1. desember 2014

The Science of Finding Happiness at Work

There has been a massive volume written about happiness and work.  Much of what has been written is excellent and has practical application.  Here is the challenge I see working with organisations, specifically the larger ones that number in the thousands of employees, changing a company culture can be tantamount to moving mountains with the speed of continental drift.  Now don’t get me wrong there are a few examples out there where change has literally been revolutionary, but these are few and far between.

So where does that leave the individual professional who is seeking greater happiness?  Well that leaves them turning to themselves.  To some degree happiness has its external triggers, but a majority of it lies in the internal work each person has to do.  

Let me elaborate…

A great majority of your happiness is going to be determined by how you invest your attention.  Not too long ago a survey was conducted by an accident prevention charity. About 80% of the respondents admitted to going through life on autopilot.  Actions like arriving at the end of a car journey with no memory of driving there, buying the same item twice without realising, and turning up at the office on a day off. 

So what?  Well, this means we are very much like preprogrammed machines nearly oblivious to most of our actions.  We are all creatures of habit, spending our days playing out ingrained behaviours and responses over which we exert no control. 

The upside of is automating routines is that we don’t have to constantly be conscious of how to breathe, how to the walk, how to eat or drink.  But like every coin there is the flip-side.  Treading the well-worn paths of habit, we easily get stuck in jobs, relationships or ways of thinking that make us miserable, in lives we'd never have consciously chosen.

System One & System Two

In Daniel Kahneman’s influential book, Thinking, Fast and Slow he describes two systems of thinking - system one and system two.  System One is fast thinking and is the home of unconscious attention and automatic processing.  This system is responsible for our ingrained responses and behaviours.  System Two is slow thinking and is the home of conscious attention and deliberate reasoning.  This system is engaged anytime we are called upon to learn something new or take on a new perspective.

Since the brain wants to constantly conserve energy, it tries it’s very best to quickly automate any new behaviour.  That is, to move it from system two to system one.  Learning anything novel whether it is a new physical skill or a new way of thinking requires vast amounts of energy (system two).  But once it has been learned system one takes over and runs with extraordinary efficiency requiring minimal energy costs.

Is There a Key to Happiness?

The key to happiness comes down to how you invest your attention.  What you attend to drives your behaviour and that in turn determines your happiness. The key to happiness by design is to notice what you pay attention to and then to organize your life in ways that actually make you happier without having to think to hard about it.

In the context to this blog entry happiness is made up of two-parts - pleasure and purpose. There is pleasure (or pain) and purpose (or pointlessness) in all that you do and feel. They are separate components that make up your overall happiness that comes from what you experience.  You are happiest when you manage to strike a balance between pleasure and purpose that works best for you.

Attention is the Glue

There are two elements here.  The first is attention, which is the glue that holds your life together.  The second is happiness, which is ultimately about the pleasure-purpose principle over time.   As time is the only truly scarce resource, we should all be seeking to use our time in ways that bring us the greatest overall pleasure and purpose for as long as possible.  Our life clock is more like a timer which counts down.  You cannot neither recover lost time nor lost happiness.  There are no resets and no rewinds. 

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for us to pay more attention to what we think should make us happy rather than focusing on what actually does. Too often we evaluate something as satisfactory even when the actual experience is not pleasurable, leading to poor choices about what really gives us happiness.

Happiness is something you can achieve by becoming more conscious of what actually contributes to it. More specifically day-to-day happiness is composed of pleasure and purpose.  This means you don't want to just feel good, you also want to feel that you are doing good. With this mindset, you can tolerate short term strife if you know that it is being suffered for a purpose. At the same time, pleasure must be included in the calculation as it is fundamental to feeling happiness.

From my experience working with a wide range of professionals, most of the time we are not even conscious of the ways we hinder our own happiness.  I think many of us think we are going to be happy from acquiring new toys but that usually wears off rather quickly.  Along with this we do not give enough credit to the happiness of experiences and in turn we don't value them as much. To our own detriment, we tend to focus on accumulation rather than participation.

London Cabbies and Hippos

Before someone can actually become a London cabby they must pass a difficult test that requires them to navigate 25000 streets.  Those that pass the test, which is only half of the test-takers, have larger hippocampi.  This is the part of the brain that is responsible for forming long term memories and spatial processing.  The growth of the hippocampi was a result of studying for the test and as they learned more and more. So paying attention can literally change your brain.

