Managing with the Brain in Mind

Topics: Brain, Human brain, Neuroscience Pages: 23 (5654 words) Published: November 21, 2012

Managing with the Brain in Mind
by David Rock

from strategy+business issue 56, Autumn 2009

reprint number 09206


features special report


by David Rock

Naomi Eisenberger, a leading social neuroscience

with the Brain in Mind

researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles
(UCLA), wanted to understand what goes on in the
brain when people feel rejected by others. She designed
an experiment in which volunteers played a computer
game called Cyberball while having their brains scanned
by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)
machine. Cyberball hearkens back to the nastiness of the
school playground. “People thought they were playing a
ball-tossing game over the Internet with two other people,” Eisenberger explains. “They could see an avatar that represented themselves, and avatars [ostensibly] for
two other people. Then, about halfway through this
game of catch among the three of them, the subjects
stopped receiving the ball and the two other supposed
players threw the ball only to each other.” Even after

they learned that no other human players were involved,
the game players spoke of feeling angry, snubbed, or
judged, as if the other avatars excluded them because
they didn’t like something about them.
This reaction could be traced directly to the brain’s
responses. “When people felt excluded,” says Eisenberger, “we saw activity in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex — the neural region involved in the distressing component of pain, or what is sometimes

referred to as the ‘suffering’ component of pain. Those
people who felt the most rejected had the highest levels
of activity in this region.” In other words, the feeling of being excluded provoked the same sort of reaction in the
brain that physical pain might cause. (See Exhibit 1.)
Eisenberger’s fellow researcher Matthew Lieberman,
also of UCLA, hypothesizes that human beings evolved


features special report

Illustration by Leigh Wells

Neuroscience research is
revealing the social nature of the
high-performance workplace.


this link between social connection and physical discomfort within the brain “because, to a mammal, being socially connected to caregivers is necessary for survival.” This study and many others now emerging have made

one thing clear: The human brain is a social organ. Its
physiological and neurological reactions are directly and
profoundly shaped by social interaction. Indeed, as
Lieberman puts it, “Most processes operating in the
background when your brain is at rest are involved in
thinking about other people and yourself.”
This presents enormous challenges to managers.
Although a job is often regarded as a purely economic
transaction, in which people exchange their labor for
financial compensation, the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system. Like the experiment participants whose avatars were left out of
the game, people who feel betrayed or unrecognized at
work — for example, when they are reprimanded, given
an assignment that seems unworthy, or told to take a pay
cut — experience it as a neural impulse, as powerful and
painful as a blow to the head. Most people who work in
companies learn to rationalize or temper their reactions;
they “suck it up,” as the common parlance puts it. But
they also limit their commitment and engagement.
They become purely transactional employees, reluctant
to give more of themselves to the company, because the
social context stands in their way.
Leaders who understand this dynamic can more
effectively engage their employees’ best talents, support
collaborative teams, and create an environment that fosters productive change. Indeed, the ability to intentionally address the social brain in the service of optimal performance will be a distinguishing leadership capability in the years...
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