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The Neuroscience of Success at Work

When talking with Melissa Thompson of HarcourtHealth, I was reminded of the unique benefit that comes with my job–staying on top of the latest neuroscience research on what makes people successful at work.  Our conversation prompted her article in Inc. Magazine, 3 Things Successful People Do at Work.

We spoke about Amy Brann’s latest book:  Engaged: The Neuroscience Behind Creating Productive People in Successful Organizations, in which Brann explains that “companies can both support their employees and strengthen their organizations by understanding what shapes our brains and then altering their workplaces accordingly.” The latest neuroscience, she suggests, identifies three key abilities of successful people at work: (1) Engaged Focus, (2) Elimination of Negative Self-Talk, and (3) Flow.

1) Engaged focus

If you’re not sure what this is, let’s start with an example.  Let us interrupt this article to ask: What were you doing before you started reading this? How many times do you sit down with the full attention to accomplish something important only to find yourself sucked into something interesting, but not at all important? How many times do you need to re-read paragraphs because you were thinking about something else even as you were reading the words on the screen? You’re not alone.

Despite all of these distractions, Brann says that successful people have trained their brains to stay alert.  How to do that? Many have a few other “tricks” up their sleeve:

  • Keep fidget toys in the office because tactile tools are known to be a less distracting way to use the “floating attention” that’s wired into our brains.
  • Put up signs asking colleagues to ‘LOL elsewhere’ if you don’t want to be interrupted. DeskMate is great for this.
  • Try Brian Tracy’s “Eat that Frog” approach—Mark Twain said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” In other words, successful people tackle their toughest challenge first thing in the morning, pointedly ignoring all distractions until their proverbial “frog” has been eaten.

2) Eliminating Negative Self-Talk through Mindfulness

Experts say the average brain has up to 50,000 thoughts each day and most of them are negative. Thompson tells us, “Brann’s research found that successful people are more aware of their own negative self-talk.”  They are able to train their brains to mindfully acknowledge it for what it is and move on to the other challenges of their day.

If you’re new to mindfulness, you can think of it like meditation, but different. Those who meditate seek to quiet their minds in order to get beyond their inner critic, slow down their brains and connect at a deeper level. Mindfulness, by contrast, is about being fully present in the moment and bringing a larger awareness to your emotions and thoughts as they happen. Lavishing the kudos on yourself and your colleagues also does wonders in a practice of mindfulness, helping to counter negative self-talk and achieve the payoff of greater engagement at work.

3. Flow: strike the right balance between your skills and challenges.

In her article, Thompson explains, “once you’ve tamed the distractions and the inner demons putting you down, you can turn your attention to maximizing your full potential and finding your way to stay in Flow.”

Successful people are able to find their way to that optimal place where skill and challenge are matched; where they’re neither overwhelmed nor under-challenged, neither drowning nor bored, and where they’re applying the skills they have to achieve great results.

Finding your own way to a state of Flow requires (1) training and (2) leveraging your strengths. Training will build your abilities and confidence. Next, you can seek out new opportunities to apply and grow using these newly honed skills.

By better understanding how the brain functions, managers and employees can seek out ways to adapt the workplace and work styles to maximize our effectiveness and productivity. The reward of (1) Focus, (2) Mindfulness, and (3) Flow will be a happier and more engaged workplace.  Beyond that, greater engagement is known to lead to lower turnover, less absenteeism, and  higher profits.

Read more about Kudos and the Power of Praise


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