My interest in neuroscience and its implications for executive coaching, leadership development and other processes that involve behavioral change led me to a talk by David Rock at Oracle last week, sponsored by the South Bay Organizational Development Network (SBODN).
I first came across Rock in mid-2006, when he and Jeffrey Schwartz co-authored "The Neuroscience of Leadership" (free registration required), which, as I wrote in response, "builds on recent findings in brain research to explain why much of the conventional wisdom in the organizational development field is wrong and to suggest alternative approaches that are better suited to how our brains actually work." I found Rock and Schwartz's vision compelling, although I took issue with their assertion that "humanism is overrated":
This is the one section of Rock and Schwartz's otherwise outstanding article that rings false for me. It's not an effective critique of humanism, although it is a highly effective critique of various misunderstandings and poorly implemented management practices.
I'd be less critical if Rock and Schwartz had
said, "Humanism is difficult to execute, can't be faked, and sometimes
devolves into thinly veiled and patronizing efforts at persuasion," or,
more concisely, "Pseudo-humanism is overrated."
In fact, I actually associate many of Rock and Schwartz's other recommendations to managers with a range of humanistic disciplines, from coaching to positive psychology:
- Be aware that change is difficult because it causes pain.
- Recognize that people in different functions process in different ways.
- Cultivate "moments of insight" to facilitate change.
- Leave "problem behaviors in the past; focus on identifying and creating new behaviors."
Rock's talk at Oracle last week was a stop on his book tour for "Your Brain at Work" and provided a high-level overview of his thinking on neuroscience, coaching and leadership. I'm not going to attempt a comprehensive assessment of Rock's work here, although I make some more general comments in the Note below. Rather, these are simply the key points that jumped out at me and seemed most relevant to my own work with coaching corporate clients and MBA students at Stanford (much as I did in my recent review of "The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness." (A note on quotes: I took hand-written notes during Rock's talk, but didn't make an audio recording. Where I'm confident that my notes captured his language accurately, I quote the relevant passage, but where I'm not, I paraphrase and cite passages from his written work to convey my understanding of his intent.)
Rock began coaching in 1996 with no prior exposure to neuroscience. As his coaching practice grew, he encountered prospective clients who wanted to know more about how and why the process worked. He found that he could cobble together an explanation by drawing upon such disciplines as positive psychology, cognitive therapy, and various theories of change, learning and systems development, but this patchwork was ultimately unsatisfying (to Rock and presumably to his questioning clients as well.)
But in the early 2000s Rock found that contemporary neuroscience offered a more coherent and useful explanation for the efficacy of the coaching process. As he wrote in A Brain Based Approach to Coaching (PDF) in 2006...
Second, coupling new skills (such as those developed by coaching clients) with a theory that helps the client understand how and why they're developing those skills makes the skill-development process itself more effective. According to Rock, the union of skill and theory taps into "a richer brain network to help people understand" the process they're immersed in.
Finally, Rock recognizes that "people pay attention" when we use "hard science" to help explain "soft skills," and his work has obviously capitalized on this dynamic quite effectively. (For a lengthy but important digression on this point, see the Note below.)
Four Big Surprises
Rock's central thesis is that neuroscience research has revealed four big (and surprising) truths with implications for coaching and personal development:
1) How limited our attention is.
2) How wrong we get emotions.
3) How important the social world is.
4) How attention changes the brain.
In order to better explain these concepts, Rock drew a very simple diagram of the brain showing three key elements:
- The prefrontal cortex, a small region over the forehead.
- The limbic system, a relatively large region in the center of the brain.
- The basal ganglia, a smaller region below the limbic system.
In his talk Rock assumed that his audience understood the primary functions of these brain regions. To provide a little more context for readers here, the prefrontal cortex...
The most typical psychological term for functions carried out by the prefrontal cortex area is executive function. Executive function relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social "control" (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially-unacceptable outcomes).
But note that although neuroscience has advanced substantially in recent years, there's still controversy about basic brain structures and their function. Thus the limbic system can be described at an elemental level as...
Rock noted that if we define the capacity of the prefrontal cortex as equivalent to a single cubic foot, the rest of the brain's capacity would be the equivalent of the Milky Way galaxy. I have questions about the science that underpins this assertion--Is it simply a matter of counting neurons?--but I accept the larger point Rock is making with the metaphor: The portion of our brain that we believe to be responsible for such functions as complex thought, decision-making, moderating social behavior and other aspects of executive function is quite small relative to the rest of the brain, and that has significant implications for how we interact with others.
