Games, I recently discovered, not only help children to learn, but also grown-ups. I was invited to be a fly on the wall at an employees 'conflict resolution' session in a large company that had been acquired by another global major. Participants were randomly divided into two groups. Each participant was given a plastic pipe open at both ends. Teams had to use the pipes to transport marbles placed inside them to a receptacle kept at a distance, without allowing the marbles to fall out midway.
The man conducting the exercise, Ravi Sharma, was a friendlylooking fellow who seemed like he had done this a million times before. "You'll see how we use a bit of neuroscience in this,'' he whispered.
Frankly, I was sceptical. It sounded as esoteric as 'karmic management', 'terror management' and other such concepts. I had visions of a sci-fi office with wires attached to people's heads. Sharma cut my reverie short with prosaic wisdom: people resist acknowledging facts that stare them in the face. He gave an example. "If you told me that I was being unreasonable, I am unlikely to thank you for the insight,'' he said. "Chances are that I would react by thinking you are illogical, because you are a woman."
Sharma has just co-founded a company called NeoSynapses that uses research on how the brain works to come up with new ways of engaging with people. NeoSynapses helps firms resolve conflict among employees in situations following acquisitions and mergers. It also aids CEOs in mining the talent pool. Sharma begins by entertaining the team members, while doling out information about behaviour patterns. As he explains the pipe-and-marble game, he jokes about how some participants have a target of 500 marbles, how some clumsy ones choose to sit out after a few failures and how teams zero in on the achievers.
Sharma explains some people are good thinkers, others are leaders; some are doers while others are 'playful idealists', but they are all necessary to the game. "Yet when we have to deal with new people or tasks, we find change to be painful," he says.
Over time, the brain develops response patterns - this helps it save energy and become more efficient. Hence, any change is perceived as an error. This triggers the emotional centre at the base of the brain, called the amygdala, which controls our 'fight or flight' response. Though the prefrontal cortex in the brain - responsible for planning, execution, etc - can override the more primitive emotional centre, it takes a lot of energy and conscious effort.
Sharma knows he needs participants to acknowledge change and become aware of their behaviour, along with that of colleagues. This is best achieved using a game - one that allows people to activate their brains in a competitive yet non-threatening manner, as it offers them the incentive to create a winning team.
The Tell-Tale Brain
By V.S. Ramachandran
The Neuroscience of Leadership
By David Rock
Self-awareness is critical in management change. An emerging field in this sphere is 'Neuroleadership' - a term credited to David Rock, a renowned thought leader in management training. Neuroleadership focuses on bringing neuroscientific knowledge into areas like management training and change management.
"One of the things it seeks to show is the concept of observing your own thoughts as an 'impartial spectator'. Without this, we are to some degree on automatic,'' says Rock in his interview on Leading Blog.
So, next time the boss steps out to ask about the tender quotation that is supposed to be made two months later, the manager will know what to do. Emotional triggers to the new query have to be pacified. The knowledge allows the manager to respond in a reassuring and confident manner.
As for me, I am still trying to figure out a way that will allow my brain to suppress signals that make my arm slap the alarm into snooze early in the morning.