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Insights

Professional Flow

Friday, April 25, 2014
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I would venture to guess that most of you have experienced the feeling of being “in the zone” with your professional work. By that I mean feeling perfectly challenged so that you are engaged, just slightly pulled outside of your comfort zone, and also supported in your learning and risk-taking. Perhaps you felt this when you took a lead role in an area in which you were less familiar, or on a project that represented some newness or risk to you. You may have been “in the zone” after having intentionally learned and practiced a skill.

Professor and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to this beautiful balance in the place between challenge and anxiety as being “in flow.” When we can pinpoint for ourselves what kind of external and internal factors have allowed for us to be in “flow” in the past, we may be able to re-create this zone. I think I’ve done that, and I want to share with you what this zone is for me, as a preface to a four-part Human Capital Community of Practice blog series on brain-friendly workplaces.

Throughout my career, I have needed to understand why things worked, or didn’t. It isn’t comfortable—or self-respecting—to me to grab a popular teaching method or a culture change system (for example) and impose it onto learners or employees in good faith. There were times at meetings with colleagues that I know I was the oddball, having not yet started to use an approach that everyone else had incorporated into their work environments. But unless I knew that the approach was safe—that the intended and unintended outcomes of trying it out would not harm people consciously or subconsciously—I didn’t feel it was in good conscience to use it.

Concern for organization and individual

Though at first blush it may seem at odds with the organizational effectiveness focus, humanness in the workplace has also been extremely important to me since I first set foot in the labor pool. The compelling central idea for me has been that workplaces and the people within them must treat each other with respect, first and foremost. With record high use of short-term disability leave and worker’s compensation for anxiety and depression in the workplace, a sharp rise in workplace bullying, and mind-numbing malaise and disconnection, those in today’s workforce need support.

I’d used brain science for decades in learning contexts, but when I began to integrate brain science with management theory, change theory, leadership theory, and organizational behavior, my head exploded (in a good way). Now, after working at the intersection of neuroscience, sociology, learning, and organization development for years, I can tell you with certainty that this is my “super-flow” zone. In this line of study and work, I get to apply research from connected fields of study to individuals to help them grow and change. I also am fortunate to take a whole system organization view to bring positive change to entire workplaces, which is very fulfilling. And even more broadly, from my little spot in the world, I feel that I am contributing useful ideas and practices to help the morphing shape of work and the workplace in a time when people and their organizations are struggling in many ways.

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Introducing brain-friendliness

In The Brain-Friendly Workplace: Five Big Ideas From Neuroscience That Address Organizational Challenges (ASTD Press, 2014), I define brain-friendly workplaces as organizations where people are able to do their best thinking and produce great work in vibrant, healthy environments.

I’ll lay out the ideas behind brain-friendliness here, and invite your comments in response. Brain-friendliness in the workplace combines tenets of good management, effective leadership, organizational health and wellbeing, positive and productive cultures, and humanity and respect. It is equal parts organization effectiveness and positive psychology. While it can start in one work group, it is ideal when the entire organizational culture has embraced the foundations of brain-friendliness and the principles are embedded at all levels.

Personal interaction habits

Though it is better to have some work groups practicing brain-friendliness than none at all, it can also be anxiety-producing to our brains to witness misalignments within an organization. Have you worked in a company where leadership touted a set of particular values, but in action, the rewards and performance management systems reinforced very different kinds of values and behaviors? This is internal contradiction, and it generates distrust. Distrust engenders disengagement. Disengagement kills productivity, and the whole organization’s success metrics suffer.

Brain-friendly workplaces make practical use of the neuroscience that shows us how we make sense of information; how we interpret language; how we move toward goals; how we change and learn; and how to manage our own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Informed by the field of neuroleadership, brain-friendly workplaces also have a point of view about collaboration and decision-making that informs certain routines and procedures.

As we’ll see in next week’s blog post, brain-friendly workplaces share some characteristics with organizations that boast high employee engagement or high productivity. Stay tuned!

About the Author
Erika Garms works with leaders who need their teams to work, manage, and innovate smarter. As CEO of WorkingSmarts (www.workingsmarts.com), she uses her gift for translating powerful scientific theory to everyday workplace practice. Erika has played a number of consulting and leadership roles in her 26-year career, including serving as an internal consultant, an organization development unit manager, and an organization development/change/executive management consultant with two large, global management consulting firms. She also helped to establish start-up HR and IT consultancies. Erika has worked for and with public sector and private sector organizations across many industries – from food to finance, education to energy. She earned a BA and an MA from the University of Colorado, a PhD from the University of Minnesota, and completed a post-graduate program with distinction from the NeuroLeadership Institute/Sussex University.  Garms is the author of, “The Brain-Friendly Workplace: Five Big Ideas from Neuroscience That Address Organizational Challenges” (ATD Press, 2014) and is a regular speaker at conferences, company meetings, and management retreats across the U.S. and abroad.
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