Coaching lessons from neuroscience

by 19 Jul 2012

How do you coach effectively in an environment characterised by ambiguity, rapid change and uncertainty? And how do you prepare your leaders and employees to leverage these challenges?Neuroscience provides some insights that will help your clients better understand their own behaviour, reinforce change efforts and rewire their brains to make more effective decisions in an increasingly unpredictable marketplace.  

The problem with efficient thinking

Recent findings in neuroscience related to thinking errors/biases, emotion and brain plasticity help to illuminate coaching approaches and techniques that are most effective in this current environment. Understanding that our brains strive for efficiency is key to creating coaching interventions that work.

Our brains evolved in an environment that did not change rapidly. Moreover, because we have finite resources, our brains have adapted by reducing the complexity and creating categories, heuristics and other short cuts to process and analyse most information and solve day-to-day problems.

Neuroscientists have shown that when we encounter similar problems or situations, fewer neurons in our brain fire with subsequent observations. While this increases the speed and efficiency with which we can make decisions, it can also lead to narrow thinking and mental biases when the environment is less predictable. This tendency to only ’see’ what we expect to see can also make learning a challenge.

Techniques for broadening perceptions

When working in complex, changing environments – or when a creative approach is needed – neuroscience suggests that we need novelty to force ourselves out of our usual patterns of thinking.

Coaching techniques that assist in broadening perceptions will help employee take in a fuller picture and see aspects of the situation that they might otherwise have missed. This can include encouraging employees tosolicit a diverse range of views (particularly those that are very different from their own), exploring a variety of scenarios, and collecting different types of data (statistical, emotional, opinion etc.).

For example, ask leaders to explicitly describe where/who their data came from to determine the number and types of sources they are using to make decisions. It’s surprising how frequently the number of sources that have been taken into account is only one. 

You can help leaders recognise that data/information is rarely universally true by getting them to explicitly describe the circumstances that would cause it to be untrue. This will also help them gain a more nuanced perspective about how their current circumstances are changing and the potential impact on what they ‘know to be true’.

Describing what the opposite would look like helps people to avoid vagueness and be more concrete and clear in their perceptions of what is actually there. Having leaders describe how this data/information would be viewed by a customer, competitor or someone in a different industry will also help to expand their perspective if you push them to be sufficiently detailed.

Recognising early warning signs

In order to increase efficiency, the brain is predisposed to hone in on information/data that confirms what we already ’know‘ to be true. We tend to minimise or even dismiss as ’outliners‘ data that would cause us to question our assumptions.

When the environment is changing there are likely to be early warning signs that our data is out of date. By encouraging leaders to actively seek disconfirming data, we maximise the possibility of picking up on important changes that can inform thinking about strategy or operations.

It is also important to encourage our leaders to consciously weight the data they have collected to avoid common biases, such as overweighting highly salient or affective data or underweighting information that would support a change from the status quo. Helping clients to design ’experiments‘ to test assumptions/beliefs and hypotheses will encourage more rigorous thinking and help them to avoid over-reliance on potentially out-of-date information.

Even alerting employees to common biases – such as the status quo bias, risk aversion or the human tendency to be overconfident in our intuition - can help to jump-start thinking. The coaching relationship cansupport the employee to remain open, tolerate ambiguity,contemplate divergent perspectives and consciously integrate unexpected findings into their thinking.

Learning to deal effectively with emotion

It is essential that coaches understand that the human brain is hard-wired for emotion, which influences our everyday decision-making. Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that even before we are aware of what we have seen, our brains have processed the degree of ‘threat‘. Moreover, most emotion is often processed outside of our conscious awareness.

Coaching can help employees understand the relevance of emotional data as well as recognise and make use of their own and others’ emotions.

While many people will know that our brains process fear and other emotions, many will not recognise the impact this can have on their thinking and decision-making. Making your clientsaware of the anxiety that underliesavoidance, aggression or even perfectionism can help focus their development efforts.

This may mean building specific skills, such as the communication and interpersonal skills required for having hard conversations, learning to calm their own emotional responses, or cultivating work environments that encourage risk-taking.

Using the familiar to facilitate change

Neuroscience also provides lessons for creating productive coaching relationships. In addition to validating the importance of a trusting and supportive context for learning, neuroscience suggests that pairing new or novel information/ideas with familiar concepts or people will increase their comfort and acceptance levels.

Similarly,priming the imagination with related concepts/images will help to increase a sense of familiarity and thus reduce avoidance or rejection of new approaches. This can be as basic as ’floating an idea‘ in one meeting and then coming back to it a few days later. Having been exposed to a concept previously makes it more familiar and therefore less likely to activate the parts of the brain that react negatively to something new.

It can also be helpful to encourage leaders to learn about how peers have used new concepts/ideas.The pairing of the idea/concept with the familiarity of the peers helps to reduce the discomfort of change/newness. Recent findings that we learn better from people who are similar to us lend support to the creation of peer coaching/mentoring approaches. 

There’s hope for us all yet

For some employees just becoming aware that their brains can change, regardless of their age, is an important motivator. Until recently,scientists believed that the adult brain was ’fixed’ and could not continue to develop/grow. Sharing findings from recent research that demonstrate neuronal changes and growth in 70 year olds can be inspiring for many people.

What’s more, when people come to understand that they can ‘rewire‘their brains, they are more willing to persist with the essential practice and persistence that is necessary for these changes to take place. This increases their acceptance and commitment to a range of coaching and learning interventions.

Finally, neuroscience research provides strong support for many other HR initiatives. To learn and develop, human brains need stimulation of novelty and challenge balanced with support. When coaches provide clear expectations that are connected to meaningful goals, people are best able to direct their attention to behaviours that matter.

About the author 

Dr Connie Henson, is the principal of Learning Quest. Find out more about Connie and her upcoming ‘Enhance your coaching skills with neuroscience’ public seminar at


  • by Michael Foley 20/07/2012 9:57:48 AM

    I've worked with Connie on numerous occasions and seen her integrate this type of learning into leadership development offerings. The result has been a great session that really engaged people and helped them think in a new way about how to approach problems and better deal with business and people issues back in the workplace. This type of content really does make a difference!

  • by Felicity Law 20/07/2012 2:36:28 PM

    The best article I have read in a very long time! It is the core of what we deliver. Thank you

    Felicity Law, Business Director
    Felicity's Law
    "...because, if nothing changes, nothing changes."

  • by Jean Clendinning 21/07/2012 3:42:15 PM

    Connie not only explains the essence in this article but includes practical suggestions that can be embedded into the development of our leaders, so that it becomes business as usual.

    Connie, has embedded this successfully and easily into the many leadership courses that she has developed for us. In times of uncertainty and managing adaptive challenges, a different approach is needed and here lies some of the answers and tools to assist our managers and leaders today.

Most Read