The brain is a highly complex and sophisticated processing system, with billions of neurons and trillions of synaptic connections, and you can learn to focus your attention on more meaningful stimuli that contributes to your sense of pleasure and your sense of purpose.   The first step is then to be aware of what brings you pleasure and purpose.  The second step is to keep your attention on these stimuli.  The reality is that most of us don’t do this.  

Situational Blindness

One of the fundamental mechanisms of attention is when you attend to one aspect of your environment you do not attend to another. This can lead to a mental phenomenon referred to as situational blindness, whereby you are so focused on one aspect of your surroundings that you fail to notice the bigger picture.  Follow this link to test your own situational blindness (http://bit.ly/1gXmThe).  It takes less then two-minutes.

One way of overriding situational blindness is to trigger your conscious attention.  This is when deliberately direct your focus on something.  The following exercise will help you to overcome situational blindness.

Moving Forward Exercise

If you want to be more happy then you need to make the conscious effort to identify what brings you a sense of pleasure and what gives you a sense of purpose.  It means you literally need to stop-up and think what aspects of my job meet these two criteria.  At first, it may seem like a difficult task.  Give it some time and be patient.  Your brain may not be use to thinking in this manner.  Let your brain warm up and settle in.  Believe me, after awhile your brain will start spitting out answers.

Here is a simple exercise I take clients through.  I ask them to scale their answers from 0 to 10.  0 meaning not-at-all.  10 meaning completely.

Step 1: On an average day, how satisfied are you with your work?

Step 2: On an average day, to what extent do you feel your job gives you a sense of purpose?

Step 3: What do you want to do in order to increase your answers in Step 1 and 2  by one value? (e.g. moving it from    
                     a value of 5 to 6)

If you want to increase the level of happiness in your professional life much of the ownership lies with you.  You want to take deliberate action to identify what functions and aspects of your job gives you a sense of pleasure and purpose.  This effort of consciously focusing your attention engages system two - slow thinking and conscious reasoning.

Similar to the brains of the cabby drivers that grew in response to learning to navigate the streets of London, your brain will grow to automatically search for the elements of pleasure and purpose in everything you do and experience.  This is the mental shift I mentioned earlier - from System 2 (conscious reasoning) to System 1 (automatic processing).

On average, it takes about 60 days to set the foundation for a new habit - mental or physical.  From my experience working with a broad spectrum of professionals, a definite shift in mindset and overall happiness begins to happen in those 60 days. It simply becomes so much easier for people to discover those factors that make life more meaningful.

Take Home Message (THM)

The first THM is to stay attentive to the aspects of your job that bring you a sense of purpose and that bring you a sense of pleasure.

The second THM is to be dedicated to the change, disciplined to stick with the change, and decisive to take the actions necessary to sustain the change.

Happiness is not simply some enigmatic state of mind.  Happiness is a result of our efforts to direct our attention, which in turn has concrete and tangible biological and chemical effects on our brains.

We encourage you to share your questions, opinions and comments. 

Thanks again for taking the time to read our blog.
Interested in applying brain-science in your professional life?

Please visit us at www.MINDtalk.no

13. november 2014

Money Doesn't Buy Happiness, But Time Can

Philosophers and other thinkers have been trying for thousands of years to get a grip on the elusive 
emotion of happiness, which arises with a rush of endorphins and can dissipate just as quickly.

Cassie Mogilner, a professor at The Wharton School, is one of those people who has been trying to tie down what makes people happy, in papers she's co-authored including "The Shifting Meaning of Happiness" and "The Pursuit of Happiness: Time, Money and Social Connection." Through years of academic research, Mogilner believes she has nailed down a the chief sources that elicit joy.

"I have found that focusing on time leads to greater happiness than focusing on money," she tells The Wharton School's blog Knowledge@Wharton in a video interview.

In one study, Mogilner asked people to fill out a survey while they were entering a café. The survey was a "sentence unscrambling task," which either focused on time-related words or money-related words. She then observed  the subjects while they were at the café talking, eating, or working. "As they left the café, we conducted another survey asking how happy they felt. Those who were led to think about time on their way into the café spent more time connecting and left happier than those who were led to think about money," she says.

