Your Brain at Work is a pop psych book.

Unfortunately, the category “pop psych” book has been misused and abused in the past, so that classification does not do the book justice.

Your Brain at Work is how a pop psych book should be: well-grounded in research, very well written and offering useful behavioral tips which follow directly from understanding how the brain works. As the cover of the book states: know your brain, transform your performance.

David Rock is really good at making neuroscience’s findings relevant to everyday’s life: each chapter opens with a snapshot of work life (e.g. a person having to make a decision, or dealing with pressure) and how it usually goes (wrong); then the author follows up by explaining why, according to current understanding of the brain, the person in the story behaves as he or she does; the chapter ends with a take 2, i.e. how the story could end differently if the person had understood how his or her brain worked (happy ending). Moreover, at the end of the chapter one can find two paragraphs: one with the title “Surprises about the brain” which summarizes the main points of the chapter and the other one, “things to try”, with some tips to make use of this understanding of how the brain works.

The book is centered around three main insights:

1) conscious thought is a finite resource; and as any finite precious resource it needs to be carefully managed.

I think this is a great insight. It made me think of how I structure my workday and I am now consciously scheduling activities to optimize my brain output. It works.

To make this point David Rock uses the metaphor of a theater stage.

Our consciousness* is likened to a theater stage, with thoughts entering the stage or exiting it all the time.

It turns out that this stage has severe limitations: audience members clamor to jump on stage all the time (we are easily distracted and self-inhibition requires effort); actors can only play one part at a time (no multi-tasking); no more than three or four actors can be on the stage at any one time; and so on.

By using the stage metaphor the author introduces the neuroscience behind this limitations.

And once the reader understands her or his difficulties as simply limitations inherent in the way the brain is wired, it is much easier to come up with strategies to compensate for them.

The techniques offered are solidly grounded in research – they are not rocket science: e.g. “schedule the most attention-rich tasks when you have a fresh and alert mind” or “group information into chunks whenever you have too much information”.

However what makes this book stand out is that the author does such a great job in explaining the neuroscience behind the ordinary working of the brain and the practical impact of it, that these simple strategies seem to arise naturally – and they STAY with the reader.

2) the second main insight is the role and the importance of the “director” (following the stage metaphor), a.k.a. the executive function. Urging readers to develop a meta-perspective, the ability to take a step back and observe one’s own thought processes is the key message of this book.

It makes sense: all the strategies suggested by the author require the reader to be attuned to his or her own thinking processes. For example the techniques offered for emotional regulation require the person to be aware that they are about to be hijacked by a strong emotion so they can adopt the proper counter-measures.

According to David Rock, mindfulness is nothing mysterious, it is simply a habit that you pick up with practice - and it does not matter what people use for practice, as long as it something centered on focusing on a direct sense and catching the distinction between directly experiencing something and the interpretation added by the brain.

3) the third insight is the realization that some social needs (e.g. status) are just as important as primary needs relating to survival (e.g. food). What transforms this insight into a useful working model  is the brilliant SCARF acronym David Rock came up with to summarize these needs.

SCARF stands for: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness.

It is a very useful framework to use in thinking about interactions or organizational dynamics.

It can provide a useful checklist for managers who want to interact with co-workers, e.g. in assigning a task: the manger needs to make sure the task assignment is framed in a way that does not challenge or diminish the co-worker status; that expectations are clear; that plenty of room is left for the co-worker’s initiative; that personal issues are taken care of and a positive atmosphere exists; last but not least, that concerns about fairness are addressed.

Interestingly enough the Solution-Focused approach is mentioned in the book.

David Rock notes the limits of a deductive problem-solving approach, limits that are well known to Solution-Focused practitioners: problem-solving works well when dealing with machines or inanimate objects, not so much when dealing with self-regulation or human interactions; when you focus on problems you activate the emotions connected to the problems and you risk a downward spiral of blaming; and so on.

The author draws the distinction “on one key decision: to focus on the desired outcome rather than on the past. Attention goes to your goal, rather than to your problem”. So, if you choose to focus on solutions, “you scan the environment widely for cues” and you are more likely to deal with the problem effectively; solution-focused questions “help people arrive at their own insight” and focus on “the exact change you want“.

As an example, David Rock mentions some questions right out of the Solution-Focused practitioner’s basic toolbox: “what is one thing that has made a customer delighted in the past? What did you do differently that made the customer so happy? What would it take for you to do it more often?”

The author acknowledges that ‎“Similar ideas have been fleshed out further in fields such as solutions-focused therapy and appreciative inquiry. I am not proposing that these are brand-new insights. However, I find that having the theoretical explanation of why we need to focus attention this way is helpful. Indeed the interesting part is where David Rock gives a rationale based on his SCARF model for the effectiveness of Solution-Focused questions.

More specifically:

a) it is easier to adopt a problem-solving approach that looks at the past for the root of the problem, because “the past has lots of certainty, the future, little” – and the brain dislikes uncertainty. Conversely, “focusing on solutions is not the natural tendency of the brain. Solutions are generally untested, and thus uncertain. It takes effort to dampen down the threat created that comes with uncertainty.”

b) “there is an implicit respect inherent in the [Solution-Focused] question, the suggestion that you know people have good answers. It’s a status reward”

c) we could add that the sense of Autonomy in the client is greatly increased by a Solution-Focused interview. given the assumption the client is the expert and has the solution; moreover, developing a sense of Relatedness with a client is part and parcel of good practice, Solution-Focused or otherwise; last but not least, Fairness is enhanced in a Solution-Focused conversation because of the respectful relationship that is established between client and practitioner.

So, yeah… definitely interesting…

A book definitely worth your time and your money.

And when you realize you could have acted differently remember… it is just the way your brain is! :)


* by consciousness the author means the 5 functions of conscious thought: understanding, deciding, recalling, memorizing, inhibiting.

— for the more philosophically-inclined readers: I am well aware there is a lingering debate about the use of words like brain or oxytocin to describe complex behavior, since they are two distinct language games. However, I felt this issue was not relevant here, given the intent of the author. I thought the readers might actually benefit from such an over-simplification – not accurate, if you will, but very useful!

5 thoughts on “Your Brain at Work

  1. Thank you Paolo – when a book summary is this usefull one does not get concerned with irrelvant and complex acedemia, :-)

  2. Pingback: Pilots and doctors are tested for competence. Why not leaders too? « Hammer's Hemisphere

  3. Thank you Paolo , the summary is comprehensive & detailed enough. I have the book on audio format which I heard while driving & couldn’t take notes of the main ideas. I was looking through the internet for someone who can provide a good summary. So far , this is the best I found. Thanks again.

    Ghassan Qutob from Jordan

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