Conflicts on the stage of your brain

‘Your Brain at Work’ could be relegated to the pile of self-help manuals that promise much, but deliver very little. Then, most self-help books fail the reader because the book is only one small step in actually getting results. The work has to come from the individual, and the book just signposts the way. What’s really different about this book is that David Rock understands this. In fact, the book explains a lot about how you react to change, why it’s hard and why introspection on how you react is important. By the act of reading the book, you are performing some of that work you need to facilitate change within yourself.

Your brain is a theater

The central theme of the book is that your brain is a mushy set of conflicting needs, desires, wants and reactions. The author uses the analogy of a theater, with the stage being the conscious stream we all work with, the audience is the thoughts and facts we have that react to the stage, and the director is our ‘self’ that tries to organize the stage. The audience is an unruly bunch too. It tries to get on the stage sometimes when we don’t want them too, forcing out our actors we have carefully chosen. The director can get tired, or have things backstage that need to be dealt with as well, letting his stage run amock. And when it runs itself, we end up having less than positive interactions with our colleagues. Or our families.

There’s a mushy set of conflicts. But understanding these conflicts is the central idea of this book. What goes on can help our director make different choices. Choices that lead to the outcomes that makes us improve our interactions with others, give us a better sense of purpose, and overall increases our happiness at work. And at home too.

The Kolb Cycle at work

‘Your Brain at Work’ uses a writing method I really enjoyed. We get a short narration of an incident or problem in the workplace, told from the second person, so we can see the reactions the person is having internally. In this case, the incident resolves less than favourably. David Rock then explains why these reactions might have happened, and what the brain was doing. Was it over engaged? Was it threatened? Was it confused by too many things? He examines the psychology, referring to real research (all cross-referenced) and makes some suggestions on how we can deal with similar problems in the future. We then see the scene replayed, with the narrator doing a far better job the second time around.

It’s the try -> fail -> reflect -> learn -> repeat -> succeed cycle, similar to that outlined in the Kolb Cycle. It’s my preferred way of learning, and a way simulations (or games) can be used to get people to try new ideas. Gameplay allows simulation, and we can try out various ideas, safely, in that simulation. It encourages us to externalize that simulation as well. And that’s similar to this style. Tell a story, then examine it in depth.

Gameful Facilitation with your brain

This is covered in Chapter 2: ‘A project that hurts to think about’. We all have problems that seem far too large. Often, we try to cram in all the ideas into our heads, filling up our stage, in an attempt to simulate some possible solutions. The director can’t cope with this. So, we need to externalize these ideas. Gamestorming and Innovation Games are methods to encourage pushing the ideas onto paper, out of the brain. So we can then look at these ideas, move them around and try out new patterns, without exhausting ourselves.

This has one added advantage: we can collaborate with others using games too. Visualizing shared problems together, new ideas and connections will form. Ideas that no one person in the conversation may have had. It’s like combining multiple stages together as one, and having the power of a larger stage to try things out on.

Now, this is a change in a way of working for many. A change is scary and uncomfortable. But looking how to gently manage that change is another aspect covered in ‘Your Brain At Work’. By understanding your own brain, you can understand the reactions in others better too. And by that understanding, provide gentle leadership and co-operative change, where all parties are engaged in the process. The benefits of this style are covered in another book I’m currently reading “Flat Army” by Dan Pontefract.

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