A key to unleashing human capability in the workplace is to develop a management discipline geared toward creating intangible as well as economic value by meeting the psychological needs of key stakeholders. Such a management discipline must be based on a modern scientific understanding of how minds work and will need to provide frameworks for estimating, measuring, creating and optimizing mental energy.
Creating economic value is a necessary but not sufficient condition for organizational success. Long-lived market leaders also create an ocean of intangible value by satisfying the psychological needs of key stakeholders. Intangible value is the fountainhead for fully-engaged employees, loyal customers that advocate and suppliers that are partners rather than vendors.
Humans have four types of psychological needs – cognitive having to do with the intellect, affective having to do with emotions and mood, motivational having to do with intentions and goals and volitional or having to do with choice and the need to self determine. The key to creating intangible value is to design, implement and manage strategies, structures, operations, relationships and other aspects of organization life that meet and accelerate cognitive, affective, motivation and volitional needs. Examples of products, firms or leaders that temporary meet some psychological needs by accident or via craft-like insight abound.
What we need for management in the 21st century is a way to do it systematically.
Fortunately, given advances in the cognitive and behavioral sciences over the last 20 years we have a new scientific understanding of how the mind works. It is not complete but it is radically different than our previous understanding and enough to take the management of intangible value in business to the next level. For example one finding that has been popularized:
Behavioral economics has revolutionized our understanding of how people make decisions. Far from rational calculating machines that carefully weight alternative solutions we tend to make critical decisions using a calculus driven from visceral factors and loaded with cognitive biases and heuristics.
But the new scientific story of the mind is much broader and deeper than that. When one looks across the last 20 years of findings in cognitive neuroscience, behavioral science and positive psychology 10 core traits for how minds work emerge:
- Bi-modal and tend to oscillate between operating in an automatic, unconscious adaptive mode and a deliberate mode were we consciously monitor, plan, decide and self-regulate. Most of our time is spent in automatic mode but the limited time we spend in deliberate mode is critical to performance and success.
- Embodied or grounded in sensory information and pattern recognition not abstract thought. We literally use our physical bodies to think, learn and do all things mental.
- Deeply Situated or operating in a specific context, time and social setting. Much of what we think-and-feel is triggered by the immediate circumstances around us.
- Profoundly Empathetic or able to directly experience the thoughts and feelings of others by simulating them using special brain structures.
- Highly Resource Limited and constrained in terms our ability to sustain focus, process information and manage cognitive load. This makes the management of energy at the biological and psychological levels essential for performance.
- Metaphor Obsessed or constantly associating one concept with another as a primary means for remembering, making sense of the world, learning and creative expression.
- Preprogrammed or strongly guided by heuristics and biases that are hardwired and learned ways of thinking, deciding and behaving that produce both wonderful and troublesome results.
- Emotional or constantly appraising the fit of current circumstances to our goals and sense of self to generate arousal that acts as deep well of positive or negative energy for action. Much of our inner mental life has to do with generating and processing so-called affective states – emotions, feelings, moods.
- Primal or driven by visceral factors including not only emotions but also drive states such as hunger, thirst, sexual desire and fatigue as well as cravings. It is these visceral factors not self reflection, critical reasoning and other mechanism of rationality that determine the logic of human thinking.
- Anticipation machines or constantly and automatically simulating possible outcomes, making bets and actively constructing our understanding of reality using expectations and mental models. We do not passively absorb, record and recall information.
Each of these traits is pregnant with implications for creating engagement and our paradigm for management in the 21st century but number five, highly resource limited is especially important. Managers seek to make the best or optimal use of resources. In the 21st century that must include the mental resources – focus, cognitive load and mental energy of employees and other organizational stakeholders.
To take a systematic approach to this challenge we can begin with a review of the scientific work on the concept of mental energy. Fortunately, there has been important recent work on the topic. The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) has sponsored a research effort to formulate what they call “a new science of mental energy”.
The ILSI defines mental energy as “the ability to perform mental tasks, the intensity of feelings about energy/fatigue, and the motivation to accomplish mental and physical tasks.” This three part view – ability to do mental work, subjective sense of energy and motivation – is a strong foundation but it can be readily extended by figuring in results from human factors and applied cognitive science.
Over the last several years I have worked with colleagues and students at Northwestern to develop one such extension that identifies 10 factors for mental energy; five that model load or the amount mental work you must do during an interaction and five that model production or the amount of mental energy you get out of an interaction. Load factors turn on conscious processes and include vigilance, conscious memory, conscious thinking, self regulation and time pressure. Production factors turn on unconscious processes and include meaning, visceral response (e.g. emotions, drive states, cravings), triggered mental structures (e.g. metaphors), triggered mental processes (e.g. cognitive biases) and duration. The 10-factor model of mental energy gives us a fairly sharp instrument to use when we modeling interactions between people or people and artifacts you can estimate the mental energy that goes in and the mental energy that comes out. It will help us as managers establish workplaces that on average create more mental energy than they consume. If going to work becomes a source of mental energy than employees are captivated and engaged is a deeply natural and sustainable way.
My 10-factor model is just one approach. Another, documented in the best-selling book, The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal, offers a different view of mental energy and how to translate it into the discipline of management. And there are others. My point is the work has just started.
A promising approach to re-engaging employees is to develop a management discipline geared toward creating intangible as well as economic value by meeting the psychological needs of key stakeholders. Such a management discipline must be based on a modern scientific understanding of how minds work and will need to provide frameworks for estimating, measuring, creating and optimizing mental energy.