Exercise Your Brain! (Part 1)

Experts worldwide are jumping on the brain bandwagon, eager to teach you about the neuroscience of happiness, the brain science of managing, and brain tips for peak performance.  It’s an exciting time.  As knowledge workers in the 21st century, our success depends on having a healthy, functioning brain.  But if you’ve read a few of the latest articles on brain science, you may find yourself scratching your head, wondering what you should be doing differently. Science can now answer this question, having made incredible strides over the last 5 years. While many previously thought our brains steadily deteriorated after age 25, this turns out to be false. Researchers have proved the brain can grow new neurons and tissue well into old age, as long as we pay attention to four key areas: 

  1. New learning and thinking
  2. Physical health (muscles, cardiovascular system)
  3. A healthful, balanced diet
  4. Low stress, emotional stability and high happiness levels

While you cannot stop aging, you can prolong your brain’s healthy function. The No. 1 method is to create a healthy environment for the brain to thrive. It turns out that the same things that keep your heart healthy, keep your brain in good shape.  This article will discuss how physical activity influences the health of your brain, followed by future articles on the other three domains. 

Your Body, Your Brain 

Brain health depends on a regular practice of aerobic exercise. Researchers have not yet established a definitive guideline, but most agree on 30 minutes, at least three to four times a week, to elevate heart rate.  If you’re exercise-phobic, disabled or just plain stubborn, it will be more difficult to maintain a healthy brain in the long run. 

Regardless of your current exercise habits, you’ll need to accept this irrefutable fact: Your brain will deteriorate with age unless you engage in some form of regular exercise or sport. Sedentary people lose brain cells more quickly and are susceptible to loss of focus and concentration, memory lapses and learning difficulties. They also have a far greater chance of developing personality problems, mood disorders, attention disorders and, in worst cases, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.  Crossword puzzles and Sudoku aren’t enough to stave off deterioration. You need to get your body moving.

Why Physical Activity? 

Physical activity is crucial to the way we think and feel. Research studies reveal:

  • Exercise cues the building blocks of learning in our brains.
  • Exercise affects mood.
  • It lowers stress and anxiety.
  • It improves our ability to pay attention, focus and concentrate.
  • It helps stave off the deleterious effects of hormonal changes.

Some readers may be familiar with the term “runner’s high”— the notion that joggers and walkers experience a rush of endorphins (brain peptides) that make them feel terrific. An exercise-associated increase in endorphin production has been measured in lab rats as well as in people. 

Researchers have also found that exercise increases levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, which help regulate mood and emotions.  People who have low levels of these neurotransmitters often suffer from clinical depression and stress, which can erode the connections among the brain’s billions of nerve cells. Chronic depression actually shrinks certain areas of the brain. 

Conversely, exercise unleashes a cascade of neurotransmitters and growth factors that can reverse this process. Think of the brain as a muscle: It grows with use, and it withers with inactivity.

More on exercise and your brain tomorrow…

STRESS! Could it be good for you? (Part 2)

Stress Inoculation

There’s a widening gap between the evolution of biology and society. We no longer hunt lions, but a meeting with a rival brings about the same mental and physical responses. How you choose to respond to, and cope with, stress can change not only how you feel, but its effect on your brain. If you react passively, the stress can be damaging. In contrast, active coping moves you out of pessimism, fear and retreat.

Research shows that a little stress is actually beneficial. In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Energy studiedthe impact of low dosages of radiation on nuclear shipyard workers. Those exposed to very low levels had a 24 percent lower mortality rate than workers who received no exposure.  Researchers had expected the opposite result. Somehow, instead of killing cells, the radiation dose made them stronger.  What we’ve learned since is that low levels of stress seem to inoculate the brain, just as vaccines protect the immune system. Our brain cells overcompensate to deal with stress, thus girding themselves against future demands.

