If Neuroscientists Ruled the Workplace

October 12, 2017 Sarah Payne

NeuroLeadership Institute Summit

I’ve just returned from a super nerdy and fascinating conference – the NeuroLeadership Institute Summit in New York City (coined “the most brain-friendly conference in the world”). Now in its 10th year, the summit brings together speakers from academia and the business world to discuss how we can lead more effectively using neuroscience.

When Dr. David Rock co-founded the NeuroLeadership Institute, this idea was very new to business leaders. Now it’s really come to the forefront. If you haven’t yet read his work, I recommend you check out David’s articles on topics like performance management, teams, and bias in Strategy + Business and Harvard Business Review. The best part is all of the concepts are backed by science and research.

What most interested me about the summit were the discussions between academics and the HR and learning and development leaders. How can we take learnings from the lab and apply them to the internal philosophies and processes that determine how we manage and motivate our people?

Since much of the research presented is so new – between one and three years old – that still remains to be seen. But if we allowed neuroscientists to run the workplace today, what would it look like? Here are a few ideas based on the research that was shared:

  1. We would respect “capacity issues.” Capacity is a concept I will take back and use right away. Basically, our brains can only process so much information at once. Think of the three second rule – you’ll only remember what you can repeat back in three seconds. This has many potential implications. If we truly respected everyone’s capacity threshold, we would make company mission and values as simple as possible because we would understand people can’t remember more than three or four concepts at once. Emotion can also play into capacity. Professor Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School suggested fear is one of the biggest issues at work. “When people are interpersonally afraid, they have capacity issues,” she said.
  2. We would appreciate “slow learners.” Lisa Son, Ph.D., associate professor at Barnard College, said her favorite people are slow learners. Based on her research, error generation is the best way to learn. If neuroscientists ruled the workplace, they would allow people the time and space to “not know.” Lisa said people are so uncomfortable not knowing and so quick to Google answers that they’re no longer engaging in deep, meaningful learning. Additionally, we would make a rule not to make decisions in meetings. Jessica Payne, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at University of Notre Dame, researches the connection between sleep and memory. She recommends leaving a meeting with one question for everyone to reflect on overnight. Just getting a good night’s sleep can help us make new connections and insights on a problem.
  3. We would scan job candidates for neurosynchrony. What if you could better predict how well a job candidate will thrive in your organization? Matt Lieberman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at UCLA, is working on new technology that can do just that. Using fNRIS – functional near infrared spectroscopy – that’s built into a portable helmet, he’s in the early stages of predicting team synchrony by looking at how different people’s brains process information. Obviously, this technology raises ethical and moral issues around privacy. Even beyond that, do we even want people’s brain activity to be similar? Will this lead to groupthink? As the technology becomes more mature, HR and business leaders will have to answer some of these tough questions.
  4. We would use language that primes for growth. Are you promoting a fixed or a growth mindset in your company? In other words, are you creating a safe space for teams to experiment and innovate? Take a look at the current systems and language your company uses around growth and development. Individual goals should be about getting better at something as opposed to working toward a fixed milestone. Feedback is one of the easiest ways to promote a growth mindset. For example, Melanie Davis, director of enterprise learning solutions at Intel, said her company is coaching line managers to be more thoughtful in their conversations with direct reports. It’s about asking the right questions when people make mistakes. Punishing shuts down learning. Rewarding small milestones promotes continuous learning and development.

Are you using any of these concepts from psychology and neuroscience in your company? What results have you seen? It’s exciting to see so much collaboration and information exchange between the academic world and the business world – and the potential to really transform how we work.


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