Creating a brain-friendly workplace - stop dealing with people as rational human beings

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne September 29, 2015
Thomson Reuters is among organizations turning to neuroscience to help staff work better, learn better and feel better.

We humans are not always logical. It’s something that ironically both Star Trek’s Dr Spock and Dr Spock the child-care specialist would probably agree upon.

So it’s high time, according to Dr Itiel Dror, a consultant in cognitive neuroscience and a senior researcher at University College London, that we “stop dealing with people as if they are rational beings”.

Understanding the processes behind the way we react and behave the way we do is no longer just the province of psychologists. Increasingly, it’s the remit of neuroscience to try and establish what is happening in our brains.

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system. In other words, it’s brain science: the study of how our brains react in certain conditions. This is made possible through technology such as fMRI scanners which measure blood flow in the brain.

Neuroscience covers many different areas, including learning and memory, how brains develop and the effect of things such as stress on the brain and behavior. It’s already become part of our everyday lexicon: we’re familiar with the idea of “brain training” for seniors and with brain plasticity – the idea that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Our understanding of how brains and cognitive processes work is moving out of the science lab and into the workplace, but there are many difficulties. As Dror pointed out recently to an audience of HR professionals at the CIPD’s Science of Human Behavior conference:

It’s a great area with huge potential, but the brain is a quite a complicated piece of machinery and then you have to translate that into the workplace. It’s not just a matter of understanding the brain, but applying it.

Applied thinking

There are some highly important applications in the workplace. Understanding the way people learn (or fail to learn) and how people make and access memory can greatly affect learning outcomes.

One organization that is striving to apply some of the findings from neuroscience is international media agency Thomson Reuters. The company recognized that it needed more than traditional business approaches to get results, as James Rule, director of HR innovation & effectiveness, explains:

Just changing processes and changing strategy doesn’t work. We weren’t getting the outcomes we wanted. The penny dropped for me. We can’t go on doing what we’re doing and do another process review or another re-organization.

Rule realized that the missing ingredient was getting the hearts and minds of employees to commit to change and to alter their behavior.

Employees (and there are 55,000 of them worldwide) are put through self-awareness training to give them insight into the why they they feel and think the way they do and to examine how their behavior changes according to their mood. The idea, says Rule, is to try and help people to challenge their own way of thinking.

One of the areas Thomson Reuters is applying neuroscience is performance management. The problem with traditional performance management, explains Rule is that:

There’s a link between performance management and compensation. A small percentage of people get a large percentage of the pie. But I want all my team to exceed. We realised that it encourages individual performance: I want my piece of the pie.

Business like football, rugby, rowing, is a team sport. It’s about the team succeeding not just the individual. What important, notes rule Rule is “social performance”, as well as individual.

Socially rewarding

Jan Hills, partner at Head Heart +Brain, an organization which seeks to apply the learnings of neuroscience to leadership, points out that social connections are more rewarding to our brains than money. So making a connection with the people at work will make us happier than cash (providing we are adequately paid for our services in the first place, of course). Hills says:

We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the mechanisms of rewarding people. We know in the brain that the ability to teach other people, learn from other people and to connect with each other is important.

What we’re beginning to see is organizations trying to increase the social reward to balance out some of the bias towards monetary rewards.

In practical terms, that could mean setting up voluntary schemes at work or mentoring programs to foster a sense of belonging.

So the approach to performance management is to not only examine and reward what individuals have done to achieve their goals, but also what they’ve done to help others achieve their goals. It rewards people who fix things for other people, as well as the ‘doers’. According to Rule, 90% its employees are happy with this different approach. Hills adds:

We are social beings, so it’s really important to us to connect to their people, but unless we’ve got a common purpose and common goals you’re unlikely to maximize that.

Neuroscience fires a salvo at another key aspect of performance management – giving people a performance rating.

Research has shown, according to Hills, that even those people who score highly in performance management don’t like being rated. When we hear our rating, says Hill:

What appears to happen in the brain is we go into flight or fright mode.We feel threatened.

This is particularly true when people are given a rating that’s different from what they were expecting. From a neurological perspective, when the manager tells them the rating, they feel threatened and parts of their brain shut down. Even though the manager may move on to suggest positive steps to improve their performance, they’re not listening. They just want to get out of the room as fast as possible.

There are a number of areas that create a threat response, points out Hills:

  • The degree of certainty we have. If we have uncertainty then there’s a threat response.
  • We like options – giving people a choice about the way they do something feels good. If we have no options, we feel threatened.
  • Our reputation in the group is “very, very important to us”. When someone is rated, their perception of their status in the group is changed.

On that last point, Hills remembers a performance review with a graduate who believed that he was performing at the highest level, when in reality he did not stick out from the crowd. Hearing that his rating was only average, his perception of his status within the group dropped. And as a result, he left.

Equity is the fourth area. Often employees feel that their managers don’t have evidence for the ratings they’ve dished out.  To make matters worse, Hills points out that:

If you think about these four things, what feels like a threat for the employee is a reward for the manager.

Managers will feel they’ve done their job and think they’ve helped their employees by giving them constructive feedback. They have the option on what to do, their reputation is not affected.

Feedback is a loaded word. People don’t like feedback. A review of all research into feedback back in 1996 found that in 38% of cases, feedback reduced rather than enhanced performance. Says Rule:

We don’t ask for feedback because we don’t want to know. We think it might be negative and because we think people are too busy. So why don’t we give it – because we don’t want to upset them or think they are too busy.

Most of us assume feedback is going to be negative and brace ourselves for impact.

At Thomson Reuters the aim is to use different language in performance meetings that stop this threat response. That means using phrases such as, 'What I appreciate about you is' and 'I feel you could be even more effective if…'. This implies that the person is already effective and talks about future behaviour not the past. It also implies the person has a choice about what they do.

Organizations want to get the best out of their employees. The logical decision is to use some of the findings from neuroscience to try to make sense of their illogical employees.

My take

A lot of this may sound like common sense or something that psychologists would talk about. Indeed, many companies are applying some of these principles without actually realizing it has anything to do with neuroscience at all.

But neuroscience has the ability to put the scientific rigor behind what we intuitively know is right, as well as uncovering things about the way our brain works that are totally surprising. It provides the proof. And business loves facts and proof.

It’s still early days, but interest in this area is growing within HR and learning and development circles and in the creation of leadership programs.

Neuroscience can help us design training programs that actually take into account how our brains learn – we already know, for example, that bite-sized learning is more effective than long training sessions. By understanding how memory works we can make that training more effective.

In the performance management example in this article, by understanding how the brain reacts to threats and what rewards really work unlocks the golden door to employee engagement.

And then there’s the social aspect, examining how we are social creatures and how being in a group can affect or behaviour.

It’s fascinating stuff. And as the November 2014 CIPD report, Neuroscience in action: applying insight to L&D practice pointed out, most examples in learning so far have been connected with face-to-face training rather than any kind of social technologies or digital learning. There’s surely a huge opportunity here.

diginomica supports

A grey colored placeholder image