How Stress Affects the Brain

Severe stress activates the “emergency phase,” commonly known as the fight-or-flight response. It’s a complex physiological reaction that marshals resources to mobilize the body and brain to peak performance. It also engraves the memory so we can avoid this stressor in the future.  Any amount of stress triggers neurological systems that manage attention, energy and memory. Our ingrained reaction is essentially a three-step process:

  1. Recognize the danger.
  2. Fuel the reaction.
  3. Remember the event for future reference.

The Wisdom of Stress

When the brain employs this three-step process, stress actually becomes a building block for wisdom. It is powerfully linked to the formation and recall of memories. As long as we don’t go into panic, fear or pessimism, stress activates our ability to achieve peak performance.  This capacity complicates our lives dramatically. The mind is so powerful that we can set off a stress response just by imagining ourselves in a threatening situation.  In other words, we can think ourselves into a frenzy. And, conversely, we can also act ourselves out of this frenzy. Just as the mind can affect the body, the body can affect the mind. The simple act of taking a deep breath and smiling produces a calming effect.

What’s gotten lost amid all the usual self-help advice is that stressful challenges are what allow us to grow and learn. They help us rise to the occasion, making us more physically and mentally robust. What doesn’t kill us really does make us stronger.  As long as stress is not too severe and our neurons have time to recover, our mental machinery is destined.

STRESS! Could it be good for you? (Part 1)

As knowledge workers in the 21st century, our success depends on having a healthy, functioning brain. What can leading neuroscientists teach us about stress, effective coping skills and peak performance in the workplace?  While you cannot completely eliminate stress, you can make it work for you to improve your brain’s ability to function. Your choices — and how you respond to stress — can make you smarter, stronger and wiser.

The Mind-Body Connection

Most people know that when they exercise, they feel better — but they cannot explain the connection. They assume they’re burning off stress, reducing muscle tension or boosting endorphins, all of which are true. There’s more to it than that. The real reason you feel better lies in basic physiology: When you get your blood pumping, your brain functions at its best. This is the true goal for exercise: to build and condition the brain. Building muscles and conditioning the heart and lungs are essentially side effects.

Today’s technology-driven tasks put us in front of a computer screen most of the day. Even when you’re out of the office, your mobile phone connects you to work tasks. It’s hard to remember that our bodies and brains were built to move. Our brains need physical activity and stimulation. We need to exert more energy than “keyboard calisthenics” allows.  Exercise is crucial to the way we think and feel. It:

  • Cues the building blocks of learning in our brains
  • Improves mood
  • Lowers stress and anxiety
  • Improves our ability to pay attention, focus and concentrate
  • Helps stave off the deleterious effects of hormonal changes

Exercise increases levels of serotonin, norepinephrineand dopamine — key neurotransmitters that traffic in thoughts and emotions. People with low levels often suffer from clinical depression and stress, which can erode the connections among the brain’s billions of nerve cells. Chronic depression actually shrinks certain areas of the brain.  Conversely, exercise unleashes a cascade of neurotransmitters and growth factors that can reverse this process. This is why physical activity is so important in our stress-filled workdays.

Stress It’s Everywhere

The term “stress” is overused and misunderstood, as it’s bandied about to describe both cause and effect:

  • Cause: “There’s a lot of stress at work these days.”
  • Effect: “I’m so stressed that I can’t think straight.”

Even scientists cannot always distinguish between the psychological state of stress and the physiological response to it. What is clear is that if we’re in a chronic state of high-level stress, emotional strain leads to physical consequences.  The body responds with anxiety and depression, as well as high blood pressure, heart problems and cancer. Chronic stress eats away at the brain’s connective tissue.

Work Stress

In a recession, with increased job stress, there’s no getting away from a nerve-wracking environment. Either you’re unemployed and struggling to cope, or you’re employed and doing the job of more than one person. How can we harness the power of stress to our advantage?  The body’s stress response is actually a built-in gift of evolution. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to survive. The trick lies in finding out how you can turn stress into strength.

More in Part 2 tomorrow…

Accountability in Corporate Culture

In Change the Culture, Change the Game, Tom Smith and Roger Connors write: “Either you manage your culture, or it will manage you.”

In simple terms, “culture” refers to how people think, act and get things done in your company. It is comprised of three components:

1. Experiences, which foster beliefs
2. Beliefs, which influence actions
3. Actions, which produce results

Research shows that the right culture champions high levels of performance and ethical behavior. When organizations design and support a culture that encourages outstanding individual and team contribution, they achieve amazing bottom-line results.

