When we think about the future of work, we often think about AI, big data, and machine learning. We know that our abilities in these fields will deliver high returns as we build our careers. Yet, with the rapidly changing pace of technology, the ability to support people in learning and adapting, to both new technology and new ways of working, is the greatest skill we can possibly learn. And this requires a good deal of emotional intelligence in addition to technical intelligence. According to the futurist, Heather McGowan, “Today if you’re not worried about the well-being of your team, you’re not worried about the success of your team.”

How The Brain Works 101

We know well by now that the brain is an extremely complex organ. Multiple lobes are responsible for our various functions, but beyond those: 100 billion neurons and 1,000 trillion synapses connect these neurons with various hormones and neurotransmitters constantly in flow. It’s no surprise then that the brain baffles most people.

For the purposes of understanding how we communicate and operate in the business world, we can simplify the scenario somewhat. The oldest parts of our brain are those responsible for the “fight or flight,” survival-based reactions. Because this part of our brain was the first to form, we are hard-wired to use this part of our brain more often to direct our actions, often unconsciously. This part of our brain, known as the limbic brain, is the fear-based part, close to the hippocampus which is responsible for storing our memories and traumas.

Over time, we have evolved to develop other parts of the brain, however. We developed the neocortex, the knowledge center of the brain that helps us learn new information. We also developed the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for executive function, rational thought and action, and conscious decision-making. I call it our “smart” brain.

neuroscience and work

A Quick Brain Assessment

So what part of your brain are you most controlled by? Here’s a quick, confidential assessment for you to find out. Remember to be honest – you’re only answerable to yourself!

1. Do you more often say “no” or “yes” to new ideas and opportunities? If you answered “yes,” give yourself 1 point.

2. Are you more often judgmental or appreciative of others? If you answered appreciative, give yourself 1 point.

3. Do you more often withhold or share information with others? If you answered share information, give yourself 1 point.

4. When discussing a topic, do you more often make statements or ask questions? If you answered that you ask questions, give yourself 1 point.

5. When managing a team, do you more often specify how work should be done or allow the team to decide? If you answered that you allow the team to decide, give yourself 1 point.

6. When you learn of others’ successes, do you more often celebrate or find something wrong? If you answered celebrate, give yourself 1 point.

7. When someone hurts you, do you more often try to get revenge or try to talk it out? If you answered that you try to talk it out, give yourself 1 point.

If you scored between 0-3 points, you are more controlled by your limbic, or fear-based brain. If you scored between 4-7 points, you are more controlled by your prefrontal, or trust-based “smart” brain.

How Society Shapes Our Brains

This is a difficult assessment to answer honestly, and if you found that you are more limbic in nature, know that you’re not alone.

Despite how much we have evolved as a species from the days of survival-based tribalism, our business world and thus, our leadership, is still dominated by limbic, primitive modes of thinking and acting driven by fear and greed. What happens in the macro scale always trickles down into the micro-scale at some level, into how we as individuals think and operate, whether we like it or not.

This way of thinking is based on ideas of scarcity and win-lose scenarios as being the only options. It is based on all competition, and no collaboration. It is based on leaders dictating to others and pretending to have all of the answers, rather than collaborating with their teams and empowering them to self-manage.

The proof? According to research from Edelman, only one-in-five of of the mass population believe that the system is working for them. Fears of job loss among the general population remain high, whether caused by a lack of retraining and skills (59 percent) or automation and innovation (55 percent). More than twice as many of these respondents say the pace of innovation is too fast (54 percent) versus those who say it is too slow (21 percent).

The good news is: there is an opportunity to change the trend. There is a reason our prefrontal cortex formed, and it represents our continuous evolution as a species. From primitive and cruel barbarians at our worst to civilized, collaborative souls at our best. We are all currently at different phases of this evolution as individuals, and as institutions.

So how can we accelerate ourselves on this journey? By consciously practicing some of the skills and behaviors to strengthen the prefrontal cortex:

1. Saying yes more often than we currently do when faced with something new and unknown

2. Catching ourselves being judgmental and choosing to verbally appreciate someone’s efforts

3. Sharing more of ourselves with our friends and colleagues and exploring our edge a bit more

4. Finding out what we’re curious about on a given topic and posing great questions for discussion

5. Sharing more control with your team to decide how work will get done while communicating a firm vision and deadline

6. Recognizing that any human success doesn’t come without pain and struggle, and choosing to celebrate other people’s successes in this light

7. Ignoring knee-jerk reactions of revenge or rudeness when you’re hurt, and opting for collaborative communication instead

We are creatures of habit, and the brain is another muscle that needs to be conditioned and trained to act in the way we want it to. The more we choose consciously to react in positive, empathetic ways, the faster this will become our default, unconscious way of leading and operating.

Our Brain’s Evolution Shows Us the Future of Work

Despite having fully formed prefrontal cortices, most humans still rely on their old, backdated limbic brains, which shows how much of our own potential we may be missing out on. The beauty of the prefrontal, newer part of the brain is that it is also responsible for our conscious decision-making. When we make the conscious choice to step fully into acting from our “smart” brain by changing how we perceive and think, and thus act, we take the first step to evolving ourselves and our institutions.

Aside from what the brain’s evolution might show us, the business case for trust and empathy as the future of work is clear. Overall productivity has increased by 47% since March 2020 when remote and hybrid work took over, according to employee productivity software (Prodoscore).

When we develop ourselves and our institutions as trust and empathy-based rather than fear-based, imagine the changes we might see in our society and leadership, and you can see what the Future of Work will eventually look like.