Brains at Work: A Happiness check

Source: Institute for Digital Transformation 

Author: Cherri Holland

Publication Date: June 2018

Surely ALL leaders want the best results and many want employees to be happy as well. Are the two linked?

For over 25 years, we have known that brains produce their best work when in a situation of stimulation PLUS safety. (I am thinking in particular of the life-long work of Professor Marian Diamond who sadly passed away at age 90 last year).

“Calm excitement” and “relaxed alertness” were the oft-quoted phrases during the ‘90s – the Decade of the Brain in the U.S.  The phrases describe perfect opposites of heightened awareness and energy (to widen perception and solve complex puzzles) together with complete safety from danger (i.e. threat of punishment for mistakes or failure.) Does this “calm excitement” describe the average workplace?

Workplaces For ‘Brainyness’

Brains do their best work where organizations are non-threatening and present complex challenges that people respond to with positive emotions such as excitement, optimism and enthusiasm. Is this the norm?  Complexity and challenge, yes, but what about the happiness factor?

This is not about soft furnishings, molly coddling and group hugs. This type of positive environment (for the brain to do its best work) is more sharp-edged than a brightly coloured workplace (reminiscent of kindergarten) with free fruit.

Researchers and authors such as Mark Beeman and David Rock have consistently connected positive mental and emotional states with heightened brain function and effectiveness across a range of metrics.

This should not come as any surprise if you consider for how many decades elite athletes and coaches have emphasised mental and emotional states for performance. Considering the role of Dopamine (the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter) in movement and coordination, this is no surprise. Yet how much more important is the feel-good factor for thinking, learning creating, innovating and problem solving.

Given the importance of adapting quickly to change, organizations face a major limitation by the fact that for most people, CHANGE means DANGER. The distinction between the higher-level ‘thinking’ brain (thinking cap) and lower-level limbic brain (that freezes non-essential functions when a human being is feeling threatened) is significant for organizational growth and success. Surely in situations of change, you need MORE adeptness, flexibility and openness; not rigidity, fear and panic.

This is where biology meets workplace – see Institute Fellow Hans Gillior’sDigital Transformation – the Battle of Biology”.

Workplaces That Shrink Brains – The Neural Cost of Being ‘At Work’

David Rock found that only 10% of people believe they do their best thinking at work. He found that the typical manager is interrupted every 8 minutes, and employees spend, on average, 28% of their time dealing with unnecessary interruptions and then getting back on track.

 A Happiness check – questions for a team/department/organization:

Given that anger and/or anxiety states make a brain work against itself, how much of your team/organization design ensures people are in effective mental and emotional states?

How equipped/capable/skilled are people at self-insulating from environmental hazards of the mental kind, and instead positively managing personal application to situations and tasks?

How prevalent are team/organization processes and experiences that load the dice in favour of people being in happy and productive states?

How To Increase Happiness (Therefore Performance) at Work

Employee Experience” measurement is gaining popularity at a time when mental health issues are on the rise5, problems in the world are more perplexing and uncertainty is the norm.

Neuroscientist (and comedian) Dean Burnett mentions two keys to work happiness in his book “The Happy Brain”:

-Sense of control

-Sense of competence

When you consider the opposite of these, it is easy to understand how feeling out of control and incompetent would put the brain in a perturbed and unproductive state.

According to Rock, “Providing autonomy, or control, seems like an advantage in preventing distractions. Research shows that giving people autonomy over their space resulted in about a one-third increase in productivity. So it’s not necessarily the case of what is the ideal workspace, but understanding that people have changing needs throughout the day and the week and should be able to control their work environment and choose how they work.”

How much do people feel ‘in control’ in your organization? In my experience, managers and staff see power and powerlessness quite differently. Employees rarely perceive they have the necessary control over what’s needed to get things done and ‘achieve objectives.’

Add the pace of change to this perception of powerlessness and you have the Peter Principle: “People rise to their level of incompetence”  How can people feel competent when they have little opportunity to come to grips with new areas of responsibility before they experience yet another unfamiliar demand (or restructure)?

More than ever people need to:

-learn quickly

-exercise self discipline

-focus, to get up to speed with complex new demands

-manage interruptions

-negotiate and collaborate to work out seemingly unreasonable, impossible and/or conflicting expectations

-be open, flexible, confident………….and the list continues.

All the items on this list have one thing in common: they require a healthy brain, in a non-threatening work situation, where people can exercise the best of their human ingenuity and take advantage of the brain’s eternal capacity to keep reinventing itself.

It is quite clear: we need new thinking about work. Burnett points out the phrase ‘work-life’ balance reveals what people really think; as if work is the opposite of life. You work or you live. For many, work is a form of slow death.

It needn’t be that way! Many believe work is the dojo for the mind. Part 2 of this article will explore some solutions, and the dark side of the internet that people need to avoid to have a happy (and productive) brain.


“The Significance of Enrichment” by Marian Diamond, Ph.D. 1988.

Mark Beeman.

David Rock in a Steelcase Q and A. Neuroleadership and Distractions in the workplace. June 2018

“Digital Transformation – the Battle of Biology” by Hans Gillior, June 12, 2018

“Suicides rates rising across the US.” Thursday, June 7, 2018 press release.

Dean Burnett. The Happy Brain. The science of where happiness comes from and why. 3 May 2018

About Author: 

Cherri Holland is a performance and change specialist who works with leaders transforming their organisations in response to market pressures, technology change or both. Long influenced by leaders running successful staff-driven businesses, she combines this partnership-approach to enterprise with the neuroscience of super-performance.

Having worked with clients at all levels across most sectors in nine countries, Cherri has validated these high-performance approaches in diverse cultures and types of enterprise.

Described as commercially-savvy, engaging and inspirational, her clients have consistently said their high expectations of change outcomes have been exceeded.

She uses organisation purpose as a vehicle for collaboration and human ingenuity to co-create programmes that outperform those traditionally imposed by ‘experts’.

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