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How to Rewire Your Brain for Serious Productivity

Mar 04, 2016

— If your meetings are sputtering, rewiring the gray matter may help get employees reconnected. —

By Minda Zetlin – Inc. Magazine – March 4, 2016 – The co-founders of Aditazz, which uses software to design and construct hospitals and other specialized buildings, were beyond frustrated. Zigmund Rubel, an architect, wanted to design buildings in one direction, either from the outside in or from the inside out, depending on the project. Deepak Aatresh, the CEO and an electrical and computer science engineer, was interested in simultaneous outside-in, inside-out design aided by computation.

It was one of many seemingly irresolvable conflicts. "We knew we were well-intentioned, very smart, accomplished people, but it was hard to make forward progress," Aatresh says.

This type of clash is familiar to neuroscience expert Ajit Singh, a partner at VC Artiman Ventures and member of the Aditazz board of directors; it has its roots in the brain. Innovation comes from com­bining disciplines, but people in different disciplines don't think the same way. The idea that the right brain hemisphere controls creativity and the left logic has been debunked. But research shows that the left brain is more responsible for language, whereas the right takes care of spatial processing and attention. "People don't select professions," Singh explains. "Professions select people."

These differences were interfering with decision making. Aatresh would schedule one-hour meetings for the startup team to make major decisions, but the conversation would go off-track. An hour would pass and little was accomplished. When he asked Singh how long decision making should take, the answer was:

"I don't know. Let's let it go." The solution was to create a lounge area with comfortable seating where people could sit as a group. Meetings began at 6 p.m., included wine and snacks, and had no planned end time. Some went as late as 1 a.m. But Aditazz's best innovations came out of these sessions.

You may not want all-nighters, but Aditazz's approach is broadly applicable. It works by creating a setting in which employees feel safe and open to collaboration. Making your people feel safe is key, because without that, "we go into protect behavior," says Judith E. Glaser, author of Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. "The amygdala takes over. The prefrontal cortex gets shut down." The amygdala is linked to fear responses and pleasure. The prefrontal cortex enables empathy, intuition, higher-level social skills, and three-dimensional thinking, Glaser says. "It allows a level of innovation that's off the charts in a way people have trouble explaining."

"The idea that the right brain controls creativity and the left logic has been debunked."

Glaser begins meetings by asking those present to describe what success looks like. When someone hears that others share his or her goals, it stimulates the rostromedial prefrontal cortex, which governs social decisions. "It says, 'Let's be friends. I'm more like you than you think,'" she explains. Singh made Rubel and Aatresh start meetings by telling each other that they understand their thought processes are different. "It sounds like kindergarten," Singh says. "But over time, I saw there was a lot more empathy."

That empathy led Aatresh to change his behavior. "Engineers love to go to the whiteboard," he says. "I realized that's intimidating to the intuitive people, because they know you're going to force their thinking into those boxes."

Now he sometimes ditches the whiteboard and wanders the room. Invariably, the architects are doodling while the engineers take notes. "For years, I believed people who doodled in meetings were time wasters," he says. "Now I see there's a connection between drawing on a sheet of paper and drawing one's thoughts out."

Neuro Lessons

Here are three places to reprogram for better performance.

1. Beware the Nonconscious

"People communicate powerful cues by body language. We process these cues nonconsciously, in a fifth of a second," says Dr. Evian Gordon, CEO of MyBrainSolutions.com. When we feel threatened, our nonconscious mode can assert itself. If someone says, "But I'm concerned" and crosses her arms, she can nonconsciously give a cue meaning she is switching off.

2. Mind Over Matter

Prime yourself for success by elevating your mood before a speech or meeting--for instance, with 20 minutes of moderate exercise, suggests Josh Davis, director of research at the NeuroLeadership Institute in New York City, and author of Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done. When stressed, try picturing something calming, such as a flower or landscape.

3. Make People Comfortable

New Jersey-based Pirch, a retailer of luxury appliances, uses neuroscience to create spaces where people feel safe and can enjoy themselves, says co-founder Jim Stuart: "We rationalize our choice of one store or another, but what really happens is that the nonconscious limbic brain hijacks your cerebral cortex. For the nonconscious brain, the priority is avoiding risk and seeking rewards."

Inside the Mind of the Entrepreneur

Born entrepreneur? New research shows that some people are wired that way.

Greater Mental Flexibility

According to Heidi Hanna, author of The Sharp Solution: A Brain-Based Approach for Optimal Performance, entrepreneurs excel at switching tasks quickly: "It may be from taking on too much at once or that multitasking is more important for their success."

Higher Perceived Stress

"Most successful entrepreneurs say they have high levels of stress but thrive on it," Hanna says. In their next phase of research, her team will look at biological markers to see whether stress is harming entrepreneurs or not.

Positively Above Average

A positivity bias is the nonconscious presumption that you are safe, whereas someone with a negativity bias sees threats everywhere. On a negative-to-positive scale of 1 to 10, the average person scores a 5.5, but entrepreneurs hit an average of 6.5.

Accurate and Agile

Entrepreneurs have above-average motor coordination. At first Hanna thought this was insignificant, but then she realized it might be linked to a key trait. "As I talked to entrepreneurs about what makes them different, they said they make quick decisions. If one turns out wrong, they're confident they'll be able to make it right."

From The March 2016 Issue Of Inc. Magazine