I hate to disappoint you, but this post is not about salacious content that titillates our neurons. The term neuroporn, according to the New York Times, has been coined to describe the blatant overreaching of neuroscience.
You know a topic is hot when it's referenced in the President's State of the Union and 100 million dollars is allocated to fund research into it.
And hot it is. Neuroscience is the new new thing. Fueled by technology that allows us to actually see the brain at work, the latest research is challenging our commonsense with fantastic discoveries, while holding out the promise of cures for everything from Alzheimer’s to Autism.
But neuroscience is also producing it's share of excesses, such as the rampant commercialization of questionable applications. While a neuroscientist friend of mine swears that fish oil will improve cognitive functioning, the dietary supplements marketed to improve memory and concentration are probably going to disappoint.
We are also a long way from doing for the networks in the brain what we have done for the human genome. The "human connectome" project, as it's been called, is immeasurably more complex. We shouldn't expect any miraculous cures in the near future.
But as merited as our skepticism about neuroscience is, we are discovering amazing things about how our minds work. In particular, it is upending the field I've spent my life in--management. It's teaching us that much of what we do as managers produces the opposite of what we intend, and it's offering us practical ways to quickly improve the performance of our businesses.
Three findings in particular merit close attention. First, when we track how information is processed in the brain, we realize that rather than record our experience of the world, our minds create it according to our goals, beliefs, and even desires. Since we all experience a different version of events, we can count on conflicts between managers and subordinates when it comes to appraising performance.
Second, brain scans show us that when we make decisions, our emotions are activated and provide input. Since our decisions are not made exclusively with logic, we shouldn't assume that we will always act reasonably.
Third, the firing of high level networks in the brain keys the activation of lower level networks that are in sync with them. The high-level ideas instantiated in those networks, ideas that have to do with our aspirations and sense of self, will elicit behavior and decision-making that is aligned with them.
Taken together, these three findings argue for a very different approach to management. To overcome the inevitable conflicts in the managerial relationship, we need to use questions to help people self-feedback. When we want to convince people to see things our way, we need to appeal to both reason and emotion. Rather than trying to manage behavior, we need to convey aspirational ideas that will encourage the behavior we want.
The well-documented results of these simple approaches are reason enough to adopt them. But it's also nice to have the science that explains why they work and teaches us specifically how to put them into practice.