Employee accountability and engagement are the driving forces behind achieving great results. As a manager, it’s your job to help employees see how their participation contributes to your organization’s success. Employees become engaged when they can describe their role in outcomes and desired results.

Achieving True Accountability

Accountability is often viewed as something negative that happens to you when things go wrong. True accountability is achieved through a step-by-step process that makes things go right.

Accountability should not be defined as punishment for mistakes. It’s a powerful, positive and enabling principle that provides a foundation to build both individual and company success.

The way we hold one another accountable defines the nature of our working relationships, how we interact and what we expect from one another. With positive accountability, people embrace their role in facilitating change and take ownership for making progress.

When people adopt a sense of accountability, they recognize that their participation can and will make a big difference. They go the extra mile because they know what to do, and they know how their job and their actions will drive results. This adds energy to their work, as most people crave meaning and fulfillment.

Accountability is the single biggest issue confronting organizations today, especially for those engaged in big change initiatives. When you build a culture of accountability, you have people who can and will achieve game-changing results.

Accountability steps include:

  • See it: In order to see what needs to be done, you must take responsibility for reality. Because reality frequently changes, you need to stay alert and be flexible. There’s no hiding behind what used to work. When you see something, you must rise to a new challenge. This means obtaining others’ perspectives and candidly asking for and offering feedback. You must be courageous and relentless in your pursuit of acknowledging reality.
  • Own it: Accept being personally invested in outcomes. Be willing to take risks and learn from successes and failures. Align your work with what the company needs. Link where you are and what you’ve done with where you want to be and what you’re going to do.
  • Solve it: Obstacles can always get in the way of achieving results, so apply persistent effort. When thwarted, find another way. Keep asking, “What else can I do so this gets resolved?” You must learn to overcome cross-functional boundaries, limitations and “no” responses.
  • Do it: Focus on top priorities, overcome obstacles, do what you promise to achieve, and avoid blaming others. Work to sustain an environment of trust for all participants, even those who are unwilling to help.

In a culture of accountability, people step forward to become part of the solution – often when they begin to see others doing it. Managers should seize every opportunity to model this behavior with their own attitudes and actions, which will create a trickle-down effect.

The payoffs for positive accountability are better performance metrics, but perhaps more significant is what people report internally. When people participate more fully in their jobs, they create meaning and fulfillment. Work becomes more pleasurable. And when people start achieving better results, they are most likely rewarded in tangible ways, as well.

When to Change the Culture

Connors and Smith point out that, by definition, your culture produces your results. You cannot expect your current culture to produce new results. It may not be a bad culture; it simply isn’t what’s needed if you want different results.

Shifts in culture are required anytime you want people to think and act in new ways to achieve new outcomes. Most of the time, they don’t involve a total transformation, but rather a transition to new cultural norms.

Remember that cultures are powerful, and persistent, and that people are entrenched in their habits and work routines. If you want to achieve new or different results, you will need to create a new culture. To do so, you must define the needed shifts in the way people think and act so they can create new experiences that will translate into new beliefs and actions.

To accelerate a change in the culture, start by defining the new results you wish to achieve. Everyone in the organization needs to be focused on and aligned with the desired new outcomes. Culture changes one person at a time.

Your people must believe that new results are obtainable. Only then can they change their thinking and actions.

Are You Suffering from The Progress Paradox (part 2)

The Psychology of Success

Positive psychologists seek to find and nurture genius and talent and to make normal life more fulfilling, not simply to treat mental illness. By scientifically studying how things go right in individuals and societies, we can unlock the mysteries of peak performance to gain more satisfaction from our work and lives.

Here’s what many people believe about work:

If I work hard, I’ll be smarter.

If I’m smarter, people will notice and I’ll get promoted.

With more responsibility, I’ll be even more successful.

If I’m more successful, I’ll be happy.

But it doesn’t work this way.

Instead, our brain chemistry kicks into gear when triggered by a stimulus. Perhaps we’re working on a challenge that particularly intrigues us. We’re in a positive mood. Biochemically, we feel pleasure when the neurotransmitter dopamine is released into the brain. As a result:

  1. The brain turns on its learning centers.
  2. We are more open to exploring new ideas.
  3. We build new solutions.

If we feel positive while performing a task, we dramatically increase our levels of intelligence, creativity and productivity, while lowering levels of negativity, boredom, proneness to errors and disengagement.

