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.