Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Brain Networks – Part 2

Everything is networked.

Everything is networked.

Yesterday (and in earlier articles here and here), we talked about two brain networks – default and reward – and their implications for organizational behavior. Today, let’s take on two more networks – affect and control – and see how they work in the office. Again, I’ll draw on a recent HBR article by Adam Waytz and Malia Mason.

The affect network activates when people experience emotions. You might think that we consciously recognize something and then feel some emotion about it. That’s true sometimes but often it’s the other way round, with the affect network leading the way. You see a snake and your pulse quickens. Your brain interprets this as fear. Your body – not your brain — reacts to the external stimulus. Your brain reacts to your body’s reaction. (Conceptually, this is similar to System 1 vs. System 2, and thinking with your body).

How does this effect behavior at the office? Well, did your gut ever tell you something? As Waytz and Mason point out, “A hunch is not some mystical sixth sense. It’s a real neurological response that manifests itself physically”. In other words, your affect network is telling you something based on what your body is telling the affect network.

I used to think that I should rationally analyze every key decision and generally ignore my gut feel. Gut feel was irrational and emotional; better to use logic and reason. But Waytz and Mason point out that, “…a mounting body of neurological evidence suggests that emotional impulses should not be ignored. The affect network fast-tracks decision making and helps us process information that may include too many variables.” It’s not obvious how your gut feel reaches your conscious mind, but it often gets there for a good reason. Don’t ignore it.

Finally, there’s the control network that helps people focus their attention and rationally consider long-term decisions. As I understand it, it seems very similar to what Daniel Kahneman calls System 2. The control network “… aligns our brain activity and our behavior with our goals.”

The control network is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the default network. Where the default network activates when you unhook, the control network hooks in and manages all the other networks. The more your have of one, the less you have of the other – similar to focus and creativity.

The control network is rational and also helps us ration our resources. In particular, it rations our attention and helps us focus on those things that are most important to achieving our goals. If you’re like most people, there’s a lot of stuff competing for your attention. As Waytz and Mason put it the control network has “…a tricky attention-management challenge…. On one hand, it needs to prevent distractions from every shiny object thrown in front of us. On the other hand, it needs to let us respond when one of those shiny objects is an opportunity or an important demand”.

The control network has a tough job and can easily get overloaded if there are too many bright shiny objects. This reinforces some traditional wisdom: to execute effectively, organizations should limit their goals to a “manageable few”.  It also suggests that we should beware of multitasking. Pursuing multiple tasks at once simply overloads the control network and makes effective rationing impossible. As the authors point out, “Success as a leader requires, first and foremost, creating just a few clear priorities and gathering the courage to eliminate or outsource less important tasks and goals”.

What does all this mean? Well, it’s goes back to what your mother taught you. First, when your emotions tell you something, there’s usually a reason. Second, do only a few things but do them well. It’s nice the neuroscience backs up dear old Mom.

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