BOOK REVIEW: Why it's important to have a best friend at work

Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People, by Ned Hallowell

NEUROSCIENCE has made enormous advances in the last two decades. The discipline has also extended from the arena of serious scientific discourse to that of popular business literature.

Business people have been greatly enriched by this new science, and this easy to read book is an example of how “brain science” can enrich the complicated task of managing other adults.

Brain science has made surprising discoveries, such as the fact that the brain can change throughout life (neuroplasticity), and about the oddly neglected psychological state called happiness. We know that “no pain, no gain” is not strictly correct. Excellence occurs in direct proportion to “necessary suffering”, but in inverse proportion to “unnecessary suffering”.

The author, Ned Hallowell, has practised as a psychiatrist for 25 years and been an instructor at the Harvard Medical School. He has gathered some important insights from brain science and compiled a useful guide on how to draw the most out of one’s staff. His five-part guide is easy to follow and implement, and firmly based on good theory and hard facts.

The most common mistake managers make

The five parts are interconnected so if a problem occurs at any point, you should look back to see if the previous steps are still intact, or were correct in the first place. The most common mistake managers make when a person is not performing, is to urge or threaten them to get them to work harder.

The mistake is not having created the conditions that will lead workers to want to work harder.

So, let’s go to the beginning. Hallowell’s first step is “Select” - put people into the right jobs in the right environments so that their brains light up. It is the manager’s task to select a task that she is good at, something she likes to do, and something that adds value to the project or organisation.

If you fail to do this step correctly, all that follows will be affected.

“Working the wrong job is like marrying the wrong person: it will involve lots of hard work but few happy days,” Hallowell explains. A person can’t will himself to work diligently, and a manager can’t motivate employees who are in the wrong place in the company.

To assist in selecting the right person, Hallowell offers a useful do-it-yourself interview questionnaire. (But then you probably do have access to one of these.) Far more interesting is his introduction to a less-known insight – your employees’ ‘conative’ style. The word ‘conation’ derives from the Latin ‘conari’, to try. This is a natural, inborn style of solving problems and initiating actions.

Does she need to be specific and gather lots of data before starting? Is he a natural multitasker who easily adapts? Does she follow though to the end of a task? How do your people naturally try to do their work? (See Kathy Kolbe’s free online conative style test.)

Hallowell’s second step to having a staff member work well is “Connect”. There is no end of forces that disconnect people in the workplace from each other, and from the mission of the organisation. Positive connections are the most powerful fuel for peak performance. Connection is the bond an individual feels with another person, group, task, place, idea, or anything else that makes one feel attached, loyal, excited, inspired or willing to make sacrifices for the sake of that connection.

Disconnection is one of the chief causes of substandard work in the modern workplace, Hallowell asserts. Without the invigoration of connection, the brain shrivels and life sags - and yet it is thoroughly preventable!

Data gathered over 70 years on the lives of 268 men (known as the Grant or Harvard Men study,) is one of the best pieces of research on what makes for a full and successful life. The conclusion?

The only thing that really matters in life

“The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people.”

Ask any achiever for the key to their success, and they will most often refer to a person who believed in them, and drew out of them more than they knew they had.

This step, seeing that your people have real connection with other people (NOT digitally intermediated), requires the most skill and patience from managers. The results will make the effort worthwhile.

Research by Tom Rath and the Gallup organisation published in 2007 showed that having a best friend at work is a major predictor of superior performance.

Disconnection at work is often caused by managers who rule by pressure and fear, which lobotomises their people.

A good place to start with the connection step is simply to notice and acknowledge people.

“If you treat employees as if they make a difference to the company, they will make a difference to the company.”

The third step is “play” - imaginative engagement - a phenomenally productive yet undervalued activity of the mind.

Play stimulates the amygdala - a group of neurons deep within the brain - that helps regulate emotions and exerts a beneficial effect on the prefrontal cortex in the brain. This is the executive part of the brain which performs the functions of planning, prioritising, scheduling, anticipating, delegating, deciding, analysing and so on.

“So, play is good for business, and not being able to play hurts business,” Halloway explains. Is your environment as “playful” as possible in your circumstances?

The fourth step is “Grapple and Grow”. This involves deliberately creating conditions where people want to work hard and are making progress at tasks that they understand are important, even when they are challenging.

All the above leads to the fifth step, “Shine”. Doing well feels very good and giving recognition and noticing when a person is doing well, is critical. Creating a culture that helps people ‘shine’, inevitably becomes a culture of self-perpetuating excellence.

According to a 2005 Harris Interactive survey, 33% of the 7 718 employees surveyed believed they had reached a dead end in their jobs, and 21% were eager to change careers. Only 20% felt passionate about their work.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Read this book and find out how to do it.

Readability:    Light -+--- Serious
Insight:          High --+-- Low
Practical:        High +---- Low

  • Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.

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