Neuroscience is helping us understand why the modern workplace can be such a challenging environment and why methods such as Action Learning are effective in reducing stress and improving performance and motivation.
Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system including the brain. It is the study of the ways that brains interact with the worlds in which they are immersed, including other biological entities such as people, animals, and plants, and physical and sensory stimuli such as space, light, smell, texture, and sound.
In Action Learning sets, we often work with mindsets and beliefs and the interplay of those with the problems we face and the narratives we have created for ourselves. It seems reasonable to assume that greater knowledge of how our brains work can help us to better understand how our mindsets and beliefs originate and how they affect our ability to objectively tackle the ‘wicked’ problems that arise in work and life.
How mindsets develop
Neurobiologist Gerald Hüther tells us that we are not born with mindsets and convictions. Instead, they form as a result of our experiences in the world. He tells us that experiences have a rational component and an emotional one, and, therefore, when we recall an experience at a later date we also relive the original feelings. The power of Action Learning is that it operates on both emotional and rational levels.
When we revisit an experience in an Action Learning set, we take the opportunity to challenge the assumptions we have made, the conclusions we have drawn, and the feelings we associate with the experience. In doing this we are invited to recreate experiences, coupling our new thinking with new, more constructive feelings in order to identify practical actions. The physiological backdrop to this is described below.
Physiological responses to stress
A negative or stressful experience can trigger the production of adrenalin and cortisol. In evolutionary terms, this is the ‘threat’ response – the response that we would have if being chased by a predator. It serves to put us on high alert and prepare us for action – fight or flight. It’s suggested that we can have this response regardless of whether the threat is a near miss from an on-coming car or an internal anxiety generated by thoughts about how a workplace colleague might react to a difficult conversation that we need to have with them.
In physically threatening situations (e.g. a near miss, an escape from a predator) adrenalin and cortisol are burned off by the physical action of either fighting or running away. The parasympathetic nervous system is then triggered, producing oxytocin and vasopressin. These hormones serve to calm our minds and bodies by relaxing muscles, slowing heart rate, and calming the brain. They return us to our normal functioning state. At least that’s how we are designed to function ‘in the wild’.
By contrast, in the case of workplace threats it’s unlikely that we ever get to physical action and so the adrenalin and cortisol stay with us, keeping us on high alert for longer. As Hüther suggests, we produce more adrenalin and cortisol each time we re-run the situation in our heads. This prolonged high-alert state – this chronic stress – has long-term implications for our health, manifested as sleep problems, headaches, high blood pressure, anxiety and fatigue. As a result, we may become anxious or suspicious, and make false assumptions and imagine more ‘rustles in the undergrowth’ than actually exist.
We become less able to focus and think clearly, our performance is affected, and our abilities to learn and cope are reduced. It is important to note that this state of being is widespread: one research source claims that 47% of employees in the U.K. workplace feel ‘some sense of threat… ’.
The antidote? Action learning
Being aware of the physiological backdrop to situations being presented in an Action Learning set can help us see our dilemmas for what they are – real or constructed. It seems that certain conditions – conditions that we create in our Action Learning sets such as taking time to establish a safe, confidential and non-judgemental space – can trigger production of the more desirable calming hormones, namely oxytocin and vasopressin.
Oxytocin is released when people engage in collaborative conversations, and increased levels of oxytocin boost levels of trust (Nature, 2005). When we share our thoughts, emotions, and goals with others, as we do in an Action Learning set which has been established with care, we produce oxytocin, become more relaxed, more responsive, more empathic, and consequently more able to focus and learn and act as useful resources to our colleagues.
When we hear a presenter in an Action Learning set telling their story, grappling with a knotty problem, and gradually overcoming the intellectual and emotional difficulties, we feel empathic, we feel motivated, and we can also feel truly inspired.
Increasing motivation and performance
It’s this awareness of how the brain reacts to stress, and how sharing of problems and collaboration with others can act as an effective antidote, that makes the process of action learning such a powerful and enabling experience, which has a direct effect on motivation, performance, and capacity to learn and act. It becomes a catalyst for change, creating positive mindsets even in the face of very challenging circumstances. And the beauty is, it’s a skill that lasts for life.