Thus, positive feelings prime the pump for success.

Priming the Positivity Pump

To prime yourself for success, start a task in a positive mood. One way to accomplish this is to engage in something pleasurable first – even if it’s just fantasizing or reading something funny. Exercise is known to help.

Try smiling at someone. The evidence is clear: Smiling produces positive feelings in both giver and recipient. Our brains’ mirror neurons are particularly responsive to smiles, not to mention other facial emotions (anger, disapproval or worry). It’s almost impossible to smile at someone and not get a smile in return – but remember that sincerity is required.

If you’re a leader or manager charged with getting things done, a smile helps ensure better results and cooperation – something most parents already understand. We know emotions are contagious, yet how many of us transmit negativity and stress by forgetting to smile at work?

Make a conscious effort to create a positive work environment by smiling more often and being positive instead of stressed out. The more positive the mood, the better people work – and this includes you.

It may seem incongruous to “pretend” to be happy and successful before you set out for your day’s tasks. But the evidence is clear: Tapping into whatever positive mood you may have within you will set you up for more creativity, happiness and success.

Are You Suffering from The Progress Paradox (part 1)

As a society, we’re achieving more yet feeling worse. Even when well paid, we’re dissatisfied. Most of us accomplish plenty but lack feelings of well-being.

While every metric of society is improving worldwide, our happiness levels are declining-and the more we have and achieve, the less successful we feel. This phenomenon is known as the “progress paradox.”

In a worldwide survey of happiness, the United States ranked a dismal 23rd. Between 1972 and 2004, Americans’ real buying power doubled, yet our feelings of financial security dropped by 34%. The number of people who felt very happy with their lives dropped by 31%.  And this was reported before the financial crisis and recession of 2008.

Depression rates are up (and affecting younger children), stress levels are high, and financial insecurity is common. People everywhere report feeling isolated and disconnected from one another. We crave meaning and fulfillment in our work and family life.

The latest psychological research challenges* some of our most commonly held beliefs about satisfaction and well-being:

  • While a high IQ can help you at work, only 25% of one’s professional success is predicted by it.
  • Your environment can affect your level of happiness, but not to the extent you may think.
  • Hard work helps you achieve success, but it won’t necessarily pay off in feelings of satisfaction and well-being.


3 Things We Need for Success

What make us feel good about ourselves:

  1. The ability to manage energy and stress in positive ways
  2. A strong social support network
  3. Most importantly, believing that what we do matters

Research also demonstrates that if we feel positive while performing a task, we can dramatically increase our level of success. Indeed, happiness is a precursor to success – not the result.

Unfortunately, our expectations are often reversed, which begs the question: How do we create feelings of happiness before we are successful?

Come back tomorrow for the answer in Part Two.

*Achor, S. One Day University Presents: Positive Psychology. New York, NY: One Day University, 2010.

19 Tips for Managing Conflict

I’d like to summarize here some practical steps for dealing with conflict at work. I’ve found many of these tips useful, no matter what kind of organization, or what kind of position you’re working in. 

In the work I do with managers,  I don’t know anyone who can’t benefit from one or several of these tips. I hope you find them useful too. 


4 Ways to React to Conflict 

When conflict occurs, you can choose to react in one of four different ways: 

  1. You can play the victim and act betrayed. You can complain to those who will listen and create alliances against the offending party. This rarely works in the business world, yet many workers actively engage in such passive-aggressive behaviors instead of directly addressing conflict.
  2. You can withdraw, either by physically removing yourself from the situation or emotionally and mentally disengaging. This may involve walking out of a heated meeting, moving to a new unit or team, or quitting your job. A Gallup Organization survey reports that, at any one time, as many as 19 percent of an organization’s employees are actively disengaged. Worse yet, more than half (55 percent) are not engaged, simply putting in their hours. 
  3. You can invite change—an option most people never consider because it involves backing down from their original stance. Those engaged in personal battles or who remain stubbornly attached to their core beliefs may think change is tantamount to failure. Healthier individuals can look for win-win possibilities that open the door to creative solutions. 
  4. You can confront people honestly, openly and candidly. This is the preferred option, but it’s the most difficult to put into practice because we often fear conflict and lack the skills to work through it.