For a second study, Mogilner scoured millions of blogs for sentences like "I feel" or "I am feeling happy," and then dissected the content. She found two forms of happiness--the feeling of being excited and the feeling of being calm. The study revealed that people in their teens and 20s were more likely to express excited happiness than calm happiness; people in their 30s were equally as likely to express one as the other; and people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s were more likely to express calm happiness than excited happiness. She concludes that "the way that we feel happy changes over the course of our life."

When it comes down to working on your own personal happiness levels, Mogilner says her research reveals the importance of changing focus. She suggests "to shift attention away from money, which is a resource that tends to absorb most of our attention and our thinking and planning on a daily basis, and shift attention to this fundamentally precious resource of time."  Making that shift "will remind you and motivate you to behave in ways that are happier, and to spend your time in more fulfilling ways."

An important thing to remember, she says, is to be self-aware and understand what makes you happy. If you love taking it easy on the weekends and binge-watching Netflix, then do it. If you find happiness making it rain in the club, well, make it rain already.

The most important thing to remember: "Even the way that you feel happiness will or has changed over the course of your life." If you're not a young buck anymore, do what makes you happy, instead of beating yourself up for watching Bogart kill it in The African Queenfor the millionth time.

Contribution by Inc.com

31. oktober 2014


One of the aspects of my job that I am very passionate about is helping individuals, groups and companies to find their mojo.  That is, to help them discover the values that fuel their passions and that drive them forward to do what they do.

I recently conducted an Introspection Workshop for a small start-up that were in the incubation stage of their business. They had a solid idea of what niche they wanted to target and were also clear about the tangibles of their new venture - the product and service.

When it came to the intangibles that was a different story.  They were still wandering around in the dark with arms out-stretched searching for their elusive values. They could feel them, but the challenge was to articulate them into concrete terms.  Simon Sinek in his book Start With Why calls these values the why.  The whys being the purpose of the business that is above and beyond it’s product and/or services.

On an individual level I've worked with scores of individuals.  One person who stands out that I’ve worked extensively with is Inge Solheim who led Prince Harry and company on the Walking with the Wounded South Pole Allied Challenge in 2013.  Even for an experienced adventurer such as Inge, who leads parties to some of the most extreme climes on the planet, going through an introspection exercise every so often helps him to adjust his decisions and realign his direction based on his internal compass.

What is the over-arching principle of human behaviour?

Human behaviour is driven by the major principle of pleasure and pain.  Every choice we make and every action we take is driven by this principle.  The general human tendency is to move towards pleasure and away from pain.  This is true as much for an individual as it is for an organization.

Every emotion we feel is simply a derivative of either pleasure or pain.  The word we use for a specific emotion defines the degree of intensity of the pleasure or pain we experience.  In the English language there are approximately 3000 words to describe emotions.  There are exactly 2286 words used to describe negative emotions and 1051 words to describe positive emotions.

What is the difference between a feeling and an emotion?

In the Anglo-Saxon world we tend to use the words feelings and emotions as synonyms. In actuality, they have their own unique definitions.  In the context of this blog, a feeling is a raw sensation that is communicated to the brain through one of our five senses like sight and smell.

When these raw sensations make it to the limbic system, the emotional centre of our brains, we assign meaning to that feeling.  Depending on if we assign a positive or negative meaning it will evoke motion (an e-motion) either toward something or away from something. 

For example, if your eyes register the raw sensation (a feeling) of a  bright blue sky you may assign the meaning that is is a beautiful day.  This means you will most likely feel a positive emotion like optimism and happiness.  The opposite is true if you assign a negative meaning to an overcast day.

Take a moment to look at the equations below:




What are Values?

When people talk about values they are simply referring to either positive or negative emotional states.  That is, they are stating what pleasures they are moving towards and what pains they are moving away from.  The key point to remember here is that values are emotions. 

Now, you may value many things such as your family, your house, your job, your friends and so on.  These are things that you value, but they are not values.  Your family, house, job and friends are all important to you.  But here is the important distinction.  Each of the above nouns are the vehicles that allow you to feel a certain way - to experience a certain type of emotion.

If I asked you, ‘What does your family give you?’  You may answer a sense of belonging, a sense of love, a sense of contribution and/or a sense of something greater than yourself.  It is how we want to feel that are the drivers behind our behaviour.  It is the emotions we want to experience that are our values. 

