Brain Power Unleashed

by External15 Aug 2014
Connie HansonConnie Hanson outlines 10 ways HR directors can benefit from knowing how the human brain works

Recent findings in neuroscience can enable leaders to overcome the most common roadblocks to adaptation to change, and to facilitate stronger business performance and higher wellbeing for employees.

‘BrainWise’ business leaders actively cultivate organisational environments that enable individuals and the business to thrive. Creating a BrainWise organisation requires attention to key aspects of organisational life, such as safety, cognitive stimulation, and relationships.

Knowing how the human brain works and knowing how to make the best use of our highly social/relational brain can provide a critical edge to business.

Neuroscience illuminates practical methods that HR directors can use to create a BrainWise business and enable organisations to execute effectively in the following key areas.

Creating policies, practices and processes that engage rather than attempt to control employees is fundamental to getting and keeping great team members. To get sustainable results, leaders need to help people become absorbed in work that is consistent with their own values.

An overall focus on developing people, rather than just using human resources, triggers parts of the brain related to intrinsic motivation and fundamentally changes the whole dynamic of a workplace. People want to stretch and grow in their own ways.

BrainWise HR directors build systems that help team members find ways to weave individual goals for personal development with commercial goals for the business.


Globalisation, changes in technology, as well as the continued convergence of industries, has increased the need for collaboration with highly diverse and often dispersed teams. HR systems that facilitate relationships and collaboration versus instigating competition between teams and individual employees provide a platform for tapping into the ‘social brain’. Humans are social beings and our brains were built to connect. HR directors can build on that natural tendency by ensuring that HR and other systems encourage and support collaboration efforts such as:
  • Exploring the impact of ideas across different departments, geographic/time zone regions or even different age groups
  • Using iterative and inclusive approaches to problem solving 
  • Rewarding inclusion of broad stakeholder engagement versus narrowly scoped solutions.

HR directors are well positioned to help executive leadership teams build capability to work with, and even encourage, healthy conflict to enhance effective decision-making. Executive teams that reject the dichotomy of ‘win at all costs’, or ‘avoid disagreements’, build the cognitive flexibility to simultaneously hold, analyse and at times synthesise conflicting perceptions.

The ability to ‘think together’ is an acquired brain skill that too few executive teams develop. Strategic selection of executive team members to ensure sufficient diversity of thought is an initial step that is heavily influenced by search and hiring practices. Once a diverse team is in place, HR directors are well placed to help cultivate a team culture that rewards sharing and building on contrary and difficult-to-hear perspectives, as well as challenges to the status quo, and actively generates mutually exclusive scenarios and alternative solutions. This culture provides executives with a broad platform on which to base strategic decisions.

Our brains can and do change throughout our lives. The environment, including organisational culture, plays an important role in shaping the brains of employees. HR policies and leadership practices that ensure safe and respectful workplaces also create the conditions for enhanced brain functioning. When there is incivility, unfairness or, even worse, bullying, the priority for every employee’s brain will be protection, ie the detection and avoidance of or mitigation of threat. This leaves only limited brain power for complex problem solving and even less for innovation. Conversely, high levels of respect, trust and transparency calm the areas of the brain devoted to ‘protection’ and facilitate more fluid and creative thinking as well as help activate the parts of the brain needed for dealing with complexity.


HR directors know the most common roadblocks to achieving results faced by people leaders are not technical. In one way or another, many obstacles have a social component, such as dealing with conflict, thwarted collaboration or failure to influence.

People leaders who understand how the human brain responds to externally imposed change, conflict, authority, or even dealing with diverse colleagues, are positioned to predict and either prevent or mitigate many of the people-related obstacles to achieving results. Using what science is showing us about brain functioning as a foundation, people leaders are well placed to integrate evidence-based approaches in their day-to-day work with their teams. There are a range of brain-based development experiences to help leaders learn and integrate leadership practices to effectively address the multitude of people issues that are inherent in any work environment.

BrainWise HR directors make use of recent findings in social neuroscience by implementing highly social learning methods such as on-the-job mentoring from more senior leaders; peer coaching; and practically focused facilitated group interventions. Social learning methods capitalise on the brain’s built-in proclivity to learn from others, enabling people leaders to immediately apply new learning, while simultaneously reinforcing a culture of continuous learning and growth.

Neuroscience research has demonstrated that old-school ‘carrot and stick’ approaches may ‘keep people in line’ for the short term but are less effective in motivating high performance in dynamic environments. Most employees are trying to do their best and deliver a good outcome. When this goes off the rails, punishment (blaming, critiquing, or worse) does not help. Human brains are designed to work best in safe environments. Likewise, people want to make a valued contribution – being seen as a valued member of the group meets a basic human need and is associated with more confidence and greater ability to learn and perform. Brain-based performance enhancement systems incorporate values alignment and collaborative goal-setting, and focus on development, including self-monitoring, broad-based feedback and personalised coaching/mentoring.

In business we tend to emphasise the ‘analytical’ approach to challenges. While there is nothing wrong with analytics, recent neuroscience research shows there is an entirely separate system in our brains devoted to the ‘people’ side of things. And the analytical and social systems seem to inhibit each other – when one system is active the other is not. Encouraging executive leadership teams to include social/emotional thinking early in the strategic planning process affords that organisation the opportunity to develop more robust business plans that anticipate a diversity of stakeholder perspective and reaction.

Health and safety and even general wellbeing have made their way into everyday business vernacular. However, it is rarer to see organisational efforts to encourage brain fitness. While computerised brain games are becoming popular apps, they are not practical or even appropriate for on-the-job development. HR directors are positioned to shape the work environment such that leaders’ and employees’ jobs have a mix of stimulating and more routine cognitive challenges needed to build brain fitness. While some positions, especially senior leadership roles, naturally lend themselves to having varied stimulating thinking challenges, other roles may benefit from engineering to introduce some novelty within the context of an overall supportive environment. Jobs with the right combination of novelty and comfort help to stimulate neuroplasticity, enabling better longterm learning and ability to adapt when larger changes are required.

Self-awareness and self-regulation are components of brain fitness that HR directors can impact on for the benefit of the organisation as well as the overall health of individuals. Organisations that provide basic education related to brain function, such as reactions to change, brain-based techniques for mitigating chronic work-related stress, as well as methods for emotional regulation, equip employees to thrive in work environments that are constantly changing even as the demands for output are increasing. Empowering people with knowledge about themselves enhances their sense of control, self-esteem and confidence. Ultimately, employees who feel in control are better able to regulate their own behaviour in order to attain long-term goals that are aligned with the organisation’s requirements.

Recent neuroscience research has revealed that emotions, previously ‘banned’ in many organisations, are not only essential for motivation but are in fact a rich source of important data essential for complex decision-making. Actively seeking emotional information enables HR directors to illuminate aspects of business challenges that are not available through any other method.

Everything from deciphering public opinion, to predicting competitor reactions, to understanding the actions of lawmakers is enhanced by accurately picking up on emotion. HR directors can fine-tune their own emotional perception as well as encourage the development of brain skills such as perspective-taking, empathy and influence for other senior leaders involved in strategic planning or complex problem solving.

Connie Hanson is director of Learning Quest and author of BrainWise Leadership: Practical Neuroscience to Thrive and Survive at Work. Connect with Connie at or on Twitter @LearningQuest

This feature is from HRD Issue 12.07. Download the whole issue to read more.