Four Brain Networks and Why They Matter

As talk about neuroscience is becoming more ubiquitous, it is easy to get overwhelmed by all the information out there. However, as a business leader, understanding how our brain works is essential to maximizing efficiency and effectiveness.

Our brain is made up of different networks that govern different executive functions. At this point, common agreement between neuroscientists claim that there are several different networks with more to be discovered. If you want to geek out on neural networks, you can check out this article.

For the sake of keeping it simple, let’s discuss four primary networks and how they can impact work. These four networks include Default, Reward, Affect and Control (Mason & Waytz, 2019).

The Default Network

Just like it sounds, this is the area of our brain that we default to when we aren’t working on anything specific. The mind is never truly blank, it is always monitoring stimuli, even if we aren’t perceiving it at a conscious level. For those that practice mediation, the default network is the desired destination during moments of mindfulness.

We increase our productivity when we encourage time in the default network. This is because our brain gets a break and can refuel in preparation for more activity in other networks. Creative breakthroughs and solutions to complex problems often occur when this network is engaged.

How do you engage the default network? Create a habit of mindful mental wandering. Listen to a guided meditation on an app (my favorite is Calm) or go for a walk and let your thoughts take in the scenery around you rather than working on a mental to do list. If you have employees, consider a 15 minute Breathing Break where everyone steps away from the computers and tasks and mediates for a few minutes.

The Reward Network

Just as it states, the reward network is about improving our habits through incentivizing. If we perceive joy, our brain decides the task is worthwhile. The simplest form of this is when you do something and receive praise. Praise sparks joy and that encourages our brain to repeat the behavior.

In the workplace, the reward network is fed by trust and a feeling of equality. Fostering a sense of both among your team will provide great benefits as they perceive their work as joyful. Business owners often need to create their own reward system through connecting data points with the joy of running a business. You may not always hear positive feedback from customers but looking at the number of increasing customers each quarter can help spark the reward network. This can be done in a number of areas including financial stability, employee retention and peace of mind.

The Affect Network

This is our intuition and feeling network. Also, a commonly overlooked network among analytical entrepreneurs who often forego hunches and gut instinct and focus only on data. Obviously, hard evidence is important but there is compelling research that our gut often “knows” something and we should give it a listen. This is called our Gut Brain and you can start down a decent rabbit hole or three here, here and here. (trust me, these articles barely scratch the surface).

That said, we don’t want to always default to gut decisions. Really, we want to balance them with rational decisions. There are definitely times when our gut is flat wrong.

What is important is that, as leaders, we pay attention to the affect network. How are we feeling and why? Does an employee always give us a negative feeling? We need to explore that in order to manage them effectively. If we negatively perceive someone, we will likely, even if subconsciously, treat them differently than others which can create an inequitable environment (see the Reward Network above). Conversely, if we feel overly affectionate towards someone, we may allow for deficits in performance that we would not allow in other employees.

The Control Network

This area of our brain governs our ability to see the long term goals and act accordingly to work towards them. The control network understands that there is a correlation between action and achievement and works to reconcile those areas when they are not working synergistically. For example, if you have a big project due and are in the middle of netflix binge, the control network will work to get action and achievement in line, turning off the television and turning attention to the project. (by the way, when we ignore this, the result is generally guilt)

What is interesting about the control network is that it performs better with less definitive goals. For example, employees are more likely to work towards a goal like “Increase sales” than “Increase sales 17%”. Why? Because if the employee feels like they can only increase sales 15%, they automatically feel as if they have failed (see Reward Network) and do not feel joy about the work ahead. However, by removing the hard numbers, an employee can feel successful at anything that is an increase, creating a behavior that is more likely to work towards that goal.

For the owners, keeping the BIG goals in mind can help train the everyday behavior. If the goal is to sell a company in three years at a decent profit, it is easier to design daily tasks and projects that head in that direction. You need to know where you are headed for the control network to know what behaviors to promote. Get clear about your vision and act accordingly.

Mason, M., & Waytz, A. (2019, January). Building Smarter Businesses and Teams. Harvard Business Review, 11-19.