What are Moving-Toward Values (MTVs)?

As human beings we are constantly motivated to move toward pleasurable emotional states. However, there are always going to be some emotions you will value more than others. For example, what are the emotions that will give you the most pleasure – Love or Success? Freedom or Intimacy? Adventure or Security?

These pleasurable states that we value most are ‘Moving-Toward’ values (MTVs), because these are the emotional states that we will do the most to attain. Some examples of MTVs are success, freedom, intimacy, security, adventure, power, passion, comfort, and health.

It is very important to understand that we do not weigh all these values equally. Usually there are preferences. There is a hierarchy to our values and the emotions we want to experience.  It is this hierarchy that greatly influences the decisions we make from moment to moment - consciously and unconsciously.  For example, some people value comfort over passion.  Others value freedom over security, and still other people may value intimacy over success.

They key is to understand that we humans will always try to realize our highest values first.

What are Moving-Away Values (MAVs)?

Just as there are emotions we want to experience because they are pleasurable, there is also a list of emotions that we will do almost anything to avoid. As Daniel Kahneman points out in his book Thinking Fast and Slow there is a greater tendency for people to make choices based on avoiding pain than gaining pleasure, which directly impacts our decision-making.

As an example, you may be given the opportunity to present your work to the executive team of your company. You may have strong MTVs of recognition and feeling appreciated.  You may also have strong MAVs of not feeling embarrassed or vulnerable.  In the end, you choose to opt out of making the presentation and instead relinquish that task to someone else on your team.  You were driven more by avoiding the pain of potential embarrassment and vulnerability then by the kudos of receiving well-deserved recognition and appreciation for excellent work.

Just like MTVs, we have a hierarchy of MAVs that will heavily influence on how we make decisions.

How do you discover your MTVs and MAVs?

Depending on what aspect of your life you are attending to you will have different values.  In your professional life you may have values such as feeling professional and assertive in your working relationships.  Although theses values are important at the office, you may not consider them top of the hierarchy in your family life.

When I’m working with clients we focus on one slice of their life at a time.  Since the majority of my developmental dialogues are with clients focusing on their professional lives we tend to discover their MTVs and MAVs as it pertains to that aspect.

Here are the steps and some example questions of what I generally ask people when we are doing an introspection exercise:

Step 1 - Identifying MTVs

How do you want to feel at work?

What is important for you to feel professionally?

How do you want to feel about the quality of your work, your effort, your abilities and capabilities?

What is important for others to feel about you professionally, about your effort, about the quality of your work?

Step 2 - Prioritizing MTVs

The client then lists their MTVs in the order of priority. This exercise can be quite the eye-opener, because it reveals whether my client’s decisions are in line with their top values.

This insight can help my client to understand why he or she heads in a certain direction on a consistent basis. By articulating his or her hierarchy of MTVs my client can understand why he or she sometimes has difficulty in making decisions. This becomes easy to see when the values are written down in front of them and the MTVs can be contrasted and compared with one another.

Step 3 - Identifying MAVs

What emotions do you never want to experience at work?

What are some of the worst emotions you have experienced as a professional?

How do you never want other professionals to feel about you, your effort, your quality of work?

What emotions do you never want associated with your professional reputation?

Step 4 - Prioritizing MAVs

The client then lists their MAVs in the order of priority.

Step 5 - Reengineering MTVs & MAVs

In the final step, I help my client to reexamine their values and decide what values they want to add; what values they want to eliminate; and whether the hierarchy needs to be modified.

In Conclusion

By changing your values you change your life.  This is a very powerful concept which can bring a profound shift in someone’s life or to how a business does it’s business. 

You can literally change the way you think, feel and behave in virtually every area of your life simply by consciously selecting or redirecting the order and content of your values hierarchy system. 

We encourage you to share your questions, opinions and comments.  

Thanks again for taking the time to read our blog.
Interested in applying brain-science in your professional life?

Please visit us at Facebook or www.MINDtalk.no

15. oktober 2014

Making the move to an open-plan workspace

One of the biggest changes that can hit an organization and it's employees Is when they move offices.  Everything is going to be new. The route someone takes to work. The view outside the window.  The placement of the all-important coffee machine. The location of different meeting rooms. The list is endless.

