Your Brain at Work: Rethinking the Productivity Paradigm


By Nilesh Bhagat, CHRP

HR has often been stuck between a rock and a soft place.

The practice of human resources management has historically been depicted as ‘soft’, ‘warm’ and ‘friendly’. While none of these characteristics are inherently negative, these presumptions have been a traditional impediment for HR in the C-suite.  Nor do they cast an accurate reflection of HR’s strategic evolution as a core business function.

Fortunately, we can always turn to the rock for some solace – most specifically, Dr. David Rock, a headlining speaker for the 50th Annual BC HRMA Conference and Tradeshow in April and author of Your Brain at Work.

With his findings, Dr. Rock has taken the preeminent challenge of HR – chiefly, maximizing the productivity of the people factor – a major step forward by defining the previously elusive: those subjective influences which drive our everyday behaviour.

Your Brain at Work is a true indicator of just how much our workplace has changed since its inception in the industrial era.  Management science has traditionally broken systems, processes and tasks into their basic units to produce efficient combinations.

While the Taylor-isms of yesterday focused the paradigm of productivity primarily on ‘hours’, the neuroscience of today promises far greater return on what is ‘ours’.  Both speak to a culture of productivity, but the prior has become anachronistic in light of the knowledge economy in which we now live and work. It is in this light that Rock’s research and applications of brain science create a database of brain-based behaviours to build efficient – and more importantly, effective – combinations of people practices aimed to develop and maintain a productive workforce.

Most encouragingly, it is in the everyday that he finds fresh inspiration for HR.

Behaviours are the key: shaping our interactions in the workplace, dynamically shaping the cultures which themselves define the best organizations. As the principal founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, Rock not only realizes the value of the ‘soft’ set, but arms HR with the ability to objectify and quantify those skills. While many books busy themselves with teaching HR the language of business, Rock encourages HR to take full stock and consideration of those ‘soft’ skills – albeit in a fresh light.

These are not skills that can be taught – knowing what to say or how to act, and when – and are imperative in an era wherein culture and communication are considered key to innovation and profit. Rock breaks these skills down to their neurological foundations to help us better understand why and how we interact with others the way we do – and how it connects to the bigger picture of productivity.

Your Brain at Work revolves around a model that attempts to describe how, when and why we behave. Rock applies this to the context of various business scenarios to illustrate how behaviour can be optimized. He calls this model `SCARF` – a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others.

SCARF includes `five domains of social experiences that your brain treats the same as survival issues`:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

He describes our tendencies as being either toward or away responses. Toward responses are behaviours which we seek to repeat because they bring us a sense of reward. Away responses are the opposite; they enact the behaviours which we do not find rewarding and are perceived as somehow aversive to our well-being. The five domains which influence the response are the variables of Rock`s SCARF model. Finding the optimal behaviour for any given situation at work depends on adjusting the dynamic interplay of these five characteristics.

Rock breaks our behaviour down to its root and builds it back up to describe how behaviour influences ourselves and those around us. In the context of business, this breaking down and redefinition of individual and organizational behaviour is creating the textbook for what’s been missing in HR. It gives us defined and reliably quantifiable elements of behavior that enable us to understand how and where to deploy our human resources – much the same way finance uses mathematical models to quantify how the application of monetary resources affects decisions in a business.

Rock’s brain-based models build the foundation for HR’s business cases. Knowing how and when to influence behavior for individuals and groups provides a database for deploying optimal people practices. More importantly, such foundations provide solid ground for building better HR relations at the strategic level, providing concrete evidence of effectiveness and efficiency when making claims for resource allocations.

Let’s use an example of applying Rock’s database to increase talent productivity. Rock illustrates how neurological research has shown that creativity relies on a positive, loosely focussed brain state.  Creative impasses occur when we are too focussed at times when we should not be. Any one of the five factors of his brain-based model can be at work here; status pressures or lack of autonomy may be creating stress and restricting thought processes. Whatever the case, when an impasse is reached, Rock advises to break the flow of neural activity by activating different parts of the brain to interrupt the impasse-producing networks. By doing so, you are counteracting any sort of threat categorized in the SCARF model and creating the neural milieu necessary for positive, creative work to reoccur.

The concept is simple enough. Get up and shake it off, return refreshed. Rock explores the why of what is a known working formula through the lens of neurochemistry.  Fortunately, the language is lay-friendly.  Essentially, non-productive neurochemical activity will continue until interrupted.  Pushing through an impasse is less effective than allowing synaptic accumulations to disperse by more pleasurable means: like taking a walk. Why?

“People have to stop themselves from thinking along one path before they can find a new idea,” Rock explains. Walking activates the motor cortex and disengages the planning and preparation centers used to focus on problems.

Similarly, today’s organization must learn to adapt continuously and can ill-afford to be caught in creative ruts. HR’s takeaway is this: for an innovative and productive workforce, promote the freedom to disengage from tasks, as necessary.

A more flexible workplace is needed to enable an optimally creative and innovative workforce. Creativity and innovation create competitive advantages that enable an organization to stay ahead of its competition. Implementing practices which enable creativity directly influences the bottom line. That’s the brain-based behavioural data at work for HR`s business case.
How we think, act and behave relative to others is literally a quantifiable dance of chemically generated electricity in our heads. The model Rock proposes in Your Brain at Work is based upon this notion of quantifiable energy producing desired behaviour.

Key to turning a good read into a better tomorrow, Rock provides ample scenarios illustrating how we can alter our external and internal environments to produced controlled and accurate behaviours which are optimal for varying situations – specifically with respect to business life. Reduce the threats to Status, Control, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness in any given interaction, and you can change the way networks of neurons fire within differing brain areas, resulting in one type of behaviour over another.

For HR, this means a more connected, responsive and innovative workforce. Stay soft, work smart and don’t forget your SCARF.

Nilesh Bhagat, CHRP ( is a rewards analust with Best Buy Canada’s compensation team.

(PeopleTalk: Spring 2012)

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