Creating a brain compatible workplace

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Patrick Psaila is a warranted psychologist and training consultant. Patrick has many years of experience in working with leaders and organisations to bring the best out of their people and maximise their potential.

From the ascent of Homo sapiens about 300,000 years ago to the Industrial Revolution in 1760, modern humans have lived in the natural world surrounded by predators

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent the best part of their days looking for food. Then 12,000 years ago humans made the major transition to farming and herding animals for food. As humans focused on food production, they settled into communities that formed towns and villages. With food available in greater abundance, the human population grew and spread to various areas around the world.

The complex brains of modern humans enabled them to interact with each other and with their surroundings in new and different ways. Our ancestors’ bigger brains helped them adapt, survive and thrive in the face of environmental threats. Language, social communities, group collaboration and advanced creativity gave them the potential to become the humans we are today: a species with superior intelligence and the largest and most complex brain out of any living primate. Humans now live and work immersed in complex organisations, social networks and advanced techonology.

While we have evolved tremendously from our earliest ancestors, one critical element remains central to our existence – the need for safety and security. Self-preservation and survival are hardwired in our brain just like any other living organism on the planet. It is only during the last 260 years, following the industrial revolution, that most humans moved away from nature’s predatory environment into the material world of towns, cities, roads, buildings, cars and advanced technology. Nonetheless, even in this apparently physically safer reality we remain concerned with our sense of safety. Wars, crime, poverty, natural disasters and diseases jeopardize our sense of security. Moreover, the psychological stresses of the “modern” world also threaten our sense of safety and wellbeing. Research shows, even before the pandemic, stress, burnout, anxiety and depression reached record highs and the numbers are still rising.

As a kind of preemptive defense against adversity, human brains developed what psychologists call a “negativity bias”. This is an automatic defense system that makes us pay more attention to and be more impacted by negative events. By being constantly on the alert we reduce the chances of being taken by surprise by a “predator”. Neuroscientific evidence has shown that there is greater neural processing in the brain in response to negative stimuli. Studies that measure the brain’s response to specific events or stimuli have shown that negative stimuli elicit a larger brain response than positive ones. The brain in this state is mostly concerned with survival and self-preservation. It becomes primed for the primitive fight or flight response. In this state, our capacity for sophisticated reasoning, problem-solving, logical processing, rational thinking and emotional regulation are seriously hampered. Instead, our brain activates its base functions for attacking or running away from the perceived enemy as it produces high doses of stress hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine.

Keeping this reality in mind, one can conclude that in a context such as work, that takes up so much of our time and that often requires our higher-level brain functions to operate effectively, a climate of physical and psychological safety and wellbeing enables us to function at our best. In this “state of mind” our brain produces an abundance of serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins. These are all chemicals that make us feel motivated, promote collaboration and kindness, keep us calm and generate a strong sense of wellbeing. Interestingly, safe environments provide the necessary security for people to take bigger risks, experiment with new ideas and venture outside their comfort zones.

So how can organisational leaders create a safe, brain-compatible workplace that brings out the best in people while safeguarding their wellbeing?

The first step in establishing a safe organisational climate is to understand what it is that creates safety. From a physical point of view this is relatively straight forward as there are clear legally defined health and safety guidelines and procedures. However, from a psychological point of view, things get a little more complex. The following are six examples of organisational practices that can foster a safe working environment.

1. Make safety a core value

Every organisation should establish defined values that guide people’s decisions, actions and behaviours. These values need to be endorsed and practised first and foremost by the organisation’s leaders. Leaders set the tone that infuses the culture of the entire workplace. By making psychological safety a priority value that is practiced by the leaders, a strong message is transmitted throughout the company that encourages people to adopt the same behavioural standards.

2. Create a climate of openness

We all know that uncertainty and the unknown are two great sources of anxiety. In a climate of openness, people are told the truth and do not need to fear deception or manipulative secrecy. When people are left in the dark, imagination takes over, which can be worse than reality itself. A climate of openness also promotes trust where people can put their mind at rest that that they know where they stand. This includes giving them regular, honest and constructive feedback about their performance.

3. Encourage teamwork and collaboration

Effective teamwork creates a sense of belonging, unity and security. By encouraging people to work together on tasks and projects, a sense of interdependence is created that counters the impact of work pressure, stress and isolation.

4. Give relationships priority

Solid friendships and good relationships are key ingredients for safety and wellbeing. Friends make us feel supported and protected. This is especially important when the external environment is hostile, competitive and potentially threatening. Ensuring that the work scenario is one that creates tangible opportunities for friendships to flourish is essential for psychological safety.

5. Promote a culture of care and compassion

The knowledge and feeling that people are looking out for each other and sensitive to each other’s needs goes a long way towards enhancing safety and security. When the going gets tough, knowing that people will show practical solidarity towards one another really fosters a caring culture. This can take the form of collective initiatives to support struggling employees as well as creating a social environment where people look out for each other’s wellbeing. Corporate Wellness programmes are formal ways of embracing and maintaining such a culture.

6. Make people feel valued and respected

Showing people genuine appreciation for their efforts and always respecting them helps people relax in the knowledge that they need not fear humiliation, abuse or degradation. Tolerance for mistakes or risky initiatives, also gives people the courage to try new ideas and come up with creative ways of solving problems and addressing issues.

A safe environment goes a long way towards promoting employee wellbeing, preventing burnout and boosting performance, engagement and motivation. While it does not take much to create such a safe space, it does require a “people-before-profit” mentality. This can be very challenging to achieve especially in times like these where so many businesses are negatively impacted by the Covid pandemic. However, when people unite in solidarity against a common threat, great things can happen. The internal safety within organisations can help create a collective effort to overcome the greatest external threats.

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