Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Brain Networks At The Office

Quick! Activate the default network!

Quick! Activate the default network!

When you’re “zoned out”, your brain’s default network kicks in and processes stuff. What kind of stuff? Well, not new stuff because you’re zoned out and no new stuff is coming in. You’ve unhooked yourself from the grid and the only thing your brain can work on is stuff that’s already in your brain. It’s like mentally chewing your cud.

It turns out the default network contributes in very important ways to creativity. As Adam Waytz and Malia Mason point out in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review, the default network is “… responsible for one of our most prized abilities: transcendence. The capacity to envision what it’s like to be in a different place, a different time, a different person’s head, or a different world altogether is unique to humans….”

To create creative environments, managers are beginning to realize the importance of allowing employees to “unhook” and activate their default networks. Unfocused free time is critical to creative thinking and innovation. As I’ve pointed out before, too much focus can kill creativity. Waytz and Mason point out that many of the “creative time off” programs at companies like Google may still miss the mark. They focus on quantity of time off, rather than quality.  The authors argue that it may be better to focus on “total detachment” rather than the number of days off. The idea is to “unfocus” and activate the default network rather than to shift focus to a project of personal interest.

In addition to the default network, Waytz and Mason identify three other brain networks that can contribute to improved performance and productivity. These are: the reward network, the affect network, and the control network. Let’s look at the reward network today. We’ll visit the affect and control networks tomorrow.

Waytz and Mason compare the reward network to a hedonometer, a hypothetical instrument that could “…measure the amount of pleasure or displeasure we feel in response to any stimulus”. The reward network “…reliably activates in response to things that evoke enjoyment and deactivates in response to things that reduce enjoyment”.

In animals, the reward network activates when the animal encounters something– like food or water — that has clear survival value. The same is true of humans. But there’s more to the human reward system. Unlike animals, the human reward system activates  for “secondary” rewards – those that have no direct survival value.

Money is clearly an important secondary reward, but numerous, non-monetary secondary rewards also exist. Some are obvious, like status and recognition. Others are less obvious, like fairness. Waytz and Mason argue that employees’ reward systems light up when they perceive their organization to be fair. When the organization is perceived to be unfair, the reward system dims and employees lose motivation. This is true both for employees who benefit from the unfairness and for those who suffer from it. As Waytz and Mason put it, “A fair environment is a reward to people regardless of their standing”.

So how do you fine tune the reward system? Both fairness and transparency are important. Somewhat surprisingly, so is the expectation of learning. When employees expect that they will learn something, the reward system activates and motivation rises. Goals are also important but Waytz and Mason argue that broad goals that provide employees some room to maneuver activate the reward network more effectively than narrowly defined, overly stringent goals that leave little room for judgment.

And what about money? Well, it can be useful. But Waytz and Mason conclude that, “Any number of things employers can do ‘on the cheap’—fostering a culture of fairness and cooperation, offering opportunities for people to engage their curiosity, and providing plenty of social approval—will motivate employees as much if not more [than money]”. So think about money in your reward structure … but not too much.


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