To emphasize that point, Rock quoted Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister: "We have limited resources for activities like decision-making and impulse control, and when we use these up we have less available for the next activity." (An important implication of the resource constraint referred to by Baumeister is that we resist mental effort around decision-making and impulse control because we're preserving resources in case we need them more urgently in the next moment.)
First Surprise: How limited our attention is.
Our attention is a finite resource. Rock stated that people typically average just 1-2 hours of focused attention per day because the prefrontal cortex tires easily. (Rock asked us what we would do differently, knowing that our attention is so limited. I realized that I generally fail to appreciate the value of focused attention time, and thus fail to acknowledge the dangers posed by distractions. Things that sap our attention or cause us to lose focus aren't merely annoyances--they're serious productivity-killers, and I could certainly act more decisively to resist them and keep them at bay.)
Rock also noted that our ability to learn is affected by the levels of certain brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Specifically, relatively high levels of dopamine and sufficient levels of norepinephrine are required for optimal learning conditions. Difficulty in learning--which could be characterized as insufficient attention--can be eased by increasing the levels of dopamine, which will increase our ability to focus. One way to accomplish this is by doing something novel, which typically raises dopamine levels significantly. For example, we can experience humor as novel, particularly when it's unexpected, and thus when teachers use humor effectively it can often enhance their students' ability to pay attention and allow them to learn more.
An important aspect of brain chemistry is that it's relatively hard to raise dopamine levels and relatively easy to raise levels of brain chemicals triggered by a threat response--specifically adrenaline and cortisol. And increasing the amount of adrenaline in the brain actually serves to decrease the amount of dopamine, further hampering the learning process--thus the importance of minimizing and/or reassessing threat responses when learning is the goal.
An implication of the limits of our attention (and, more specifically, the capacity of our prefrontal cortex) relates to the Cubic Foot/Milky Way metaphor discussed above. Rock noted that complex problems are rarely solved via working memory in the prefrontal cortex; studies indicate that we solve 60% of the problems we face without knowing how we solved them, i.e. "the answer simply occurred to me." This is particularly important when we're trying to innovate. Intense, active cognitive thought involves focusing the prefrontal cortex--the Cubic Foot--but this can often cause us to "prime" our brain with the wrong answer, according to Rock. The solution is to "deprime" the brain in order to solve the problem. In Rock's words, "Use the Milky Way and not the Cubic Foot... Innovation happens when you shut the heck up and stop trying to solve the problems and let your unconscious [i.e. the Milky Way] solve it." (As Steve Jobs has said, "Sometimes when you're almost asleep, you realize something you wouldn't otherwise have noted.")
Another point Rock sought to make in this discussion was the importance of metacognition, thinking about thinking. This occurs not only at a cognitive, conceptual level--how do I think?--but also at a more visceral, immediate level--what am I thinking (and feeling) at this moment, and is it useful, or would I be better served by thinking (and feeling) differently? As Rock said, "the more metacognition you do, the more adaptive you are."
Rock concluded this section of his talk with a discussion of the ways in which our limited attention can be diverted by less useful types of brain activity. Intuitive feelings and low-level cognitions activate relatively few neurons and generate small amounts of electrical activity in the brain. In contrast, cognitive thought activates large numbers of neurons and generates more electrical activity, and a threat response activates even more neurons and generates even more electrical activity. But, as noted above, intuitive feelings and low-level cognitions play an important role in complex problem-solving and innovation, so at times when we're focused on those tasks, it's important to be able to lower the level of electrical activity in the brain--not only by avoiding threat responses, but also by avoiding getting trapped in intense (yet unproductive) conscious thought--in order for us to notice and act upon those intuitive feelings and low-level cognitions. Paradoxically, the ability to stop or minimize active conscious thinking and "quiet our minds" is an important problem-solving skill. (Rock didn't touch on practices to develop this skill, but I suspect that that meditation and activities that generate "flow states" would be useful here.)
Second Surprise: How wrong we get emotions.
Negative emotions are extremely powerful, and according to Rock, we move away from threats much more quickly and vigorously than we move toward rewards. Strong negative emotions also significantly reduce prefrontal cortex function, so a threat response diminishes our problem-solving abilities and other executive functions governed by that region of the brain.
