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How Our Brain’s Habits Affect How We Get Along With Our Coworkers

These are the four ways our brains address problems, and what it means for how we work with others.

How Our Brain’s Habits Affect How We Get Along With Our Coworkers
[Photo: Kelvin Murray/Getty Images]

We’re all creatures of habit for good reason. While the brain comprises 4% of our body mass, it consumes at least 20% of the body’s blood glucose to do all the hard work of thinking and running our bodies. That extra drain on resources makes the brain an inefficient system, so it conserves energy by routing neural messages along the most efficient and least resistive pathways.

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“It’s similar to pathways in the woods; you can move more quickly on a well-worn path than if you need to forge a new one,” says Karen Gordon, CEO of 5 Dynamics, teamwork consultants whose clients include LinkedIn, IDEO, and Harvard.

The fact that our brain prefers the path of least resistance has implications on teamwork. Based on the research of differential learning diagnostician W. Michael Sturm, Gordon says there are four strengths–or paths–people use when moving through a process:

  1. Explore. Someone who loves offsite meetings, brainstorming sessions, and looking at what-if scenarios is high in the explore category. They understand the complete situation, see relationships, and develop creative solutions.
  2. Excite. Someone who is very focused on learning about people, making connections and participating in conversations is high in the excite category. They invest their energy exciting other people about the idea, busting silos, developing internal support, and building a team.
  3. Examine. Someone who loves data spreadsheets, analyzing work, and looking at historical aspects is high in the examine category. They develop an implementation plan using data; create schedules, budgets, timetables, clear roles, and rules; predict problems; and find faults.
  4. Execute. Someone who is focused on accomplishing what matters, creating to-do lists, and checking off tasks is high in execute. They aggressively implement the plan, holding people accountable, and measuring performance.

While 5 Dynamics has an assessment that identifies an individual’s strengths, you can probably determine preferences by thinking about what you enjoy doing and the tasks that give you energy. “Those that drain your energy are where you don’t excel,” says Gordon.

How To Manage A Team By Focusing On Strengths

Understanding your strengths and the strengths of others can help you connect on a higher level. When each team member can complete tasks and feel fulfilled and challenged, you can create a team environment that avoids burnout and fosters success, says Gordon.

Using strengths can take away friction that can show up in relationships. “You can identify a good place to lean in, and a place where a teammate might be comfortable in the space,” she says. “Before, you might have felt like someone wasn’t carrying their weight.”

Identifying someone’s weakness helps with inclusion. If someone doesn’t enjoy brainstorming, for example, it doesn’t need to exclude then from the process, says Gordon. “Let them know that they can hang in for a while, and that it’s okay if they need to step away if it’s draining,” she says. “It’s about energy: What gives you energy or what takes it away. It also appreciates differences; what may give you energy is taking away someone else’s.”

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Strengths help foster good working relationships, too. “If I deal with someone who is high in the examine category and cares about numbers and what can be proven, I don’t want to go into his office with half-baked ideas,” she says. “I need to do research and homework and come in with facts and data. When I do that, I respect his working style and meet him in a place that’s comfortable for him.”

It’s important to identify weaknesses, especially to engage teams, says Gordon. “If I’m lowest in the excite category, I have to make sure I create daily habits around reaching out to my teammates, recognizing the work they’ve done,” she says. “It’s important to connect with them, and you have to make sure you don’t skip over that.”

It’s possible to have more than one strength; Gordon rates high in excite and execution. “It’s my natural pattern to go from idea to execution, and I would be frustrated wondering why my team isn’t helping me,” she says. “I realized I was skipping over the middle steps, and all of the steps are an important part of the process.”

To remedy the situation, Gordon spent time creating a better communication plan that identified how everyone fit into the project. “Then we could execute together, because everyone understands and aligns around the plan,” she says.

The important thing is to align your team around individual strengths. “You can accomplish goals by using energetic preferences,” says Gordon. “It’s all because of awareness.”