If you want to take your career to the next level, the advice we seek and get usually has a practical bent: network, research the industry and prospective employer, ask for feedback, pursue training and education opportunities, work on being an effective leader. These are all good things, but in this month's Harvard Business Review, psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell shows how understanding brain activity can lead you to a more systemic approach to succeeding and advancing in your career.
In his article "What Brain Science Tells Us About How to Excel," Hallowell lays out five factors in what he refers to as "the cycle of excellence." According to the author, to excel in your career you must select, connect with your workplace, play, grapple and grow, and finally shine in your achievements. These recommendations are not novel; what is new is Hallowell's illustration of what goes on in the brain that makes these actions work. It's worth briefly going through each of these steps.
Is your job the right fit? It stands to reason, and research confirms, that having the right job fit benefits attendance and performance while reducing stress. In fact, in Hallowell's view, "job fit ranks with choice of mate in predicting success and well-being." A good fit, according to the author, lies at the intersection of what you like to do, what you're good at, and what adds value to your organization.
The question of job fit may make some people uncomfortable, because the answer could be scary. After all, this is the first step to excelling. What if in truth your job isn't right for you? And, scariest of all, what if you're in the wrong career altogether? As hard as it might be, it's critical to examine the job and career you've selected. It can motivate you to make the necessary changes and make the right fit. If you decide you're better at and would rather apply your skills to something else at your company or on your team, so much the better. It takes initiative to discuss this with your boss, and that's admirable.
There's a Seinfeld episode where Elaine has had it with too many cakes and celebrations at her office. I truly get that exasperation. That said, we all know that engagement with work boosts performance, and a sense of connection leads to engagement, writes Hallowell. I'll be frank: some of you may roll your eyes at this, but hear him out; he's a doctor. "Small talk seems trivial, but it pays big dividends," he writes, "building affinity and trust." There are other ways to connect: "Reach out to colleagues. Pay attention to everyone. Appreciate the maintenance people and the cafeteria staff. Notice personal details, like a new dress or a sad look. Most of all, be real."
Hallowell goes further to say that though executives spend a lot of energy making sure people are on board with the company's mission, "positive human relationships are much more important. If you look forward to coming to work, it doesn't matter what cause you're working toward."
I think the most important point Hallowell makes about connection is that it works both ways between you and your staff. Your people can't feel connected to the workplace unless you as their leader feel equally connected.
Play with problems
Here's where the hardcore neuroscience comes in and sheds some interesting light on what makes us effective. Your brain at play optimizes your ability to perform most executive functions, such as decision making, delegating, and analyzing. This is your brain at play:
"We know from neuroscience that play builds your brain. It stimulates the secretion of...a recently discovered molecule that promotes nerve growth. Play engages the amygdala, [which] helps regulate emotions. In addition, it has a beneficial effect on the prefrontal cortex, which regulates executive functions such as planning, organizing, prioritizing, deciding, scheduling, anticipating, delegating, analyzing -- in short, most of the skills you need to excel in business."
Hallowell describes "play" as "imaginative engagement with the task." You can play and work at the same time. Simply thinking about what you're working on instead of mindlessly performing a task is, in Hallowell's definition, a form of play. This not only makes work more enjoyable, it also takes you to that place where you see solutions to problems, thereby making yourself more valuable.
Grapple and grow
No one said achieving excellence is easy. "Pain abounds on the way to excellence," Hallowell notes. Throw yourself whole-heartedly into a challenging task. Working towards understanding problems, thinking through and executing the solution -- these activities stress your brain and strengthen its synapses.
Of course, some stress is bad. Office politics or a jerk for a boss are sources of toxic stress, which is unproductive. Try to be conscious of the kind of stress you encounter, then resolve to apply your energy to the good stress, like a large-scale implementation, the kind that makes you feel good afterward.
This critical last stage is allowing yourself to enjoy success. Work life, however, moves at such a hectic pace, that you may not always get the recognition you deserve. Your superiors may, purposely or not, fail to give you the props for a job well done. In this case, "speak up," advises Hallowell. "Lay claim to what is yours." And if your workplace culture consistently withholds recognition and praise, you may want to find one that doesn't. Doctor's orders.