulation to be enthusiastic and adaptable.

StonesAware of awareness

Developing attentional intelligence begins with being aware of your awareness. Use the power of your mind to set your intentions. According to Hanson and Mendius, there are a few simple things you can do to sculpt your brain towards better performance:

  • Establish a deliberate intention at the beginning of any activity that requires focus. Call up a silent feeling of determination.
  • Get a bodily sense of being someone you know who is extremely focused, something that uses the empathy systems of the brain to simulate within yourself the mindful nature of that other person.
  • Keep reestablishing your intentions. Find a way to resolve every few minutes to stay focused.
  • Know yourself and your attention profile. Understand your “default settings” and focus on working towards balancing the three aspects of attention according to your particular strengths and weaknesses.

For employer and employee alike, working with a mindful brain increases flexibility, leadership ability, productivity, innovation, and job satisfaction. Since the workplace is full of unexpected stumbling blocks that get in the way of all of these desirable outcomes, the benefits of developing attentional intelligence are a given—and the exact opposite of a no-brainer.


Linda Ray is the Managing Director of NeuroCapability.  Since 1992 Linda has successfully managed her own consultancy practice.  NeuroCapability is her latest venture and incorporates the successful elements of 20 years of consulting experience in organisational change and development, training and coaching, with her passion for the neuroscience of leadership.




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