What can make a move even more Earth-shaking for people is if they are one of the many companies moving from an individual office plan to an open-plan solution.  For the many who have never worked in an open-plan environment it can be very daunting. There be very little, and in many cases, no experience to draw from which significantly heightens the sense of uncertainty.  This in turn can quickly send someone into a reactive mindset.

In a reactive state of mind people tend to get hung up on the nitty-gritty of details; they tend to exaggerate the problems; their focus be on the things outside of their control; they may get emotionally hijacked; they tend to be more problem-oriented; they develop self-limiting beliefs; and have the tendency to make more reactive decisions.

Many of us have this natural reaction to change. This is especially true if it is change that we have not initiated, but which circumstance has forced us into.  Our ancient ancestors that lived on the open savannah 50,000 years ago tended to stay put if resources were sufficient and game could be had.   The brain tends to see things in very black and white terms - life or death.  One of the reasons the brain wanted our ancestors to stay put is certainty.  Certainty that our mental map of the territory was correct.  Certainty where water and food could be found.  Certainty of where the predators tended to lurk. Certainty where it was safe to spend the night.

On the other hand, picking up and moving meant uncertainty. It meant the brain had to use more energy to map a new territory, but more than that uncertainty also brought with it a high-degree of risk.  The brains prime-directive is to keep you alive.  Uncertainty and unpredictability are the arch-enemies of the brain and it will do its very best to try to dissuade someone from making a move. Better the risk you know than the risk you don't.

What is an organization to do?

From my experience, working both with small and large organizations moving into an open-landscape work space the key is to create as much certainty as possible. Communicate often and early enough in the process building up to the move. Predictability and certainty are going to be an organizations best allies to encouraging people to take a 'constructive' approach to a move. 

I consciously use the term constructive instead of positive.  The reality is an open- landscape has both it's advantages and disadvantages. By using the term 'positive approach' it has the unintended connotations of trying to sell the idea much like a used-car salesman. It doesn't matter how charismatic someone is or how persuasive their message, if a person is not in the mood to buy it will be an act of futility to try to sell them the idea. This is even more true if a person is already in a reactive mindset.

When in a reactive state of mind biased thinking proliferates.  Biased thinking is a type of thought process that limits our possibility to see solutions and opportunities, because our thinking becomes rigid and inflexible. We tend to only see one side of the coin and refuse to believe there is another side.  When it comes to change there are 5 types of biased thinking that are relevant to moving to an open-plan office.  I mention two of these below.

  • Confirmation Bias. People have an automatic and unconscious tendency to filter information that only supports their current belief. For example, if a person is negative toward the move they will have a greater tendency to read articles or have selective memory of stories and incidents that only highlight the disadvantages of open-plan environments.
  • Ownership Bias. You can see ownership in play when you conduct a meeting and you call for a break. When people return they will tend to sit in  the exact same place. Since they took that seat at the beginning their brains not only ‘own’ that particular seat, but the perspective of the meeting leader,  the location of their neighbors, the position at the table and so on.  Ownership bias becomes even more evident when someone has to give up  'their' office. People tend only to think about what they're losing and what they're giving up. It becomes nearly impossible to see the things that they are gaining or the advantages a new situation brings.  It also means it becomes even more difficult to find solutions for things that are not working and which need to be addressed.
From my experience, an organization needs to build a process in helping people to take a constructive approach to a move. By taking this approach it washes away a good proportion of the stink of trying to sell an idea.

What is a constructive approach?

As mentioned above, creating as much certainty and predictability early enough in the process is of fundamental importance. The other important element is creating a planned forum for people to voice their concerns, opinions and ideas. 

When I run these workshops for organizations the key is to to keep the participant numbers down to a size that encourages dialogue. If the group is too large and the group is highly negative then a constructive workshop can sour quickly. I have found that a good number is between 10 to 12 participants.

In order to put people into a constructive mode for dialogue I think it essential to prime peoples minds. I find the best way of doing this is to open each of my workshops by teaching people about about mindsets, about key-functions of the brain related to change, and about biased thinking.  The insights gained from this introduction help people to gain real-time perspective of how their thinking is actually affecting them physically and psychologically.  I can not stress how affective I have found this to be when helping organizations acclimatize to the idea and the reality of moving offices.  This part is key in putting people into a mind state that is objective, reflective and decisive.

