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Bust these 5 myths that hurt work performance

Liz Guthridge Posted by Liz Guthridge, Managing Director, Connect Consulting Group.

Liz Guthridge is a coach, consultant and facilitator who helps leaders turn their blue-sky ideas into greener-pasture actions. She uses applied neuroscience, behavior design and mindful communications. 


Bust these 5 myths that hurt work performance

Let’s bust five myths that hurt our work performance.

As I’ve been reflecting on my learnings from my applied neuroscience program, I’m struck by the stickiness of five myths that seem as powerful and magical as unicorns.

Even though neuroscientists have disproved these practices, they’re so deeply ingrained in our work routines that many of us cling to the status quo.

In no particular order, these five myths are as follows:

(After each myth, there’s.  a link to a blog post if you’d like some background information.)

1. Recognize results, not effort. This practice backfires in two ways.

One, when you encourage individuals to achieve goals without paying attention to the process they follow, the end may not justify their means, especially if they leave collateral damage in their wake.

Second, when you focus on the end goal, not the process along the way, individuals may be so focused on the goal that they aren’t willing to try new things or take calculated risks.

By contrast, if you recognize people for making the effort and taking small steps, they’ll have a sense of accomplishment. They may be more willing to experiment and experience tiny wins that generally will propel them forward. (See Give an “A” for effort.)

2. Make your case with facts; leave out the emotion. Even in a business setting, we humans are drawn to stories. Stories with interesting characters, plots and drama are compelling, memorable and more likely to sway people than reams of data.

Basically, here’s why this happens. When you receive information, your prefrontal cortex—the executive function of the brain—influences how you perceive it, not just the facts, but also the emotions and associated sensations. The prefrontal cortex communicates with the limbic system, which stores our memories and sensory experiences. So the richer and more expressive the information, the more likely you are to remember it.

Because this is all happening with lightning speed in your unconscious, you’re not aware that your emotions hold so much sway. (See Share early and often with feeling.)

3. Muscle through to do your work, especially to meet a deadline. We humans are not machines that can run nonstop.

We need to rest and recharge, especially when we’re doing heavy-duty thinking. Our prefrontal cortex—the executive function of our brain—is relatively small and quickly tires. After even just 20 minutes or so of deep thinking, the prefrontal cortex can become overtaxed.

As a result we can’t think as clearly. The brain’s automatic default system—our unconscious—steps in to help and stimulates our amygdala.

We then get fearful, stuck, cranky, error prone and more forgetful. We feel overloaded and overwhelmed, and then think we can overcome our problems by working harder. Instead, we should take a break, get some physical exercise and possibly healthy food. (See Two steps to NOT hate work.)

4. Use fear or otherwise threaten people to get things done. Bullies and others who use scare tactics not only demotivate the people around them, but also make them less creative and collaborative.

When you’re fearful or feeling threatened, you tend to shut down. Your field of vision actually narrows, you have trouble remembering details associated with work because your short-term memory is now reduced, and you become more pessimistic. You don’t push your thinking to be creative and you take fewer risks. This is exactly the opposite of what most leaders want to achieve. (See Make change in a brain-friendly way.)

5. Worry about physical accidents only, not social hurts. The researchers and professors Dr. Matthew Lieberman and Dr. Naomi Eisenberger discovered about a decade ago that the brain uses similar circuits for both pain and pleasure.

This means that from the brain’s perspective, social pain and pleasure is very similar to physical pain and pleasure. So name calling, bullying and other forms of verbal abuse can be just as hurtful as a paper cut or twisted ankle.

Even worse though, social pain doesn’t heal like physical pain can. The next time you see the co-worker who insulted you or excluded you from a meeting, you can feel just as bad as when the incident happened. When you and others hurt, you can’t be your most creative and collaborative. (See What’s your tolerance for pain at work?)

For more than 18 months now, I’ve been studying neuroscience through the Neuroleadership Institute and thinking how to apply my learnings to leadership, especially around implementing strategic initiatives and leading other change.

During this time, the gap between what we know about neuroscience and what we do in business seems to be growing larger. Yet, if we close the gap, we can work smarter and perform better.

For my final essay, I’ll be writing more about these five myths and how we need not only to dispel them, but also take more actions to encourage brain-friendly practices that will help us work smarter and better.

Will you join me in busting these five myths?