Why Your Hardest workers are killing your culture

Updated: May 7, 2018



Employee engagement is all the rage today. Everyone seems to be in search of the secret sauce to maximize productivity, innovation, and collaboration. Engaged employees create a healthy culture and contribute to a better bottom line. But, the hardest workers may actually be sabotaging their own cognitive capacity and your organizational culture with a condition called ADT.


Attention Deficit Trait is a neurological phenomenon that mimics the conditions of ADD (attention deficit disorder) which is a genetic disorder. But scientists are now exploring ADT, a condition of brain overload caused entirely by the work environment, as a culture killer. It undermines productivity and engagement and is not something that happens to slackers; it happens to the busiest, hardest workers. Some experts maintain that the ADT population is not just growing, it’s an epidemic. The symptoms include multi-tasking, distracted, racing to meet deadlines, juggling projects, reorganizing to shift priorities, and overwhelmed brain cells. Sound familiar? 


We’ve all been there… Some days are fast and furious and filled with so much noise that it’s tough to attend to anything completely. The faster you try to go, the behinder you get. While the human brain is designed to actively process large amounts of information, we can't focus on two highly cognitive tasks at the same time. And when we do, there is an ultimate tipping point that turns our highly complex 3-pound thinking machine into a stressed, stalled engine.


To understand that tipping point, consider a very basic explanation of brain anatomy. Think of the brain as having an upstairs and a downstairs. The upstairs brain, or the frontal lobes, take care of our executive functioning like decision making, planning, organization, time management and problem solving. The downstairs brain takes care of all of those things we need to survive like sleep, hunger, breathing, and heart rate. It also manages some negative emotions like fear. 


When we are in fear of someone or something, the downstairs brain takes over and shifts us into survival mode. And when that happens, the upstairs brain – the thinking brain – is put on pause. As complex as the human brain is, it’s a terrible multitasker. That’s actually a good thing. If you are in real danger, like a bear is about to attack you, then of course you want all of your brain power focused on that. But if you are trying to intelligently prepare a presentation or complete a budget, you want your upstairs brain to be in charge. 


When your frontal lobes are operating at maximum capacity, the limbic system – the on/off switch for cognition – sends the good chemicals upstairs to help keep you engaged, motivated, and focused. When you experience fear, stress, or anxiety, the limbic system sends different chemicals downstairs to deal with the threat. But here’s where things start to get sticky. We can’t fuel the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain at the same time. So, all of those good chemicals that enhance cognition and executive function get shut off when the limbic system sends fuel downstairs.


As the upstairs brain begins to reach its data processing capacity, we begin to feel overwhelmed to keep up and that ultimately sends signals of fear, stress, or anxiety downstairs. As the data flow continues, the neurons get frenzied trying to keep up. These alarm signals hijack the thinking brain forcing it to step back as the downstairs brain kicks into gear. As a result, the whole brain gets caught in a counterproductive tug of war. And when that happens, rational thinking and mental acuity decline, and our impulse control is jeopardized. The human brain has evolved to survive and stay focused on the metaphorical bear.


Four simple ways to avoid brain overload and keep your upstairs brain in charge:


Physical Exercise

Make the time for some physical activity at least 3-4 times per week. Chaining yourself to your desk to grind through your long to-do list not only increases your stress level, it actually decreases mental acuity. Physical exercise releases a number of chemicals the thinking brain loves, like endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, as well as a neurotropic factor called BDNF which is a little like Miracle Gro for your brain cells.


Take a Breath

You don’t have to be a mediation guru to make focused breathing work for you. Take a deep long breath in for a count of 6, hold it for a count of 4 and exhale slowly for a count of 6. Focus on your breath and the rise and fall of your chest. Repeat 3 or 4 times.


Sketch it Out

If you feel anxious about beginning a project or even a hectic day ahead, grab a few markers and a sheet of paper. Sketch it out in a diagram or flowchart. Seeing the project or your day mapped out visually engages different regions of the brain and opens neural pathways for clarity and focus.


Schedule Sleep

We schedule meetings, meals, time with family, and a multitude of other things, but most of us fail to schedule our sleep time. Sleep isn’t just about giving our body a chance to rest. When we sleep, the brain goes into housekeeping mode. This is the time that the glial cells come through and clear out toxic molecules associated with neurodegeneration. This increases the space between brain cells and increases brain fluid flow. When we don’t give the glial cells the time they need to clean up the brain, mental acuity is significantly impacted.


The Bottom Line

If you want to keep your chief productivity resource charged and humming like a boss, understand its limitations and make adjustments as needed. And if you’re in a leadership role in your organization, ask yourself if you’re undermining productivity and engagement. Is your team constantly working on multiple projects and juggling impossible deadlines? Are you creating a culture of “do more with less” or do you provide time for deep thinking and refueling? Or worse yet, do you “reward” your best workers with brain overload?


A little more about the neuroscience of employee engagement...




If you enjoyed this post, check out Inspiring Leaders to Build a Culture of Mentorship. This free whitepaper explores common leadership behaviors that cripple employee engagement and simple strategies to develop a learning culture in your organization.



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