Your brain at work - Neuroscience: the HR guide

We know more than ever about what makes the brain tick. But can that give us a competitive advantage in the workplace?

It’s the question everyone wants an answer to: what is the future of work going to look like? Will sophisticated computer applications remove the need for human operatives? Will robot foremen direct robot staff?

In fact, despite the breakneck advances in technology, it seems more likely that the future of work – as the CIPD and various other organisations have increasingly come to realise – will be human. And that means that a better understanding of the science of human behaviour has never been more essential for HR professionals looking to ready their business for the future.

Key to a grasp on how human potential can be harnessed is neuroscience – the study of the brain and the nervous system. A better understanding of how the mind functions could transform our knowledge of the way people work, with benefits for learning, change management and motivation.

As you might expect from something that takes the study of the brain as its primary focus, neuroscience can be a complex beast. But with a better appreciation of a few principles, HR practitioners can maximise the potential of people.

“The benefits of using neuroscience theory as a development tool are extensive,” says Luke Salway, managing director of the NLP Top Coach consultancy. “They include the reprogramming of our minds at the conscious and unconscious level, which results in long-term positive behavioural change.”

James Rule, an HR analytics expert, believes it can enhance the experience of being at work and improve all-round quality of life. “The science is great, and harnessing it gives us the opportunity to target the right kind of intervention to the right person in the right way,” he says. But what are the most important neuroscientific principles to understand? On these pages, we’ve rounded up four of the best.

Neuroplasticity means you never stop learning

The stereotype of being unable to learn new skills later in life has, at least in the past, been depressingly prevalent in workplaces. Until recently, our brains were viewed as fully formed by the time we reached our early twenties. Childhood neurogenesis (the frenzied formation of new brain cells) ushered in a period of synaptic pruning in adolescence, as little-used neural pathways became redundant.

Advances in neuroscience thinking have now scotched that notion. Elizabeth Gould, a researcher at Princeton University in the US, spent years studying the brains of adult rodents to show they were developing extra neurons during their lifespans. Similar tests on humans have since confirmed her findings, underlining the significance of neuroplasticity: the idea that the brain is changeable and adaptable and that this flexibility continues throughout a lifetime.

“Brains actually adapt to meet the demands placed upon them with aplomb. There’s no reason that a healthy older person should not be able to take on new information,” says Stephanie Thompson of corporate psychologists Insight Matters.

Neuroplasticity also has huge implications for coaching, as it makes ‘brain training’ a reality. And as societies age, and the notion of a 30- or 40-year career is overtaken by a working life of multiple stages and identities, we will need to retrain and reinvent our brains more regularly. The more immediate challenge for organisations and innovative HR professionals is to find the right mechanism for encouraging ongoing workplace learning – and to banish the idea that older employees are less likely to learn.

“When I learn something, new neural pathways are formed in my brain. The more I reinforce that learning, the more permanent those neural pathways become, the stronger the neural connections,” says Nicholas Lim, director of development at Emergenetics International. “If my company or environment facilitates the learning, retention of that lesson becomes stronger.”

Want a ‘eureka moment’? Tap into your unconscious

Unconscious thought theory has long told us that we solve our thorniest problems and come up with our best ideas when we’re not trying – the so-called ‘eureka moment’.

“Our conscious mind is what we are aware of in the present moment, and is well known for logical thinking, order, language and numbers, for example,” says Salway. “Our unconscious mind is everything that we have experienced since the day we were born that we are not always aware of in the present moment. It is the realm of creativity, emotions and intuition.”

During this ‘thinking without thinking’, a part of the brain called the anterior superior temporal gyrus, located towards the base, is working double time, processing data and reaching its own conclusions by connecting previously disparate concepts.

One of the most important implications of the unconscious mind is that the idea of ‘brainstorming’ – forcing ourselves to have new ideas, either individually or collectively – simply doesn’t work because we’re concentrating so hard our unconscious mind is switched off. Instead, we would do better to create a regular space to let our mind process thoughts, when it is active but not over-burdened.

“A way to attend to the unconscious mind is to find time to get to know it,” says Lim. “The more we know what is lying in the unconscious, the better we are able to understand it and find ways of leveraging it.”

While mindfulness training, through techniques such as NLP, can be helpful, simple health measures can also affect how the brain performs. “Excellent nutrition, exercise, mental application and attending to biological imperatives like sleep and downtime are essential,” says Thompson.

Recruiters are looking at the wrong part of the brain

One of the most HR-relevant principles of neuroscience is ‘emotional intelligence’. In essence, the idea behind it is that being conventionally ‘clever’ isn’t the be-all and end-all of being effective, or even intelligent.

In his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, psychologist Daniel Goleman stated that emotional intelligence, or EQ (emotional quotient), was a more accurate predictor of success in life than a person’s intelligence quotient (IQ). However, many recruiters are still wowed by IQ and rarely consider or test for other types of intelligence.

Being emotionally intelligent means having the ability to recognise and control your emotions and behaviour while remaining aware of the effect that these have on others around you. It isn’t necessarily about being a ‘people person’ who’s overly friendly, or a good listener: “It’s about self-and-other awareness, partnered with well-judged, constructive interpersonal behaviour,” says Adrian Cox, a neuro linguistic programming (NLP) trainer.

Michael Castle, executive director at the Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group, agrees that EQ is important, both in business and in life. In his writings on the subject he has said that, while many leaders may be emotionally intelligent, they are not all emotionally mature. If EQ develops our knowledge, then emotional maturity develops our behaviours, and the two need to work in harmony together.

Closely related to EQ, and somewhat more rooted in neuroscience, is the mentalising system – a way of processing the signals we receive from others and our status in relation to them. Those who are good at mentalising may be at ease in social situations and tend to be persuasive, inspiring and motivating. But despite these assets, many companies still believe IQ is the key to business success.

Forward-thinking HR professionals are increasingly drawing on neuroscience findings to identify people with high EQ and who are good at mentalising by undertaking task-based interviews and questioning. The aim is to encourage people to talk about times when they have been attuned to the needs of others, rather than focusing on individual achievement.

Can we train our brains not to judge?

Most people, barring the most doggedly bloody-minded individuals, like to think they are open-minded and objective. And in the vast majority of modern workplaces, diversity is highly valued.

But unconscious bias still comes into play surprisingly often. Our logical mind may not think we are passing any kind of judgement, but unconsciously we tend to like people who look like us, think like us and have backgrounds similar to ours. It is an instinctive process that is hardwired in our brains.

When human beings interact with each other, there is an abundance of information to process, a lot of which is suppressed, grouped and placed into easy-to-identify categories. These enable us to make quick decisions on future situations, and heavily influence how we view and evaluate others and ourselves.

While this categorisation is a useful function in many social situations, in business it can be costly. It can cause us to make decisions that are not objective, and can stymie diversity, recruitment and retention efforts. It can skew talent and performance reviews and affect who gets hired, promoted and developed – unwittingly undermining an organisation’s culture.

Increasingly, companies are taking action to combat unconscious bias. Tech giants such as Facebook and Google have introduced training programmes that ask people to confront their biases, while consulting and business service EY’s Middle East arm is championing a Women Fast Forward campaign in a bid to accelerate gender parity by bringing gender-related biases out into the open.

“HR has to be well-versed in bias control, and in objective, structured and rigorous recruitment techniques,” says Thompson. “The same applies for managers conducting performance reviews. Learning these protocols is very eye-opening and extremely worthwhile. It builds wisdom – and emotional intelligence.”