In the second part of the workshop I find the following are some of the key areas that need to be addressed:

- how to engage people and hold conversations?
- what should we be aware of regarding our surroundings?
- how should we define phone etiquette in the office environment?
- what should we be aware of regarding focus rooms, meeting rooms, and social areas?

As mundane as these topics may seem it is actually here that create many of the flash-points of discontent and frustration with working in an open landscape. Under each of these areas it is important to ask a wide range of questions to capture a spectrum of thoughts and opinions.. The quality of the questions will  determine the quality of the answers and of the quality of the discussion that follows.

What are the end-points?

I think there are 2 overall end-points that should be achieved. The first, as has already been discussed, is the fact that there are dedicated workshops where people can voice and share their opinions, concerns and solutions.

Simply getting people to constructively discuss an issue where you examine both the advantages and disadvantages leaves a majority of the people more positive about a move. People get the opportunity to have many of their questions answered and to have many of their knowledge-gaps filled.  It is this increase in certainty and predictability that puts people into a more constructive state of mind.

The second outcome of the workshop is to compile a list of recommendations to create a code of conduct. This is simply document of suggested practices to encourage and remind people of behaviour that is conducive to an open-plan office.  Creating such a list allows people to feel a sense of control and influence. This is so essential since many times such a move is perceived as something that is forced on them and beyond their control.

These are only my experiences working with a number of companies that have made a move to an open-plan solution. Of course there are a few other issues that need to be addressed, but the core fundamentals mentioned above are important to build into any process.

In the end

I truly believe the owners of change need to take an active and engaged role in preparing people for a big move. They need to design a forum or a series of forums where the people who will be affected have a chance to voice their thoughts and concerns as a group.

From my experience, if the forum is structured and well-balanced and people learn something about themselves, their brains, and they're thinking it can lead to a very constructive dialogue.

In a future blog entry, I will share with you the process I follow-up with companies 6 to 12 months after they have made the move.  The post-occupancy process is a key element to getting people to acclimatize.

We encourage you to share your questions, opinions and comments. 

Thanks again for taking the time to read our blog.
Interested in applying brain-science in your professional life?

Please visit us at www.MINDtalk.no

15. september 2014

Staying hungry in business

Not long ago, I facilitated a round table discussion for a designer furniture store helping them to take a hard look at themselves.  The focus was on understanding who they were, where they wanted to go and what needed keeping and what needed fixing.

The store began as a few scribblings on a napkin at a cafe.  In a span of five years, they have grown into a thriving business with a modest turnover.  At present, they are the exclusive agents to some of Sweden and Denmark's well-known, designer brands.  Their presence amongst architects, interior designers and other such professionals is growing at a pace that would make many envious.

But as you may have already guessed their growth and success were no easy feat.  Every meter gained had to be earned with an investment of effort and energy.  Most businesses fail within the first twelve months.  If they survive that then there is the 24 month hurdle to overcome.  If a business has managed to stick around 5 years there is a greater sense of stability and that it is doing something right.

From my experience a sense of success can sometimes breed a sense of complacency or even worse a sense of superiority.  That is,  sometimes people think they have stumbled on to the secret formula of success and all they have to do is keep on doing what they are doing.  Of course as many businesses know this is more like the formula of crash and burn.  It has been written about in hundreds of articles and books.  Nonetheless, what were once global empires of enterprise are now empty ruins only spoken in terms of what once was or has been.

One of the latest examples of an empire crumbling is Research In Motion (RIM) makers of the famous or infamous Blackberry.  At the top of their might they spoke arrogantly about the demise of the iPhone.  RIM truly believed no significant development had to be made to their phones.  They thought they knew what the business world wanted. It seems they thought wrong and are presently trying to cling on to a market that is nearly beyond their reach.  Since 2007, their market value has tanked by 65%. RIM's desperation is tantamount to building a sandbag wall after the flood has already hit.

As for the designer furniture store their near future looks extremely bright, but they are under no illusion that it will always be so.  Their success has not gone to their heads and left them feeling satiated.  It has rather rekindled their hunger to stretch the business beyond where they are today.

I believe hunger in business is a necessity and should never been undervalued.  Hunger stokes the drive to strive.  Every now and then I think it is important for an individual or a business to create their own wake-up call and to take a hard look at themselves.  Simply asking the question, 'Are we staying hungry?' is a strong first step.

