Neuroscience and Collaboration: Understanding the Brain for Better People Management
Karen Gordon, CEO, 5 Dynamics
What does neuroscience have to do with cooperation and collaboration? In a word, everything. The brain is made up of neural pathways that are composed of bundles of neurons, many of which were forged early in life. Scientists used to believe that these pathways were frozen by age 25, but they now know that isn’t true. Your early brain development does influence the way you look at the world, process information, and connect with others, but with sustained and consistent practice, your brain can create new neural pathways. It starts by understanding your unique brain roadmap.
You can compare the development of neural pathways in your brain to establishing a path in the woods. Your brain makes a connection between two ideas or objects, sending electronic pulses back and forth between corresponding neurons. With repetition, your neural pathways become reinforced and therefore stronger – not unlike the way a path through the forest would become more established after traveling through it many times. The brain seeks to conserve energy through the principle of synaptic efficiency, routing neural messages along the most efficient (electrically least resistive) pathways. Once these pathways are strong, the brain can more efficiently connect two ideas and have a faster, stronger response. Our perceptions are colored by these efficient neural pathways, working both for us and against us. Neural pathways do not affect our behavior, they are our behavior. This connectedness between two ideas in the brain heavily influences our day to day actions and interactions.
When it comes to cooperation and collaboration, this means there are deep seated, neurologically-based differences in our perceptions, assumptions, and selection of which stimuli we act upon and which ones we overlook. To be effective as part of a team, or any relationship for that matter, it is critical that we understand what drives our impulses and what drives the impulses of others. There are five phases of the Project Completion Cycle, and all of these phases have value and enhance any project or process. During this cycle, organizations get into trouble when they make one of three process errors: they skip a phase; they spend too long in a phase; or they do not move through the first four phases sequentially. The fifth phase where evaluation takes place should be done throughout all four previous phases as well as at the end of any project or process.
The brain’s established and solidified neural pathways determine which phases we prefer to spend more time in. Some of us enjoy the beginning of a project. We love to think about what could be and are able to see two or three steps down the road. Others enjoy moving ideas to action by inspiring others. They are very concerned with who is on a project and how will they be affected by the decisions that are made. Some of us enjoy looking at data and creating detailed plans, while others are focused on results and accomplishing tasks no matter what might be in the way. Ensuring the right mix of energies are present on any given team is paramount to success.
Research and application
Michael Sturm, a learning diagnostician and social psychologist, studied with Edwin and Sonia Nevis at the Gestalt Institute in Cleveland. Gestalt psychology looks at how people become aware of certain stimuli in the world, which stimuli they “select” to act upon, the energy they invest in that action, where they get stuck, and how that interaction changes (or doesn’t change) subsequent interaction with another similar stimulus.
Sturm felt this model was too complex and abstract. He wanted to empower people to recognize where their natural energies would most comfortably take them, and enable them to use this knowledge to navigate the world successfully and with the least amount of stress. With this knowledge, individuals begin to align their strengths with the needs at hand, and rely on others (and offer support) where tasks that demand more energy might slow them down. This became Sturm’s life work and is reflected today in the 5 Dynamics methodology.
Skills or tasks you are “naturally good at” (or can do for hours on end without feeling drained) follow these least resistive neural pathways in your brain. So, when you work too heavily in capacities that are resistant to your natural energies (aka most efficient neural pathways), it can increase the risk of exhaustion and burnout. These individual energies are closely tied with how you’re able to work with team members, bosses and clients.
Impact on the workplace
When collaborating with coworkers, it’s important to remember that people at all levels work in different capacities on different tasks, and it’s less about strengths and weaknesses than it is about identifying the areas an individual has the most energy for. This is where productive collaboration can be improved, particularly in how you manage a team and build culture. By pinpointing the areas in which you and your team, staff or managers can easily complete tasks or work together on projects (but still feel fulfilled and challenged), you can create a team environment that avoids burnout, fosters positivity and success, and offers pathways for communication between colleagues that were previously unknown.
This is where the power of scientifically-identified work style dynamics come into play. When implemented across a team or organization, it allows decision makers to determine the exact needs for each employee to achieve the most satisfaction from their roles, and do so in a way that boosts the bottom line by avoiding burnout, reducing turnover and creating the path of least resistance to product delivery.
Successful leaders make an effort to flex their muscles in their non-preferred working styles. They realize they must compromise to get ahead and spend some time in the areas they have less energy for, but need to improve upon or do for the greater good of the company or the team. Your preferred working style does not indicate your ability to earn a spot at the top or succeed in your current role within a team. What limits you is your lack of awareness around what you see readily and what you might miss. Data shows that any working style can be successful as long as they are self-aware and build solid teams around them that fill in their gaps.
By understanding the way that your brain is wired, you now have the core component for building a successful team or organization. If you know what you do and why you do it (and you know this information about co-workers), you can begin to align around a common goal and determine where to lean in and where to ask for support. Teams begin to align around this approach naturally, and now that they understand what is happening from a neurological perspective, they no longer feel put off by differences. Instead, they embrace and appreciate them. We have always known people see the world differently. Now we know why. From this foundation, we can build effective, productive, and collaborative organizations.
 The Nevises subsequently went to Cambridge, MA, where Edwin started the MIT Executive Program, and helped create the Society for Organizational Learning with Peter Senge, who brought “process thinking” to global business. From there they founded the Gestalt International Study Center, where 5 Dynamics is in active use today.
About the Author
Karen Gordon is the CEO of 5 Dynamics, a research-based team collaboration tool she founded in 2010 which global companies rely on to increase productivity and satisfaction. Her team works with Fortune 500 companies, top universities, and nonprofits to deploy the company’s methodology to maximize human potential and create cultures that allow people to do their best work. Karen has been nationally recognized for her entrepreneurial and leadership accomplishments, and is a Platinum member of the Women Presidents Organization. A serial entrepreneur, author, and educator, Karen brings over 15 years of experience leading organizations to reach their highest potential.