The contemporary workplace: The brain matters

by External05 Nov 2013

If you think your workplace is contemporary but you know little or nothing about how the brain works, then Cathy Knight suggests your workplace is far from contemporary.

Neuroscience, the study of the nervous system (with a specific focus on the brain and its impact on behaviour and cognitive functions), has confirmed how different parts of the brain work, enabling us to draw conclusions related to our work and daily lives.

Using technology (such as fMRI), we now have evidence that we are able to change the physical structure of our brains right up until we die. This has enormous implications for the future of society, let alone for the workplace.

Further evidence tells us that we have a strong bias for social connection (we need to feel part of something, be able to contribute and connect with others), an indelible need for predictability, clarity and certainty (we need to know what’s up ahead, what we’re aiming for), a preference for autonomy (freedom of choice), an information network designed to categorise (based on existing neurological network patterns and relationships), and a built-in equality sonar (perceptions of unfairness drive strong emotional reactions). Our brains also need an appropriate amount of rest, both during the day and during the night – it simply will not function for 8-12 hours of work at full steam ahead.

When we reflect for a moment on the fact that 2/3 of workers are not fully engaged and 20% of workers are experiencing some form of stress response at work, it is not difficult to see that most workplaces are not functioning in a way that supports the brain.

Every brain is unique: its information networks have been influenced by the inherent characteristics we were born with, the environment we grew up in, our exposure to ‘life’ events, our schooling, relationships etc. This means our reactions to certain events will vary based on both the event and the individual.

One thing is certain, however; we know that the brain has specific functions that have been with us since time began – our neural system has not changed, despite the fact that we are living in a different time and place. We are an incredibly clever species, but we’re also incredibly stupid, for we have built a world that our brains are not designed to operate in.

Our brains have one organising principle – to minimise threat and maximise reward; two main modalities – a non-conscious brain (a limbic system which makes up 96% of the total brain) and a conscious brain; and four critical processes – feeling, thinking, emotion and self-regulation. The latter is the domain of the conscious brain, along with other executive functions such as planning, decision-making and problem-solving, while thinking, feeling and emotion are the domains of the non-conscious brain.

The good news is, we have a vast array of networks of information in the limbic system that allow our brain to operate automatically and not use too much energy.  The bad news is, the limbic system is huge and powerful - it takes a lot of energy from our conscious brain to inhibit or self-regulate our responses. The part of the brain known as the pre-frontal cortex, is energy hungry and runs out of fuel quickly and easily.

This is how it works: when we hear, see, taste, touch, smell or perceive something, our limbic system (unconscious brain) goes straight into its information networks and elicits a feeling, and/or a thought, and/or an emotion. It is the emotional response that others see as a behaviour or a reaction, which may be positive or negative (based on whether you are in a reward or threat state). If the feeling, thought or emotional response is potentially inappropriate, we have the ability to override that response by accessing our pre-frontal cortex.

In the past, the threat may have been an animal, another human or a toxic plant.

Operating in the modern world of constantly changing technology and information overload where a sense of urgency and doing more with less has created more distractions than ever and a desire to buy more time in any way possible, we are working counter-intuitively to the basic structure we have inside our heads.

In the modern workplace, the large majority of us are in threat state. What is the impact on  confidence, problem-solving, decision-making and creative thought…and ultimately business success?

About the author

Cathy Knight is managing partner of consultancy Think Do. Company. For further information visit: