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Charles Jacobs: An interview by Bob Morris

Charles Jacobs is the founder and managing partner of 180 Partners, and the author of Management Rewired:  Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science. For over two decades, he has worked with leaders in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. to improve the performance of their businesses, numbering among his clients fifty of the Fortune 100. His unique approach uses our understanding of how the brain works to comprehensively rethink businesses, creating more robust competitive strategies and the performance-oriented organizations needed to implement them. His work provides the key to overcome the number one obstacle to meaningful improvement in business performance—the rapid and effective management of change.

Here is an excerpt from my interview of him. To read the complete interview, please click here.

Morris: Before asking you to discuss specific issues addressed in your brilliant book, Management Rewired, a few general questions. When and why did you first become interested in brain science?

Jacobs: Even as a child, I was fascinated by the mind. I played baseball and did the other things that kids do, but I would find myself standing in the outfield thinking about how the mind worked, usually as the ball dropped in front of me. In my early teens, I stumbled across The Collected Works of Sigmund Freud, and was set for a career as a psychoanalyst.

After my freshman year in college, I landed a job in a state mental hospital, working with schizophrenics. One would give speeches to an unseen audience that could become testy at times, another would periodically be commanded by God to smite sinners with his cane, and a third would walk up and down the hall all day repeating, “Red light, green light.” For the first time, I started to appreciate how profoundly different our versions of the world could be.

Behavioral science didn’t help me understand any of what I had experienced in the hospital. I started to explore other fields, such as literature, philosophy, linguistics, social psychology, evolutionary biology, and history of science.  After graduate school, I taught in various colleges and universities, but I found it rather insular. When I moved to the business world, I was able to focus on the practical applications of my work.

I’ve always read whatever I could get my hands on, regardless of the field, and in the early nineties, I came across some of the early research using MRIs to track the flow of information through the brain. I found it stunning that we could finally move beyond theory and actually see the brain at work. We could watch as the brain assembled our experience of the world from our perceptions, desires, emotions, and memories.

When my first company was acquired and I was sidelined with a non-compete agreement, I decided to pursue my research full time. I spent two years learning everything I could about this new field called neuroscience and another two years trying to put the pieces together in a book that people would want to read.

Morris: Some of the worst business mistakes are made because of false assumptions and premises. Presumably you agree with what Peter Drucker observed in 1963: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Jacobs: In business, we have an understandable preoccupation with rationalization and efficiency to reduce costs. But such efficiency takes time to develop, while the market environment changes rapidly.

We get really good at building planned obsolescence into cars, only to find we’re trumped by those who went for quality instead.

This is mirrored in the brain. The more we use a neural network responsible for a thought or a behavior, the more deeply ingrained it becomes until it’s on automatic. Since change requires attention and energy, we unconsciously opt instead for getting better and better at doing things that no longer make sense.

Morris: Most change initiatives fail and reasons vary but in many instances, the resistance is cultural, the result of what James O’Toole aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Your own thoughts about resistance to change?

Jacobs: Our minds favor the status quo and deceive us into thinking there is no reason to change. Culture then becomes a product of many minds reinforcing each other in this mistaken belief. So we need to count on resistance to change whenever we design a new initiative.

At the same time, our brains have evolved to deal with change. Old neural networks die off, and new ones are created all the time in response to the environment. But we’ve got to attend to the change and have a reason to endure the discomfort it brings. It’s almost as if our brains are saying, “If you want me to change, convince me that change is needed and it will benefit me.”

General Motors’s bankruptcy has captured the attention of the employees, but real change will only take hold only when there’s the promise of a different kind of company that will better meet the needs of its people.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to your latest work, Management Rewired. I am intrigued by both its title and subtitle, hence these questions. First, does management (as an organizational component) need to be “rewired” or do the mindsets of managers need to be “rewired”?

Jacobs: This is a book about fundamentally changing the way we think about management, and that requires stopping the way we currently think. People don’t ordinarily think about management as wiring, let alone rewiring, so the combination of the two words is just unexpected enough to stop the mind’s automatic processing. The word “management” refers both to a system and a group of people called managers, and both need to be rewired.

Neuroscientists see the brain as wired since it works through electrical impulses sent through networks of nerve cells. Hopefully, the evidence that our commonly accepted management practices fail is the spur that opens the mind to the new, scientifically-based ideas of how to manage. These ideas change the wiring, leading to different ways of thinking and behaving.

But as O’Toole’s quote makes it clear, it’s easier not to change and simply revert to habit.  I’ve always thought of management structure and systems as the way to compensate for human fallibility.  If self-management is wired into the organization, it makes it easier for managers to shift their role from controlling to supporting.

Morris: It seems reasonable to assume that efforts to rewire anyone and anything will encounter resistance from defenders of the status quo. Is that a fair assumption?

Jacobs: From my experience, it’s a certainty. The more we have invested in the status quo and the more successful we’ve been, the more we’re going to be unwilling to change. But we can’t force people to do anything, let alone rewire their brains. All we can do is create the conditions for the rewiring to take place. Nor can the process be Orwellian. This is not about insisting on one way of thinking, but about giving people the data to reach their own conclusions about what they need to do.

Morris: With regard to the subtitle, “Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science,” why doesn’t feedback work?

Jacobs: Our positive self-image is critical to our well-being. When we receive information that is in conflict with that image, it creates discomfort and we seek to reduce it the easiest way possible. Discounting the dissonant information is the path of least resistance.

No matter how constructive a manager may believe the feedback to be, the employee will tend to see it as critical. Imagine how you feel when someone walks up to you and says, “Let me give you a little feedback.” Rather than a nice warm feeling engendered by the opportunity to improve, our bodies tense and we get ready to defend ourselves. So we deny, rationalize, or ignore the feedback.

Or we discount the source of the feedback. If the feedback is experienced as punitive, it then becomes in our psychological interests to be aggressive toward the source and punish in return. One of the favored ways to express the aggression is to continue in the behavior the boss would like to see changed.

Morris: What are a few of the other “surprising lessons”?

Jacobs: The pleasure chemical dopamine is released not when we receive a reward, but when we’re fully engaged in the work that leads to the reward. It’s not monetary rewards that are motivational, but the work itself.

The objective thinking favored in the business world is just not possible. There’s a reciprocal connection between the areas of the brain responsible for emotion and logic. When we try to be objective in our thinking, we lose access to past experiences that are anchored emotionally, causing us to lose our capacity for forethought. Measureable objectives focus us on the short-term, not the long-term.

In fact, our objective thinking is not how we make decisions at all. Our decisions are driven by emotions that mark alternatives as good or bad, prior to our use of logic. If we get rid of the emotions, we lose the capacity for good decision-making.

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

For more information about Management Rewired, click here.

To visit the 180 Partners’ website, click here.

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Bob Morris is an independent management consultant based in Dallas who specializes in high-impact knowledge management and accelerated executive development. He has also reviewed more than 2,200 business books for Amazon’s US, UK, and Canadian websites. To contact him directly:

Melissa G Wilson

Melissa has been a leader in the book writing, publishing and marketing arena for the past two decades. To date, she has helped more than 100 thought leaders write, publish and market their books. Her clients include executives such as Dan Weinfurter a seven-time Inc 500 winner and Orlando Ashford, President of Holland Cruise Lines.

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