Odd one out?

We recently spoke at a psychology careers day for Sixth Form students where students had presentations from speakers using psychology in a range of different environments such as new driver coaching based on ‘black box’ data, clinical trials management and educational psychology.  Our contribution was based on using psychology within the workplace and as part of it we asked participants if they could identify which of these four models was the ‘Odd one out’.

  • Change curve (Kubler Ross)
  • Dimensions of national culture (Hofstede)
  • Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow)
  • Team development (Tuckman)

The answer – or one answer – is Tuckman’s Team development model as it is based on robust research whereas the other three all have significant weaknesses or flaws in terms of their empirical validity.  However, what all four have in common is high ‘face validity’ and a track record of being very useful models to help introduce people to the topic and start to explore how they may be at work in their own context and domain.

What a difference a word can make

What a difference a word can make

All of our work at Think Change is based around change; be this at an individual, team or organisation level.  In particular it is about making change more effective, sustainable and positive than the current track record.

Amongst the change models we frequently refer to are the Change Curve based on the work of Kubler Ross and the Transtheoretical Model (TTM) devised by Prochaska & DiClemente.  Obviously both of these need to be adapted for usage in a work context but they have both proved to be very valuable.

The Change Curve helps people understand our typical reaction to externally mediated change and can help us to plan, lead, manage and embed change more effectively whilst TTM gives individuals a roadmap for making deliberate personal changes.

We underpin these models with the neuroscience of how the brain processes change and why, generally speaking, it is inclined to resist change for both structural and emotional reasons.

In the context of leading/managing others through change the topic of ‘resistance to change’ often comes up; but in discussions about this most people arrive at the conclusion that ‘resistance’ to change is actually a manifestation of anxiety about change. And how, as managers and leaders, we respond to anxiety tends to be radically different to how we might address resistance.  Neuroscience in also helping us to understand ‘the anxious brain’ and identify real, tangible steps that we can build into our change management systems, processes, communications etc. to help make change a more positive and successful experience for all concerned.

Neuroscience and coaching

Who knows if neuroscience will turn out to be the fifth revolution (along with Copernicus, Darwin, Freud and the discovery of DNA) as suggested by Ramachandran but there is already plenty of evidence that it will have significant implications for many aspects of society from Social Policy, to Defence and Security and the Criminal Justice System.

In the domains of Organisation Development and Learning and Development there are undoubtedly practical, valuable changes that we can make to current practices in the light of our greater understanding of the brain’s processes, strengths and limitations. However, one area that may not change significantly is that of 1:1 coaching. Why so? Because effective coaching already plays to the brain’s preferences in many ways and as the understanding of the brain increases it is validating and explaining why ‘best practice’ coaching can be such a powerful tool in bringing about lasting behavioural change. Not least amongst this is helping to explain why ‘external’ coaches are likely to be more effective than ‘internal’ ones.

The jury may still be out on mirror neurons, and it seems unlikely that we will ever really be ‘coaching to the ‘anterior cingulate cortex” but for now, properly structured and delivered 1:1 coaching is the best show in town for supporting change.

You can find out more about Think Change’s approach to coaching at this CIPD Workshop

Smarter people use drugs?

A good in-depth article here about the questions and challenges we will have to face in the light of the increased availability and use of cognitive enhancers. Although caffeine and nicotine have been used to boost performance for a long time the latest incarnation of ‘smart drugs’- typically in the form of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) prescription medicines such as Modafinil, Ritalin, Adderall and Dexedrine – is surfacing as an issue within Universities and it is only a matter of time before this becomes a workplace issue that organisations will need to address. When the evidence shows that taking some pills can enhance workplace focus and efficiency and give an edge over competitors then the pressure to take them may be overwhelming. And in the absence of any long-term studies we are left with ample evidence of their efficacy and none about likely risks.

Organisations using ability tests, assessment centres etc. will before too long need to have formal policies on the use of nootropics (an umbrella term for drugs, supplements, nutraceuticals, and functional foods that improve one or more aspects of mental function such as working memory, motivation, and attention). But what then? Drug testing a la the world of sport? I think we will be seeing more and more focus on this topic in the not too distant future.

Five neuroscience findings that all leaders and managers should be aware of

 The brain is no longer a ‘black box’ as, thanks to the advances in neural measurement and imaging, we now have a much greater insight and understanding into how it works and the associated strengths and limitations.  Aspects of the brain that are particularly relevant to the world of work include: how the brain processes change, its’ emotional and social elements, how creativity, innovation and insight occur, and how to develop the brains stamina and resilience.  To be effective in the workplace leaders and managers should be aware of these points and how to work with them


1.   Neuroplasticity

We now know, contrary to the long accepted science, that the adult brain can change and that we can take deliberate control of this. Being able to use our brain to change our habituated perceptions, thinking and behaviour is tremendously liberating.  To be effective this neuroplasticity needs to be self-directed (SDNP) and this has big implications for how we lead and manage change in organisations e.g. it helps explain why traditional ‘top telling the middle what to do to the bottom’ change approaches are unlikely to be effective and why organic, bottom-up change is much more likely to succeed.

