Presence Point: Book Review: ‘Your Brain at Work’ by David Rock

Imagine the power of consciously harnessing the workings of your mind, in small, simple steps to create the results you want with more ease, joy & success in your work, relationships & life. David Rock shows us how to do just that & more the upcoming Neuroloeadership Institute October conference & in his latest book Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus and Working Smarter All Day Long.

What I love about this book

As a Speech Pathologist & Executive Coach, I am fascinated by the workings of the brain & how it directly relates to our perceptions, habits & results. What I love about this book is that it is designed to train people to know their own brain, observe their processes, reflect, interrupt & choose other more powerful behaviors, creating better outcomes.  Rock is a business consultant, not a neuroscientist. Using cutting edge research in Neuroscience, Social Cognitive Neuroscience & Psychology, he pinpoints activity in specific parts of the brain, & relates it to our habitual thought patterns & actions. He then shows us the “before” & “after” effects, using scenarios of a “typical” working family. Before, as they unconsciously let their emotions, thoughts & “noisy brains” run the day on autopilot; & after: as they consciously practice observing themselves, quieting their minds & purposefully making more satisfying choices.

The book, structured as a play, with 4 acts.

Act 1 is “all about learning to work around the limits of your conscious mental processes” in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a “small fragile & energy-hungry brain region” which sometimes needs to be shut down, for us to plan, organize, prioritize & create. Rock describes what typically happens in the PFC & what we can do to optimize peak performance & limit fatigue.  He introduces his ARIA model of facilitating insight & creativity, which has far reaching implications for problem-solving: “the emphasis at school, university, & in the workplace is on cognition & general intelligence. There is little focus on knowing yourself or on cognitive control. If getting around impasses in the future is going to be important, then we might need to rethink how we teach problem-solving.”

During Intermission, we meet The Director, without which “you are a mere automaton, driven by greed, fear, or habit.” The Director is known by several different names including mindfulness, self-awareness, meta-cognition, & executive function, which “sits ‘above’ your other working-memory functions, monitoring your thinking & choosing how to best allocate resources.” The stronger the director, the more successful we are.  Practice is the key.

Act 2 explores “how the brain is built to minimize danger & maximize reward. This occurs as a toward & away system of emotions, driven by the limbic system of the brain.”  Rock shows us how quickly our brain defaults to similar past experiences when we feel threatened & teaches us techniques to “wrestle back control from an overly aroused limbic system.”  Simple things, such as breathing, practiced repeatedly, can literally change the outcome of a stressful meeting.

Act 3 shows us the social world from the brain’s perspective. Much of human behavior “is driven, largely unconsciously, by the desire to minimize social dangers & maximize social rewards.”  It is here that we learn how even a slight decrease in any of the five domains of social experience is perceived by the human brain as significant a threat to survival as a lack of food & water. For example, just speaking to your boss generally activates a status threat. Elevating others’ status is integral to improving performance & relationships. Fighting for status among coworkers also impairs collaboration in teams.

Act 4 confirms why it is hard to change ourselves & others. One factor is “mirror neurons” that light up in our brains when we see someone perform an action with a specific intent behind it, which establishes or diminishes rapport. “Mirror neurons explain why leaders need to be extra conscious of managing their stress levels, as their emotions really do impact others.” This is also a critical component in successfully managing remotely as body language cues are absent.

With fascinating research & practical application, David Rock shows us the “How” and “Why” of the workings of our brain – to know our brain, to detect what our brain is doing, interrupt it & redirect it for success. How well are you using your “brain at work?”

Image credit: Patrick Hoesly

About Cheryl Dolan

Cheryl Dolan is a specialist in Presence, Communication and Creativity. Her mission is to cultivate clients’ innate strengths to develop the powerful communication and creative skills that will enhance personal and professional performance. Her Platinum Presence® Program has been delivered in international corporations, organizations, and institutes of higher education, including Harvard University and MIT Sloan School. Contact her at [email protected] or visit

  • Natalie Currie

    Hi Cheryl: Sensational review of a powerful book. One I keep on my desk so I can refer to - at all times.