Many factors in the workplace create a threat response--a topic Rock explores in greater depth in "Your Brain at Work"--which means that we often experience strong negative emotions there (and far more frequently than we realize.) But our typical response to negative emotions in that context is to suppress them, because they're "not appropriate" for the workplace, according to many organizational cultures (and our own training.) Unfortunately, suppressing negative emotions has a number of undesirable consequences, from reducing memory function to raising the blood pressure of other people around us (presumably via "mirror neurons", which fire when we observe behaviors in others.)
A useful alternative to suppressing negative emotions is to simply talk about them. As I've discussed before, research by Matt Lieberman, Naomi Eisenberger et al has "demonstrated that linguistic processing of the emotional aspects of an emotional image produces less amygdala activity than perceptual processing of the emotional aspects of the same image." In lay terms, talking about negative emotions helps us manage them more effectively than merely thinking about them.
This process, known as affect labeling, is part of a larger dynamic related to how we respond to negative emotions. We can't control the negative emotions we feel, but we can exert more control over how we respond to them, and perhaps the most significant distinction is whether we suppress or reappraise negative emotions. Here Rock cited the work of James Gross, a Stanford professor of psychology known as "the father of emotional regulation," and Kevin Ochsner, who directs the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Columbia. Studies have shown a substantial difference in a number of quality-of-life and effectiveness indicators based on our tendency to suppress or reappraise negative emotions, and reappraisal inevitably leads to better outcomes. In response to a question of mine, Rock said that there is some evidence that we can retrain ourselves to reappraise rather than suppress negative emotions, but given the importance of this factor for so many forms of personal development and behavioral change, I'll be looking into Gross's and Ochsner's research further in the coming weeks, and I hope to meet with Gross at Stanford next month.
If we think of the strong emotions and other responses generated by the limbic system as the brain's "accelerator," then we might think of the opposing forces that cause us to reappraise a situation before a full-blown threat response kicks in, which are generated by the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, as the brain's "braking system." A dilemma related to the Cubic Foot/Milky Way metaphor discussed above is that the resources available for acceleration, i.e. the capacity of the limbic system, are far greater than the resources available for braking, i.e. the capacity of the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. Accordingly, we have very little time--something on the order of 1/3 of a second--to "put on the brakes" and intervene to reappraise a situation and our response to it.
At this point in his talk Rock noted that we have two ways of experiencing the world around us that tap into two separate neural networks in the brain: 1) A "narrative circuit," consisting of the limbic system and the thinking/planning regions of the prefrontal cortex, in which active, conscious thought allows us to make meaning of the world in an ongoing, logical narrative, and 2) "direct experience," a state of mindfulness in which we're not engaged in conscious thought but rather activating our sensory systems and taking in increased amounts of sensory data which we don't consciously analyze but simply experience. (I'm reminded of Jill Bolte Taylor's discussion [video] of her experience as a brain researcher in the midst of having a stroke, which allowed her to access these two ways of being in sharp and vivid contrast.) Rock added that the networks these systems make use of actually switch each other off, so when we focus on one, activity in the other diminishes. Unsurprisingly, we tend to focus on the "narrative circuit," which switches off the "direct experience" network, reducing the amount of sensory data available and increasing the amount of conscious thought, which, as noted above, increases the level of electrical activity in the brain and potentially "drowns out" intuitive feelings and low-level cognitions.
Given the limited time and resources available for us to make use of the brain's "braking system," Rock believes it's essential to enhance our ability to operate in "direct experience" mode, increasing the available sensory data and allowing us greater access to intuitive feelings and low-level cognitions that might otherwise be ignored. To be clear, this doesn't mean being mindful all the time, but rather being more adaptive, so we can choose to be more mindful, activating the direct experience network and increasing the flow of sensory data when it would be useful to do so.
Third Surprise: The deeply social brain.
Returning to the idea that we move away from threats more powerfully than we move toward rewards, Rock noted that there are five social dimensions within which we can perceive threats and rewards: Status, our position relative to others; Certainty, our ability to predict future outcomes; Autonomy, the feeling that we have choices and are in control; Relatedness, the feeling that we are connected to others; and Fairness, the sense that people will act ethically and justly.