2.   Habit

We take conscious control of our brain for maybe twenty per cent of our active day, the rest of the time we work from habit. The brain relies on, and likes habit and can be reluctant to move away from established habits; but with the correct attention density focus we can create and embed new neural pathways that become our default response.  Creating these new pathways can be hard work but we now know some of the ways to make it easier e.g. getting the right mix of frequency, duration and quality of focus, using repetition and reward effectively, creating the right conditions for SDNP to occur.  To see the power of habit at work try playing ‘predict the meeting’ in your organisation.  Before a regular meeting write down as much detail as you can of how you think it will play out.  The results may well surprise you.

3.   Limited capacity

Our brain has a finite capacity for consciously processing new or challenging situations and we deplete this capacity as we go through the day.  By day’s end we may have exhausted it and this helps explain why so many good intentions fall by the wayside in the evening. To make best use of our brain we should plan to do our cognitive ‘heavy lifting’ early in the day – and before our brain has been contaminated by checking our email; almost inevitably there will be something in our inbox that will provoke our emotional brain (the amygdala) and set in motion the near constant tension between it and our logical brain (pre-frontal cortex).  You know that the amygdala has won – as it usually will –  when it dawns on you that instead of forwarding your snarky remark just to your colleague, you have instead hit ‘reply to all’.

4.   A healthy brain

To maintain a healthy brain we need to eat well, sleep well and exercise regularly.  Although the adult brain only accounts for three per cent of body weight, it can consume up to twenty five per cent of our calorific intake and needs regular supplies of glucose to function at its best.  Skipped lunches and caffeine overdoses are not good for the brain. The brain also needs regular, undisturbed sleep and the absence of this has been shown to have a significant, negative impact on processing speeds and memory.  Regular aerobic exercise is good for the brain as it supports neurogenesis i.e. the creation of new neurons, and the repairing of damaged neurons, that enable neuroplasticity.

5.   The modern workplace is not very brain friendly

Todays’ typical world of work is quite brain unfriendly as relentless pressure (even if low level) and frequent interruptions leave the brain in a near permanent ‘threat response’ mode. This persistent heightened arousal is unhelpful in many ways not least of which is how tiring it is. To be effective at work we need to be able to find a space (both physical and emotional) where the brain can be calm, quiet and stress-free.  If we can manage to do this then our focus, problem solving, relationships, creativity etc. etc. can all flourish and flow.





Expectation shapes reality?

As often seems to be the case we had a really great meeting this week – on Monday morning no less – that was characterised by lots of enthusiasm, positivity and creativity.  In my mind these three elements are interconnected with positivity possibly being first amongst equals.  The power of positivity is well documented; be it from John Gottman and his remarkable work on marital stability and relationship analysis; or from Barbara Fredrickson and her Positivity Ratio.  At this meeting there was a very positive atmosphere that led to some great ideas emerging which in turn almost seemed to create a virtuous circle or more enthusiasm and positivity.  

Thinking about this virtuous circle also made me reflect on a recent change management exercise we ran with a client where participants are separated (in different rooms) into a large and a small group who are given a brief that explicitly states that they are required to cooperate with the other group to achieve a task.  However there are some other, very subtle, cues in the brief that inevitably – i.e. every time we have used the exercise – cause the groups to be suspicious of each other and find themselves in a destructive, (but very funny to observe!) doom loop pretty much from the start.

When we debrief the exercise both groups tend to be more than a little bashful about how quickly they fell into playing to stereotypes in their perceptions, thinking and behaviour.   Some of this can be explained by the brain’s change averse nature and it’s default expectation that change will be painful and unpleasant – a model that served our ancestors well in times long since passed.  However, in the world of work, with incessant change this subconscious, default ‘change is bad’ mental model tends to be very unhelpful as our expectation of how things will be has a very significant impact on how we perceive them to be – the actual reality of the situation tends not to get much of a look-in.

So maybe we had a great meeting because we have had lots of them recently and so expect them to be great?  Food for thought maybe if you are having lots of ‘predictable, boring, unproductive’ meetings in your world at the moment?

Working with CIPD – Neuroscience of Coaching

It’s always nice to be asked back and having spoken at the CIPD annual conference last year we have been invited to speak at the Learning and Development conference on May 1st.  Our topic is ‘Using Neuroscience to Enhance L&D Effectiveness’ and we are looking forward to explaining how to move neuroscience from the ‘interesting’ to the ‘useful’ i.e. what is the new learning from neuroscience that be applied to L&D in organisations.


Much as we are looking forward to this we are even more excited to be delivering  a new workshop on how to use neuroscience to develop your coaching practice as part of CIPD’s open programmes.  Interestingly, our view is that coaching may be one area that emerging neuroscience may not change significantly, but it will help explain the efficacy of coaching and allow us to embed good practice in our coaching.  Will we ever get to the point where we are ‘coaching to the left anterior cingulate cortex’?  I don’t think so, but I think we will be using neuroscience through each stage of the GROW process to ensure we are playing to the brains natural mechanisms, strengths and limitations.