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Developing a fearless culture at work

It may appear an unlikely coupling, but neuroscience is quickly becoming recognised as an essential workplace partner to boost business growth and success, writes Dr Jenny Brockis.

user iconJenny Brockis 30 January 2017 Corporate Counsel
Dr Jenny Brockis
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In a world where the ‘how’, ‘what’ and ‘where’ of work are changing fast, it’s imperative that workplace practices adapt quickly too, and in the right way to provide the cognitive advantage required to thrive.

Being brain-aware enables the individual, the manager and the team leader to understand why they think and behave the way they do, and importantly why others think and behave the way they do. This is more than just mental health and wellbeing.

While the statistics regarding mental illness in the legal profession are not pretty, with the Brain and Mind Research Institute reporting in 2009 that one in three solicitors and one in five barristers suffered from clinical depression, what needs to be addressed is the need for greater cognitive health: the ability to think, learn and remember well. Improved cognitive health provides the resilience required to manage stress effectively, reduce the risk of mental illness and helping to maintain high performance.


Safety first

The brain’s primary objective is to keep us safe.

When faced with potential threat or danger, the stress response prepares us to fight, take flight or freeze.

While the threat of four-legged carnivores wishing to eat us for breakfast is now greatly reduced, other threats have taken its place: high workloads, tight deadlines, ‘difficult’ colleagues, being ridiculed or snubbed in public, all of which can contribute to increased stress levels and reduced performance.

By knowing what to look for, the brain-savvy manager can deflect and reduce the potential damage these threats can cause.

Create a fearless culture

While air freshener is useful for getting rid of unwanted household odours, it doesn’t eliminate the smell of fear.

Studies have shown that human sweat contains chemicals that serve as a warning to others when we are feeling fearful. This is where a manager with a keen nose has the ability to sniff out potential anxieties associated with feelings of lack of support, unequal workloads or unclear expectations of job roles.

Understanding the factors that may pose a threat in ourselves or others, and how to mitigate the impact of these, includes the following:

1. Check in regularly

Ask colleagues and/or employees if stress is an issue, and if so, what support is needed to help manage it more effectively.

High-achieving individuals may not volunteer how they are really coping unless asked directly. Feeling cared for as a person helps establish trust, reduces stress and improves working relationships.

2. Place a high value on health and wellbeing

Going back to the basics to ensure our physiological needs are met helps reduce stress, improves cognitive energy and boosts mental performance.

This is about implementing health and wellness programs that emphasise the importance of sleep, exercise and good nutrition for all.

3. Review and replace outdated workplace practices

Multitasking is a physiological impossibility; it is task-switching at high speed and leads to rapid cognitive fatigue, reduced memory, increased errors and greater time required to complete tasks.

The incorrect application of focus and lack of brain breaks during the work day also elevate stress levels and diminish effectiveness and efficiency.

4. Lead by example

Granting permission to take time out for exercise, meditation or a holiday has to come from the top.

A flexible approach that encourages conversation and dialogue will drive engagement, relationships and greater happiness at work.

5. Create a culture of brain safety

This reduces the fear of judgment or ridicule for speaking out or sharing new ideas, and encourages greater contribution and collaboration.

When we feel safe, emotions are more readily kept in check and the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain required for the executive thoughts of planning, organising and decision-making, is kept fully accessible.

Dr Jenny Brockis is a brain fitness doctor specialising in high-performance thinking and cognitive health, and is the author of the best-selling book Future Brain: The 12 Keys to Create your High-Performance Brain.

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