6 Keys to Managing Conflict 

When conflict occurs, leaders must address it as soon as possible to prevent it from escalating into a chronic or pervasive problem. The following steps are critical: 

  1. Create rules of engagement. Establish procedures and rules for addressing conflict fairly. 
  2. Demonstrate the importance of caring. Nothing can be resolved in an atmosphere of distrust.  
  3. Depersonalize the issues. Focus on behaviors and problems, not on personalities. 
  4. Don’t triangulate or bring in political allies. 
  5. Know when to let it go
  6. Know when to bring in a professional mediator, coach or trainer


9 Tips for Difficult Conversations

  1. Always start with the other person’s agenda.
  2. Listen without saying a word 70 percent of the time. Confirm you understand what the other person is saying 20 percent of the time, both verbally and nonverbally. In the remaining time, ask questions that advance the conversation’s meaning.
  3. Become a people reader. Pay attention to others’ facial expressions.
  4. Focus not only on what people are saying, but also on what they are not saying.
  5. Frequently confirm what people are thinking, feeling and believing. Don’t assume you know what they mean.
  6. When people are trying to make their points, practice the art of saying “tell me more.”
  7. Don’t go into difficult conversations unprepared. First, think about where you want to end up. Second, think about what’s really going on. Finally, begin the process of discovering and designing an action plan.
  8. From a communication standpoint, you get what you want by first giving others what they need.
  9. At the end of every important conversation, review the commitments.

Let me know what you think. I’d also love to hear your favorite tips for handling conflict.

Communications and Perceptions

There are three fundamental communication styles:

  1. Nonassertive
  2. Assertive
  3. Aggressive 

Each of us has a preference, and we’re capable of switching to another, as appropriate. 

We are sometimes unaware, however, of how others perceive us. You may think you’re being appropriately assertive, but a more sensitive or resentful coworker may perceive you to be aggressive. 

Add to the mix gender differences, our personal agendas, and it’s easy to see how communications breakdown and breed conflict. I see this happen all the time in organizations. It’s hard to know how we come across with the language and tone of voice we’re so accustomed to using.

How Executives Contribute to Conflict 

Executives contribute to conflict by communicating ambiguously, either intentionally or unintentionally. 

Most of us want to avoid conflict, but we can sometimes “talk out of both sides of our mouths” and give mixed messages. Such ambiguous communication fosters an organizational climate that discourages commitment (at best) and promotes conflicts (at worst). 

I’m not saying executives do this on purpose (although some do). But highly educated people are skilled in the language of diplomacy and often try to address the needs and desires of a wide audience. In trying to please everyone, they craft message that border on double-speak. 

This is more of an explanation but not a rationalization and it certainly isn’t a good excuse. 

Leaders need to be more direct, frank and clear. I’d like to see more executives stand up and remove the barriers to candor. Why don’t more of them tell it like it really is? 

Many executives are sitting too close to the blackboard to see their communication errors. An unbiased professional coach or consultant can spot weaknesses and help correct approaches that contribute to conflict.  


How Organizations Contribute to Conflict 

Several conditions make a workplace fertile ground for conflict: 

  1. If an organization has a rigid hierarchical structure, with an authoritarian leadership culture, expect incessant arguments and a robust rumor mill. In this type of environment, open communications are discouraged.
  2. Is there a poorly instituted reward/promotional system, where unfair favoritism occurs?
  3. When managers are forced to compete for limited resources, their agendas can prevent them from getting along with others. They become more concerned with their personal or departmental gains and forget about the organization’s overall well-being.
  4. Change itself can destabilize relations because people struggle when they’re forced out of their comfort zones. Companies involved in mergers and/or acquisitions, for example, experience more conflict. Rapidly changing environments create a ripe atmosphere for stress, anxiety and conflict. 

What do you think about these possible sources that create more conflict instead of helping people do their work in the best possible environment? I’d love to hear your comments.  

