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“Nothing Jangles a Primate like Crowding” — A Conversation with David Rock (Part 2)

November 11, 2011
Author, David Rock

In the first part of David Rock’s Q&A session (following his October 3rd broadcast on Strategies to Overcome Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long), David unveiled techniques to limit the negative impact of stress on the human brain. In this second section, David discusses how to leverage neuroleadership findings to better the workplace–from office layouts to the impact of freewill on performance.

Rich Rosier for Linkage: Katie from the University of Texas at Austin writes: “I work in an environment with distractions, but my job requires focus.  So I listen to music to mask distraction while I’m trying to concentrate.  Is that bad?”

David Rock: I’ve got such a beef with quite a few companies at the moment.  I wrote a blog called Your Brain at Work—I blog at Psychology Today—and one of my posts recently, which I think didn’t make a few friends, is called How Companies Spend Big Dollars Making People Less Effective

There is this big movement going on that’s just flawed; it is completely and utterly wrong.  It says, “If we go to an open plan, people will collaborate more.” And it is just not true.  Nothing jangles a primate like crowding.  And that is not my quote; that is from like the number one emotions researcher in the world, Lisa Feldman Barrett.  If you just have a feeling that other people are watching you, your threat level goes up dramatically.

So companies are doing this crazy stuff, like, let’s go to an open plan.  I apologize to the people who made these decisions out there, you went with the data you had, but it’s wrong.  And you are suddenly aware of people seeing you, of hearing you, you can’t focus.  So I think it is terrible and we should go back to being able to shut out all noise and all vision at the times we want to. 

What really works is having the autonomy to be able to focus when we need to, and for a lot of people, after about 11:00, 12:00 p.m, there is not much focus ability left, and it is going to be great to be around others and see others, that will kind of keep you awake, keep you moving, that is fine.  But for that focus time, we really must focus.

Now, putting something in your ears and focusing on music: if it is pleasant music and doesn’t distract you itself, it may be the only option.  And if it is happy music, it will put you in a great mental state for insight into other things.  So I see it everywhere, even in these high-tech companies that are supposedly the world’s greatest companies, everyone’s got earpieces in trying to focus.  The brain is incredibly easy to distract.  And it is very hard to stay focused.  So we have to respect the brain’s limitations more. 

Remember the data I started with: 10 percent of people do their best thinking at work.  That is an abomination.  Any company that notices 10 percent of their people doing their best thinking at work should go, “We’ve got to change everything.  I mean, why do we make them come to work if they can’t do thinking here?  What is the point?”

So, we are discovering things about the brain that are surprising and we have not yet woven them into some of our practices.  Keep listening to music. 

The next question is from Peter, and Peter asks: “I had heard that the subconscious mind decides to do something a fraction of a second before the conscious mind is aware of that decision.  It is how your conscious mind takes action that determines what part of your mind wins?  Have you heard of this, and if so, can you comment on it?”

Yes, this has been around for awhile, since about 1983. The first study was done originally by a guy named Benjamin Libet who just passed away in the last few years.  He found about a half a second before you lift your hand, there is a thing called an action potential in the pre-motor or motor cortex, I can’t remember which one, but there is an actual potential which signals you are about to do something in the region of the hand.  And you only become conscious of that desire to move in about half time, in about .3 of a second later.  So roughly 3/100ths of a second, I’m approximating slightly, but roughly 3/100ths of a second after your brain has decided to do something, you actually become conscious of it. 

Now, if that sounds like not much time, every single one of your hundred billion neurons is sending out a signal every second, many signals every second.  So 3/100ths of a second is a very long time in neural science terms.  It is faster than all of the world’s super computers.  It is really, really fast.  So there is a lot that happens in that time.

Now, more recent studies show it actually can be up to 10 seconds.  Up to 10 seconds before you make a decision to kind of go left or right with a joystick or something, your brain has made the decision, which is kind of spooky stuff.  And this says one of two things.  It can say we have no free will, we don’t really have any ability to make choices, and we are just kind of a machine.  If you take that point of view, let me just warn you that you will actually perform less effectively at work and you will cheat more, you will be more unethical.  So if you believe that we don’t have free will and that everything’s kind of predetermined, your performance will drop.  There’s a whole study on this, I posted on this recently also, it’s called, Is Free Will Real?—Better Believe It Even If It’s Not.”

And it turns out if you do believe in free will, you actually have greater self-control, you are more ethical, you cheat less, and you are a much better performer at work, measured by yourself and by others.  So how you philosophically sort of pull apart the neuroscience is pretty important.  But it turns out that if you believe in freewill, then after you notice the desire to move, you get this ability to choose.  Okay, will I lift my hand or won’t I?  I want to, but will I or won’t I?  And you’ve got to be able to make very quick decisions, because once an action sort of starts, the momentum is much harder to stop with your braking system. 

Your braking system is like tissue paper on a truck.  If it brakes, it will sort of hold the truck in place on a flat surface if it is not moving, but just any momentum and the braking system is really, really hard to kind of kick in.  So before an action starts is really the best time to inhibit it, not once it’s going.

David Rock is the author of Personal Best, Quiet Leadership, Coaching with the Brain in Mind, and Your Brain at Work. In collaboration with several leading neuroscientists, David is working to explain the neural basis of issues like self-awareness, reflection, insight, and accountability.  David founded the NeuroLeadership Institute and Summit, a global initiative bringing neuroscientists and leadership experts together to build a new science of leadership development.


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