Setting goals without a culture of enablement will compromise a team’s ability to reach those goals. This is what we’ve learned first-hand in coaching OKRs. A lot has been written about how to build a culture of enablement because it is so difficult to do, but few have explored the connection between neuroscience and a team’s ability to execute. Our brains are wired in a certain way, and we can use this wiring to execute more effectively. Here we will explore the practical insights and tools that neuroscience, in tandem with OKRs, bring to create a culture of execution to motivate teams, meet goals and perform better over the long term.

The OKR methodology is great. But it’s not enough.

It’s not the silver bullet that will magically lead to goals being achieved. It plays a very specific role in a framework that needs holistic attention to drive effective execution.

This framework has two sides. We like to call them “facts” and “feelings”. They are equally important. OKRs talk to “facts” – what do we want to achieve? How do we measure success? These are all (fairly) factual.

The “facts” need to be supported by the culture of an organisation. These are the “feelings”; they’re often less explicit. What do we value? Do we understand the beliefs and mindsets that individuals carry?

This is where neuroscience comes in. Andrew Huberman, professor of neurobiology at Stanford, would say that our nervous system orchestrates our “feelings” (amongst other things) – which is an important element of culture, values, beliefs, and ultimately actions and behaviours.

Our nervous systems are designed to orchestrate the processes that influence behaviour

The measure of success of any organisation is the creation of value to various stakeholders, including shareholders, society, the environment, and so forth.

Value is created through optimal actions and behaviours. If we don’t do anything, nothing will come of it.

Actions and behaviours, in turn, are influenced by our environment – the world we live in and the work we do – and we are more influenced than we’d like to think.

So, by understanding our neural processes, we can start understanding how they are influenced. If we understand how they are influenced, we can start to control this influence and effect a behaviour change.

Our nervous systems orchestrate 5 processes in our bodies:

  • Sensation

This is what we receive from the outside world through our senses. It’s not really controllable; we are designed to sense certain things and not others. We can’t sense ultraviolet light or high-pitched sounds, but some of our four-legged friends can.

  • Perception

This is how we select, organise and interpret the sensations. Perception is more controllable than sensation, but only a bit, and is determined by what we pay attention to. It’s the spotlight on specific sensations at specific times. Have you ever wondered why the ticking of a clock can sometimes be deafening?

  • Emotions

This is a cocktail of sensation and perception, and its purpose is to invoke the body. For example, something in our outside environment (sensation) might cause us to feel anxious, or our interpretation of a sensation (perception) might cause overwhelming joy.

  • Thoughts

Thoughts can be spontaneous or deliberate. Thoughts might come to us without our control, or we can deliberately decide to focus thoughts. For example, when we are faced with a problem we decide to focus our thoughts, but at other times our thoughts simply drift towards pink elephants.

  • Behaviours

This is where the rubber hits the road. Most behaviours are deliberate – we choose to stand up and go for a run. Some behaviours can be spontaneous, usually when there has been damage to neural pathways.

Here’s an example to demonstrate how these 5 processes work together: A soldier is fighting in a war. He detects movement (sensation). He sees a line of enemy fighters dressed in camouflage (perception). His heart starts pounding (emotion). He recalls his orders, to hunt down guerrilla fighters (thoughts). He lifts his rifle (behaviour).

His buddy taps him on the shoulder. “Don’t shoot,” he says. “It’s just a boy.”

It’s a great example of the 5 processes, but also a great example of how perceptions can distort reality. The enemy that he saw was a boy herding cattle. His perception was created not only by the physical reality but also by a neural process that included his training, his expectation and his orders.

Our ability to succeed will depend on our ability to control these processes

Some of these processes are easier to control than others. We will receive sensations – we can’t control that. Those sensations will be perceived – these are also not really under our control. We can however train our brain to perceive sensations differently (think about the soldier that has been trained to perceive a movement in the bushes as a guerrilla fighter). Emotions, thoughts and behaviours are somewhat easier to control. (We might not think we can control emotions, but keep reading!)

Here’s what I mean.

At some stage in our lives, we start experiencing stress. It’s based on a perception that is hard to control. Don’t try to control it. When we stress, adrenaline is released. This is an awareness drug that gets us going, it’s designed to create alertness and make us move. It’s a good thing.

Alertness is great. But being over alert will make you look like a squirrel on a sugar high. We need to turn alertness into awareness.

We create awareness through focus. Focus, in turn, is created through urgency – and urgency is created through deadlines.

When we hit that deadline, dopamine is released. And dopamine is how we control our emotions – it’s the reward at the end of a deadline. It’s the celebration. Dopamine then acts as an adrenaline suppressor – it pushes down adrenaline.

So, how do we control emotions? How do we keep motivation high and navigate stress concurrently?

  1. Set a goal with a deadline
  2. Make the goal ambitious enough to channel stress (which releases adrenaline)
  3. Tone it down so that it’s realistic enough to guarantee a good chance of hitting it
  4. When we hit the deadline, dopamine is released and adrenaline reduces, and we reach “goldilocks state” – not too much and not too little, it’s juuuust right
  5. Back to step 1 and repeat

Or more poetically, there’s a staircase of stress before the doorway of dopamine.

And what about controlling thoughts? It’s more about adding thoughts than controlling them – we can’t remove the thoughts we have. But we can add thoughts through positive self-talk (NB – it’s not the same as lying to ourselves!). Create small deadlines and celebrate those, which will be accompanied by small releases of dopamine.

Behaviour can be the precursor to perception and sensation

In a team, your behaviour creates other people’s sensations. Your consistent behaviour creates their perception. Consistent behaviour = habits.

Therefore, the habits we create are important not only to how individuals behave but also to their thoughts, emotions, perceptions and emotions.

Here are some practical ways to address the above:

  • Introduce deadlines

Create focus and urgency through deadlines. This increases the release of adrenaline, which gets people going. Most goal management frameworks, like OKR, would recommend a regular cadence – set a deadline, sprint for the line, then reset your goals for the next deadline.

  • Introduce rewards

Create energy and motivation through rewards. Rewards could be internal (e.g. growth) or external (e.g. monetary). This increases the release of dopamine, the “feel-good” hormone. It seems like stopping to celebrate is a necessity! Make it part of your goal management cadence.

  • Introduce thoughts

Create a culture of positive reinforcement.  You can’t change your thoughts, but you can add to them through regular feedback, one-on-ones and reflections.

Resources:

  • Kudos to Andrew Huberman who hosts a brilliant podcast. He is a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford. His mission is to put zero cost to consumer information on science and science-related tools, so I don’t think he’d mind me sharing!
  • And to Rich Roll, whose life motto is “mood follows action”. Very applicable.
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