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

Email just isn’t working anymore

The fact that email is slowly strangling lots of workplaces was recognised again recently when Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University and former adviser for the Government Office for Science about mental health in the workplace spoke at the recent British Psychological Society annual conference.  Sir Carey said that rampant email checking is damaging the mental wellbeing of employees, and in doing so slows them down and damages UK productivity.  This recognition that email may now be doing more harm than good is not a new one, but what still seems to be lacking are practical solutions to turn email back into an effective productivity tool.  For example in their original  study paper Atos Consulting identified internal email as a major drain on productivity and their Zero Email programme has gone some way to address this; although n the merit of, to a large extent, replacing email with alternative communication channels such as ‘enterprise social networks’ may seem somewhat questionable.

Some of the problems, and solutions, related to this email blight can be quite tactical and technical e.g. ensuring that you know how to use features such as, short-cut keys, filters, rules, MS Outlook quick steps, staying up to date with email enhancements such as the many that support the GTD methodology etc.  But the major causes of this communication and productivity log-jam tend to relate to much more challenging areas such as personal behaviour and organisation culture; and changing these tends to be neither easy nor fast.

At an individual level we know that checking email is often ‘just’ a habituated behaviour but sometimes it can also be an ‘addiction’ where the ‘crack cocaine’ of random positive rewards means we mindlessly check email at the expense of our wellbeing and effectiveness.   And at an organisational level ‘conversation-by-email’ and ‘reply-to-all’ is often seen as ‘the way we do things around here’.

So what solutions do we propose to client’s looking to address this?  Some of them include:

For organisations:

  • Clearly distinguish between internal/external and necessary/unnecessary email.
  • Capture and publish data on where internal email is coming from. Challenge people on their internal email usage and get to the root of why they are sending it.  Set targets to reduce internal email volume.
  • Set mail servers to only deliver email during working hours by default; with an opt-in for people to receive email ‘real-time’.
  • Introduce, and stick with, ‘no-internal email’ days.


For individuals

  • Refresh your email IT skills and make sure you are making best use of your mail programme’s capability.
  • Take control of when and how you check your email. Check email only at set points during the day and ideally not first thing in the morning. Turn off any audible or visual email alerts.
  • Process email in batches and aim to handle your messages only once.  To quickly decide what to do with an email use ARAFS:  Archive, Reply, Act, Forward, Save.  Use the two-minute approach.  Act immediately on messages that will require less than two minutes of your time.
  • If you are on your third ‘reply’ for the same email then it is time to pick up the phone or go for a visit.
  • Unsubscribe to all of the ‘it may possibly be of use sometime’ mailing lists that you are on, or send them to an email address other than your main work one.

This infographic offers some other useful ideas J

Speaking dates

Speaking season seems to be upon us again and there are a number of upcoming events where we will be speaking or running workshops. These include:

• The NeuroBusiness 2015 Conference Wednesday, June 2015 at The Renold Building, Manchester University where we will deliver a sessin on ‘How the brain informs the design and delivery of change plans’

• The Knowledge and Innovation Network (KIN) Summer 2015 Members’ Workshop in Streatley on Thames where we will be discussing ‘The Neuroscience of how the brain works and what this means for how we create, store & retrieve ‘knowledge’

• The CIPD Science of Human Behaviour at Work Conference in September where we will run an all-day workshop on Day 2 (23rd) on Using neuroscience and psychology to build better leaders

As well as these public sessions we are also doing a number of similar engagements at organisations’ internal conferences (management, human resources). If you would be interested in us speaking at your event, or, as we prefer to do, running a workshop, then please get in touch.

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.

Warwick Business School Knowledge and Innovation Network

We recently attended an excellent session of the Warwick Business School Knowledge and Innovation Network where we heard some great accounts of how organisations are using technology to help join-up and share information.  The value of networking groups can vary to say the least but this is one is definitely a valuable resource for organisations looking to enhance their knowledge management and innovation capabilities.  We spoke about how neuroscience can inform our approach to individual and organisational learning and in particular how we can design Knowledge Management Systems to help make them more ‘brain-friendly’.

CIPD Annual Conference, Manchester, November 5th and 6th


The CIPD Annual Conference is being held in Manchester on November 5th and 6th and we will be presenting at it on both days.  On the 5the we will co-deliver a session at the exhibition that will highlight the CIPDs new report (due for publication in late October) on the application of neuroscience in the real world.  The research is intended to cut through the ‘neuro-hype’ and showcase where neuroscience can make a genuine difference, and add real value for individuals and organisations.  The report should shed some welcome, objective light on this area.  On the 6th we are delivering a workshop at the conference called ‘Designing Learning Initiatives Using Neuroscience’ (W5, 09.30 -12.00 if you want to attend).  In the workshop we will cover:

  • an introduction to neuroscience in relation to learning and development
  • how neuroscience can inform the architecture, content and delivery of L&D
  • a practical approach to assessing existing programmes and materials for ‘brain friendliness’.

By attending the session you will take away:

  •  examples of using neuroscience principles to plan, manage and embed learning
  • ideas on how to incorporate neuroscience into the design and delivery of L&D offerings
  • a ‘gap analysis’ of how ‘brain friendly’ your current L&D offerings are.

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.