In Bring Your Brain to Work, Art Markman shares what you need to know to succeed at work. He highlights research from cognitive science that supports strategies to help readers get a job, to succeed at that job once they get it, and to best enhance their career by getting the next job.
You’ve probably heard of jazz hands, but have you heard of jazz brain? Have you ever designed a meeting backwards? Learn more from our Q&A with the author.
How has being the director of Human Dimensions of Organizations (HDO) at UT Austin influenced the creation of this book?
HDO focuses on understanding human elements of how people work. That is a central theme of the book. Research in cognitive science has a lot to say about what people can do to thrive in the workplace, and my aim is to teach people more about the way their minds work. This is very consistent with what we are trying to do with HDO. That is a big reason why I dedicated the book to all of the great staff who helped make HDO what it is.
In the beginning of the book, you note that, on average, Baby Boomers hold 11.7 jobs between the ages of 18-48 and that this trend is growing. Do you believe we should be taking steps to reduce that number, or do you think that reflects a customary part of how our society now functions?
I think that it would be great if people felt appreciated enough by the organizations they work for that they spent a longer period of time working for one organization rather than shifting to new employers. However, the stigma around leaving an organization has lifted, and so that opens a lot of opportunities for people.
That means that companies and other firms need to be open to “boomerang employees” who leave an organization and come back at some future time. It can be valuable to recognize that people may leave a firm but could add value again at some time in the future.
You talk about the three different ‘brains’ we have: the motivational, social and cognitive brains. Can you go a little more in depth with those and your reasoning behind separating the three?
These aren’t really separate “brains.” The mechanisms behind motivation, thinking and social interaction involve interconnected brain regions. However, the research on these topics is often done separately, and so it was useful to keep them independent in the book.
The motivational brain involves the mechanisms that engage people’s goals and drive them to act. This system does involve brain regions that don’t communicate effectively with the outer cortex that supports our ability to be reflective. So, we often have very little insight into the factors that are driving our actions. The motivational brain also supports our ability to form act through habit.
The cognitive brain is the mechanisms that enable us to think and learn. It is important for us to understand how we solve problems and the factors that make us good learners. For example, it is important to know that when you are learning complex material, you should repeat it back to yourself to make sure you understand it.
The social brain governs our social interactions. Humans are a social species. Our ability to coordinate behavior is what makes us so effective at solving hard problems. Understanding the social brain helps us to learn why we create social norms that govern the behavior in companies and also why face-to-face communication is so much more effective than communicating via text.
What about the fourth brain you briefly discuss — the ‘jazz’ brain? What role does it play in our careers?
The “jazz brain” refers to our ability to improvise. Often, we don’t just need to execute a solution we have learned in the past, we need to be able to take our knowledge and apply it in new circumstances. Throughout the book, I provide a variety of principles to help people think about the skills they need to develop to be better at this kind of thinking on-the-fly.
What is the main issue you see with forcing students to choose a major before entering college?
My problem with asking students to declare a major before they come to college or quite early in their college career is that college majors are often tied to career tracks, so declaring a major has implications for what students will do after they graduate. When people are 18-years-old, they don’t have enough life experience to have a good sense of what kinds of careers will really appeal to them. It would be better if we could give students more time to explore possibilities before having to make key decisions that will send them down a particular track.
A lot of people are told to find a job they are passionate about. However, you discuss how that may not be as easy as it sounds. Can you explain why?
Part of the problem is that people assume that they will know quickly whether a particular job is one they are passionate about. For one thing, the evidence suggests that people can learn to love many different jobs provided that those jobs align with their deeply held values, connect to an important large-scale goal and create a sense of community. So, people shouldn’t constrain themselves primarily on whether a particular job or particular career is “the one,” but rather look for paths that fit with their values.
What advice would you give to someone who feels constrained in their job?
It is important to understand why you are feeling constrained by your job. If it is a bad fit to your underlying values, you might consider moving to another career path that better aligns with the things that are really important to you. If you feel that you have learned everything you can from that job, then use that dissatisfaction as energy to help you move up the career path. You might be able to do that within the organization where you work, but sometimes you have to look elsewhere to find a suitable position.
Dissatisfaction is a good thing. It signals that a change is needed and it provides energy to make that change. Without a plan to change, though, the energy can become frustration rather than being used productively.
Do you have pointers on understanding how the brain of a recruiter or hiring manager works? How can we use this to our advantage when it comes to resume submissions or the interviewing process?
The mindset of a recruiter changes over the course of their evaluation of applications. Early on, they have a large number of resumes and need to whittle that down to a manageable short list. At that stage, they are in a mindset of rejection, and so they focus on aspects of your application that would be grounds for rejecting you. That means that you want to make sure that you don’t give them any obvious grounds for rejecting you like typos in your resume or cover letter.
After the recruiters weed the big list down to a short-list, they shift to a mindset of looking for reasons to pursue a candidate further. So, they focus on positive characteristics. Make sure that you keep your resume focused on the best aspects of yourself. Recruiters tend to average across the goodness of the things you provide on your resume, so avoid putting things that are only mildly positive (like an honorable mention at a competition) and focus just on the really good things.
What are some important steps someone should take if their job application is rejected?
Remember that there is a lot of randomness in the job search process. If your application is rejected without an interview, then there are many reasons why that could happen — including that the firm already had someone in mind for the position.
If you have an interview and don’t get the offer, you can reach back out to the hiring manager to see if they will give you any insight into why you were not successful. This can be particularly useful when you’re applying for a job at a smaller firm where the recruiter might have the time to talk to you about what you can improve to be more effective in interviews in the future.
When it comes to getting a job offer, what can we learn from cognitive science to make the most of the negotiating process?
One thing about the negotiation process is to remember that you are learning a lot about the firm you are negotiating with from the way they negotiate with you. If they are stingy during the negotiation process, then they are likely to continue in that mode if you go work there. If they treat the negotiation process as an opportunity to help you both solve problems, then they are indicating that they probably take that orientation even after you are employed.
Meetings are the backbone of business. Can you explain what you mean by ‘design your meetings backwards’? Why do this?
In education, the concept of backward design is to think about what you want students to have learned by the end of a course and then work backward to determine how you will get a student from where they are starting to where you want them to be at the end of the course. You can design meetings the same way. Start by thinking about what you want the meeting participants to know, believe, or be motivated to do at the end of the meeting. Then, work backward to structure the meeting to reach that end. That way, you are focused on making the meeting have the biggest possible impact.
What differentiates a good leader and a great one?
Great leaders have two characteristics. They understand how to motivate others. They are good at helping people to see a desirable future that they can help to create, and they work with them to understand the steps they need to take to reach that future. Great leaders are also teaching constantly. Leaders recognize that the people working for them don’t necessarily know how to accomplish their goals, so they work with them to ensure that people are learning how to improve their performance and to take on new challenges.
What do you hope your readers will takeaway from this book?
The most important takeaway would be that the field of cognitive science has a lot of insights that people can learn that will help them to address the many problems they face at work that were never addressed in classes they took in school.