Your Brain At Work

One of my clients, (we’ll call him “Tony”), recently shared frustrations about his work situation. He was demoralized in the wake of a presentation that his boss felt was below par. Tony felt he had put a lot of work into preparing for this event, and the result of all this effort resulted in a lowly “C” grade from his manager, when he expected an “A.” Naturally, Tony felt discredited and disheartened. After a painful post-mortem with his boss, he went immediately online to search for another opportunity. With his ego bruised and his confidence shot, a new job seemed like the only sensible solution. Sound familiar?

When our fears are left unexamined, our minds work to confirm and sometimes manifest them in our lives. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We think our director is disappointed in us, so we respond defensively to constructive criticism and then our director gets frustrated. “See? I knew that would happen.” We think a peer isn’t going to be interested in our product so we don’t follow up and they decide not to renew their subscription. Exactly as we expected!

Last Saturday, I participated in a seminar entitled Your Brain At Work Fundamentals, by David Rock. David is the author of Personal Best, Quiet Leadership, Your Brain at Work and Coaching With The Brain In Mind. During this lecture, he shared that the brain is hard-wired to pay attention to the negative. Millions of years of evolution (and focus on survival) have ensured that we respond more readily to a “threat” response than a “reward” response. In a work environment however, the threat response is not only mentally exhausting, it can be career kryptonite.

Because the threat response uses up oxygen and glucose from the blood, these are then diverted from other parts of the brain, including memory function, analytical thinking, creative insight, and problem solving. In other words, just when people most need their sophisticated mental capabilities, the brain’s internal resources are taken away from them. Our minds automatically go to “Red Alert,” unless we can specifically focus on solutions.

Simply by understanding how your brain works, you can develop the ability to be adaptive, not reactive. You’ll be able to focus your attention, manage your emotions and remain aware to what is truly happening. How do you do that? Well, here are two simple cognitive change strategies that might help.


When my client has a compulsion to quit, he thinks, “I made a mistake and my boss does not believe in me.” The client is fully invested in this thought; to him, it is simply reality. To “label” his experience, he’d have to add a new level of observation: “Ah, there’s that thought I always have, the one that tells me that I am not good enough and will be fired.” Recognizing the thought as just a thought, and not reality, is a subtle but incredibly powerful first step. This is equally true of any self-limiting belief, whatever it may be.


When an obsessive thought occurs (“I’ll never be good at this” “nobody values my contribution here”), loosen your attachment to the thought by inquiring into the absolute certainty of your mental story. Ask yourself, “Can I be 100% sure that nobody believes in my capabilities? Is there proof of a plot to discredit me?” Forcing ourselves to look a little deeper helps us to realize that our painful thought patterns are usually distortions of some kind, unsupported by actual evidence. This eventually helps us to break the pattern of compulsive thoughts and behaviors that are worthless at best, destructive at worst.

Note: you can only label and reappraise if you pay close attention to your thoughts and remain present. But I believe these steps work well for people with any negative or persistent thought patterns (“I can’t succeed in this career,” or “I’ll never have enough money.”) Mindfulness – the simple act of becoming aware of your own thinking – is the basis for all positive life change. You become the master of your thoughts – not the slave.

Try it and tell me what you see.