We encourage you to share your questions, opinions and comments.  Thanks again for taking the time to read our blog.
Interested in applying brain-science in your professional life?

Please visit us at www.MINDtalk.no 

1. september 2014


In the last few years there has been a growing trend to know more about how the brain works.  The challenge is relevant findings of brain-science don’t always trickle down to the professional world, and so there tends to be a disconnect between what brain science knows and what people do.
One of the tougher challenges my clients face is the ability to remain reflective and objective in a demanding situation.  They understand that being in a distressed state of mind serves no value and can even worsen a situation.  By understanding some of the fundamentals of the brain’s inner-workings and being able to translate that knowledge into useful tools can mean the difference between succeeding and failing.

The brain’s prime directive is to keep you safe by being constantly vigilant to any potential threats.  The curious thing is the brain is not just a single system trying to keep you from harm.  Rather it consists of a number of systems that are constantly competing against each other for dominance and control of finite resources.  Each system follows the prime directive, but has different ways of achieving it.

The two main systems are the Reactive Mindset (RMS) and the Thinking Mindset (TMS).

The RMS is a state of mind where you are reactive, subjective, indecisive and problem-oriented.  You tend to get lost in the details and lose site of the bigger picture.  It is when your brain ruminates on a thought and can’t seem to shift focus.  It is when automatic thoughts trigger negative emotions, which in turn fuel more unproductive thoughts creating a mental tail-spin.
The TMS is a state of mind where you are reflective, objective, decisive, and solution-oriented.  You are able to think about your thinking and keep the bigger picture in mind.  You are aware of your emotions and take them into account when making a decision.
It is important to note that the RMS and TMS are not simply psychological states of mind.  Each has it’s own dedicated neural anatomy and corresponding function, which significantly influences your cognitive abilities for better or for worse.
In the diagram the RMS sits on the left end and the TMS on the right.  In between the two mindsets are three states of awareness.  Playing the game means being able to shift awareness from the RMS to the TMS under demanding situations.  In doing so you trigger the neural anatomy that keeps you reflective, objective and solution-oriented. 
One of the most effective methods I use comes from cognitive-behavioural psychology and is supported by findings in neuroscience.  It has proven to be highly effective under a range of conditions. It requires you to articulate abstract thoughts and emotions into concrete words.  This mental task requires higher thinking and reasoning, which literally fire-up the neural circuits of the TMS while quieting down those of the RMS.
Step 1:  Be aware of the automatic thoughts/emotions you’re experiencing to a stressful situation in the here & now.
  • What am I thinking & feeling at this moment?
Step 2:  Experience shows that writing down the reasons why you are having a particular thought/emotion can significantly weaken them.
  • What are the reasons behind my thoughts & feelings?
Step 3.  Automatic thought/emotion tend to be based on lessons learned to past events.  Where once they may have served you, they may now be working against you.  Weed out those that are hindering you.
  • Are they based on fact or assumption?
  • Are these thoughts & emotions helping me or hindering me with my current challenge?
Taking the needed time to answer the questions in the steps helps you to psychological and neurologically shift to the TMS, becoming solution-oriented and emotionally objective instead of problem-focused and emotionally hijacked. 
There is more to explore in this area, but these 3-steps are a good place to start when you need a clear head to handle a challenge.  I encourage you to keep the brain in mind!
We encourage you to share your questions, opinions and comments.  
Thanks again for taking the time to read our blog.
Interested in applying brain-science in your professional life?

Please visit us at www.MINDtalk.no 

15. august 2014


It has been long known that we humans are a social bunch.  We have this innate drive to cluster into groups. The main thrust for this drive is that throughout history we have enhanced our chances of survival by collectively sharing things such as resources, knowledge and workload. Alternatively, behaving in ways that were not acceptable to the group meant banishment through isolation or rejection from the group.  In the wild this would have significantly decreased the chances of survival.
As a result, our brains are highly attuned to our ongoing social status and possible rewards or threats to it.  In modern times the workplace is one of the biggest social environments our brain experiences.  It is constantly providing us with feedback from the social interactions with others.  We need to know when things are working in our favour or when our social situation may be under threat.