Three Sources of Conflict

In my experience working with organizations, there are three factors behind most organizational conflicts:

  1. Differences in behavior and communication styles
  2. Differences in priorities and values
  3. Workplace conditions, including poor communications from leaders

Some personalities just seem to clash. It’s important to determine why two people rub each other the wrong way. Do they have opposing behavioral styles?

For example, an extrovert who is open and expressive could view an introvert as hard to read and perhaps untrustworthy. Likewise, a time-conscious, highly organized employee may harshly judge a spontaneous colleague. Someone who is highly analytical and precise might view an intuitive person as impulsive and flaky.

Teaching team members to understand basic human differences can help them overcome tendencies to judge and make assumptions. They can learn to accept coworkers’ differences. Consider using any of the commonly accepted assessment tools, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), another personality inventory or 360-degree feedback.

Workshops provide another option. An extrovert can learn to ask questions to draw out an introvert. The highly organized team member can learn to set more realistic deadlines.

Understanding personality differences can help prevent clashes and conflicts before they become ongoing problems.

I offer several options for learning about personalities in the workplace to help deal with differences and conflicts.


Expectations and AssumptionsPeople have different needs, values, beliefs, assumptions and cultural frameworks. Our expectations are fed by past experiences. If you erroneously assume that others are essentially mirror images, your lack of clarity can create strife. 

Leaders and teams must explore others’ expectations, assumptions, underlying values and priorities. This can be accomplished in group or individual sessions, led by a manager or coach.

When there is an elevated degree of conflict, it’s wise to retain a professional who is trained in interpersonal skills and mediation.  

Behind every complaint is an underlying value that goes unsatisfied. Asking questions like “What’s really important here?” often allows people to uncover competing values and priorities. You will facilitate more authentic conversations when you ask the right questions. 

What do you think about these ideas? What do you see as a major source of conflict in your organization? I’d love to hear from you.

Managing Conflicts – Tough Conversations

When conflict is ignored—especially at the top—the result will be an enterprise that competes more passionately with itself than with its competitors.”— Howard M. Guttman, When Goliaths Clash, 2003

If you’re in charge of people, you know how much of your time gets spent putting out fires, particularly interpersonal ones. In the work I do  with managers, some tell me that at least 20 percent of their time is consumed by taking care of conflict.  But the problems don’t stop there. Productivity decreases further when coworkers ruminate over arguments and disagreements. 

We work in a culture that values democratic processes and individual freedom. Some people encourage debate. I don’t think this is a bad thing, as new ideas often spring from those who refuse to “go along just to get along.”  I believe that conflict should be neither suppressed nor ignored within an organization. When it goes unnoticed, it only gets worse and invites stress. Eliminating conflict is not the answer. I’ve seen companies take this approach and I’ve seen some disasters.  It may be getting worse. Anytime there are cutbacks, there is a rise in conflict. Trend analysts predict workplace conflicts will rise because people face increased pressure to produce more and better with fewer resources. 

Job insecurity, a fluctuating economy, the stress of technological advancements, increased commoditization, and an epidemic of outsourcing and downsizing  ̶  these are only some of the factors that are putting stress on today’s work force. 

The Leadership Edge 

There is a strong link between the ability to resolve conflict and one’s perceived effectiveness as a leader. According to research from the Management Development Institute of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, effective managers resolve conflicts by employing four key behaviors:

  1. Gaining perspective
  2. Creating solutions
  3. Expressing emotions
  4. Reaching out

 Those who succeed are deemed more suitable for promotion. But most managers are trained in the competencies required for their careers and industries. They aren’t necessarily astute negotiators of people’s emotions and relationships.

That may be behind the recent upsurge in demand for coaching services.  The more people are stressed, the more they need help in managing their emotions and relationships. Conflict is often the catalyst.  Managed well, conflict can stimulate creativity, motivate people to stretch themselves, encourage peer-to-peer learning and help teams move beyond the status quo.   

Your task, as a leader and manager, is to conduct tough conversations that help address  workplace conflicts without wasting time. Conflict isn’t something to take lightly.  Tough conversations are hard to have, worth having, but not worth risking poor outcomes.

That’s why I recommend working with an experienced coach.