Our brain responds to social threats in these dimensions just as it does to the threat of physical pain, a finding that has substantial implications for leadership practices. The power of our threat response means that leaders can use social threats--those related to Status, Certainly, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness--to dramatic effect. I'm reminded of a recent Stanford Daily article on the research of university biologist and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, which noted that our threat response evolved in a very specific context:
So leaders who rely on threat responses may see results in the short term, but they and their colleagues will likely pay a substantial price in the long term. Rock believes that it's more sustainable and ultimately more effective for leaders to rely on social rewards rather than threats. I agree, but Rock's own assertion that the reward response is weaker and slower to develop than the threat response implies that it will take more skill, effort and possibly restraint on the part of a leader to emphasize rewards rather than threats.
(A additional comment on Relatedness: Rock said that at a fundamental level our brains see the world as populated by an In-Group, to which we're connected, and an Out-Group, to which we're not--Friends and Foes, in other words. Strangers are automatically classified by our brains as Foes until we share some sort of bonding experience with them that generates oxytocin, which allows our brains to re-classify them as Friends.)
Fourth Surprise: How attention changes the brain
The good news is that Rock was quick to respond to questions from the audience throughout his talk; the bad news is that this left us short of time, and he wasn't able to address the fourth point of his thesis in detail. Based on my understanding of his work, I assume he would have discussed the concept of neuroplasticity, which I touch on briefly below.
Rock closed with a short list of resources where his work is available (in addition to the books and articles I cite above):
- Blog at Psychology Today
- Neuroleadership Institute
- Neuroleadership Summit in Boston, October 2010
- Results Coaching Systems, Rock's coaches training firm
In summary, I learned a great deal and found Rock's interpretation of current neuroscience research compelling. I even bought a copy of "Your Mind at Work," which I've skimmed in the course of writing this review, and I expect to dig more deeply into his work going forward.
A Note on Credibility
Rock's role as a populizer of complex and experimental scientific research has exposed him to criticism, such as a thorough (but unfortunately anonymous) critical review of "Quiet Leadership" on Amazon that calls the book "psuedo-scientific mumbo-jumbo." Rock has clearly made an effort to associate himself with reputable scientists, many from UCLA's School of Medicine, including Daniel Siegel, an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry who wrote the foreward to "Your Brain at Work," and numerous speakers at the Neuroleadership Summit (which Rock founded and organizes), including Matt Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberg, clinical neuroscientists at UCLA whose work I've cited before. So despite any shortcomings in specific passages of Rock's work, I trust that he's engaged in a good faith effort to understand the science and represent it accurately for a lay audience. That said, I have two caveats.
First, in addition to the many neuroscientists speaking at the 2009 Neuroleadership Summit, Werner Erhard spoke on "How Language Shapes the World." Erhard, who founded est and the Forum, and whose work formed the basis of the subsequent Landmark Forum programs, clearly has a unique perspective on personal growth and development. And I know people who've attended and benefited from Landmark seminars (and I'm aware that some well-known management thinkers have been associated with Landmark over the years, including Warren Bennis--another 2009 Neuroleadership Summit speaker--and Michael Jansen.) But I've also read a number of articles that raise serious concerns about est and Landmark, particularly related to methods that participants experienced as coercive and the pressure placed on participants to sign up for additional workshops and to recruit their family and friends. So while I'm sure Erhard is a compelling and thought-provoking speaker, his credibility is diminished by those criticisms.Second, while much of Rock's work with Jeffrey Schwartz is grounded in neuroscience that seems amply documented (at least to a layperson such as myself), in at least one instance they stray far into experimental territory and reach conclusions that seem unsupported by research. For example, in "A Brain-Based Approach to Coaching," Rock and Schwartz assert that the brain is a "quantum environment," by which they mean that it changes in response to observation, just as particles do in quantum physics (in contrast to the more predictable and invariable movements of particles in conventional Newtonian physics.) The implication, according to Schwartz, is "what has been termed self-directed neuroplasticity, or the ability of an individual to alter his or her own brain activity through the active practice of focusing attention in constructive ways." This is a complex concept, but it's certainly one that I find credible, and describing the brain as a quantum environment helps me to understand it.
But asked by Rock to explain this process how and why this process occurs, Schwartz takes a big (and problematic) leap:
As I mention above, I do trust Rock's interpretation of current neuroscience research, and I believe his application of its findings to coaching offers a compelling explanation for how and why the coaching process actually works. At the same time, it's clear that the field of neuroscience attracts thinkers from a wide range of backgrounds and extends into highly experimental territory. Coaches with an interest in applying the principles of neuroscience would do well to maintain an open mind while also remaining skeptical of purported experts and of any far-reaching conclusions that don't seem to be fully supported by research.