Our brain interprets our social interactions through the use of neural pathways and chemical messengers commonly used for pleasure and pain.  When we speak of pleasure and pain in relation to the social brain we are respectively talking about social reward and social pain.  
For instance, when our brain recognises the potential rewards from a social interaction it releases chemicals along same neural pathways associated with pleasure making us feel physically good.  This is a social reward and it can take the form of emotions such as being valued, feeling connected or appreciated. On the other hand when we feel threatened, rejected or unappreciated the same neural pathways that tell us we're in physical pain are activated. This is known as social pain.  So our brains are wired in a way that we experience reward during mutual social interactions, and feel sensations similar to physical pain when we are socially rejected or disapproved.  
Evolution has equipped us with a highly sophisticated social processing machine that allows us to engage in social interactions while maintaining relationships on an individual as well as a group basis.  Because of this our brains don't always operate in isolation to one another. Our brains often trigger a threat or reward response to the people around us and we may not even realize that we are doing this.  When you interact with someone at work, it helps to consider what social messages you may be sending and the impact you may be having on their brain.
There is emerging evidence that our social behaviours have evolved along side the neural architecture to support them.  The neocortex (the outer layer of the brain) is markedly larger than other primates or mammals of similar size.  It comprises the parts of the brain that are involved in higher social cognition, such as conscious thought, emotional regulation, empathy and language.  It seems evolution has biologically hard-wired each of us for interacting with others.

Since we are such socially oriented creatures a significant part of our identity comes from the groups we belong to.  One of the major reasons we seek out group membership is to foster our self-esteem.  That is, we feel better when we believe we belong to the ‘right’ group and that there are clear and positive distinctions from other groups.

Our social identity happens in three steps.  The first step is categorisation, whereby we assign people (as well as ourselves) to a category in order to understand the social environment.  These categorisations tell us things about people - Canadian, Norwegian, Buddhist, Atheist, conservative, liberal, doctor, teacher and so on.
In the second step we adopt the identity of the groups we have categorised ourselves as belonging to.  If for example you categorised yourself as a Buddhist, most likely you will take on the appropriate behaviours and values of the group.  In order to stay as a member you would conform to it’s norms and act and cooperate in ways that are acceptable to the group. 
The third step is comparison where we compare our group with other groups.  If we are to maintain our self-esteem our group needs to compare favourably to other groups.  It is here where cognitive biases can creep into our thinking and cloud our decisions and judgement.  (Cognitive biases are inherent thinking errors that lead to faulty decisions and judgments). 
One such cognitive bias is known as in-group-out-group bias, which refers to a pattern of favouring members of the in-group over those of the out-group.  This means we tend to selectively look for information that reflects positively on the group we belong to (the in-group).  At the same time, we will selectively seek information that reflects negatively on groups that we don’t belong to (the out-group).  This tends to lead us to automatically think along the lines of ‘them’ and ‘us’.  This in turn leads to irrational group favouritism where we are more willing to see our group win, rather than have outcomes where all people end up better overall.
It is very sobering to think just how susceptible we are to these automated biases.  If we don’t become aware of our mental evolutionary programming these cognitive biases will naturally sneak into out thinking and trigger the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality.  Where once there was no animosity there is now a sense of rivalry and the lines are distinctly drawn between groups.  This intergroup competition creates a fight for resources and cooperation and communication crash and burn.

In most cases as a business grows so does the number of people needed to help maintain and sustain it.  As a result roles and functions become more distinct and sub-cultures will be a natural outcome of that growth.  If care is not taken irrational cognitive biases will kick-in as our innate programming starts to protect our self-esteem by creating unnecessary distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’.  This doesn’t have to be an inevitable outcome.   
I have worked with many different types of groups and departments to create a unified culture.  Below are the four main-points (each of them could be a blog onto themselves) that I have found help to dispel ‘them’ and ‘us’ thinking and to create a healthy and sustainable social group identity. 

  • to simply be aware of the psychological phenomenon of social identity and ‘them’ and ‘us’ thinking 
  • is to make employees feel as if they are part of a clear company mission or goal - that there is a shared identity
  • is for people to see themselves as part of a group even if the group is subdivided by function or responsibility and to accept that sub-cultures are a natural outcome of large groups
  • to make the conscious effort to cooperate and communicate in order to overcome natural group dysfunctions and biases

We encourage you to share your questions, opinions and comments.  Thanks again for taking the time to read our blog.
Interested in applying brain-science in your professional life?

Please visit us at www.MINDtalk.no