Understand how the brain works to support employees

Advanced scanning techniques mean we know more than ever about healthy functioning brains

How can advancements in neuroscience help us understand what drives employees and assist them to deal with change? Personnel Today caught up with author and neuroscience expert Hilary Scarlett, who will look at behavioural science and people strategy at the upcoming CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition.

With unprecedented levels of change in the workplace – not to mention the economic and political forces shaping our lives – being able to understand what builds resilience in employees is something organisations will increasingly need to do.

CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition, 9-10 November

Hilary Scarlett will discuss ways HR professionals can understand behavioural science and embed them into their people strategies to increase business performance at the CIPD annual conference.

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Alongside these external forces shaping the world of work, we’re also seeing a heightened interest in behavioural science, and how the working environment impacts our brains, says Hilary Scarlett, author of the book Neuroscience for Organisational Change and founder of engagement consultancy, Scarlett and Grey.

Scarlett will be discussing how we can use insights from neuroscience to shape business performance in her session at the upcoming CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition. She’ll be appearing alongside Samantha Rockey, head of leadership development at the brewing company SABMiller, which is itself currently undergoing a transformation after its merger with AB InBev.

Their session will consider:

  • how businesses can help develop employees’ resilience and support them to adapt to change;
  • how insights from neuroscience can build emotional intelligence;
  • how to drive engagement by focusing on people’s strengths; and
  • how to create a culture that develops everyone to their full potential.

Hilary explains: “Only fairly recently have developments in fMRI [(Functional magnetic resonance imaging]) scanning helped us understand how healthy functioning brains respond to different stimuli. Previously, we only really worked with damaged brains, looking at what faculties had been lost.

“We want to know more about what stresses the brain. After all, employers are concerned with the mental and emotional wellbeing of their staff. If we know what stresses employees, we can help them to avoid it. It’s about working with the brain, rather than in ignorance of it.”

Using neuroscience to deal with change

In high-stress situations such as a redundancy consultation or a change-management process, using this insight can have a positive influence on the eventual outcome. How employers communicate with staff in these situations really impacts how their brains are able to deal with it.

Scarlett adds: “People like to have a level of autonomy or control over what they’re doing – so even if you need to deliver bad news, that’s better than no news at all. People can plan based on that knowledge. It’s also why 90-day consultations tend to have a negative impact on morale and productivity – people are unsure what’s going on.” This response harks back to long before we were used to modern workplaces, she continues, reflecting our need for survival and to protect ourselves.

Furthermore, knowing more about how our brains work can also help organisations understand why people become more productive, or achieve targets, and use that insight to support everyone to perform better. Scarlett explains that much of our main decision-making happens in the prefrontal cortex.

“This is where we do our thinking, planning and decision-making, so the chemicals here have to be just right and keep us sharp and in focus”, she says. “Too much stress pushes us over and if we’re not challenged enough, we can get distracted and lose focus.”

Scarlett believes that many of the distractions employees experience in today’s offices negatively impact brain performance.

She adds: “The [modern] workplace is the opposite of what our brains need. We’re receiving pop-up notifications from email, messages on our mobiles, we’re expected to be always accessible, we’re hot-desking. Even remote working can be detrimental to some extent – we hugely underestimate the importance of social connection.”

In terms of the ways employers can combat these constantly conflicting messages employees receive, and the stress on the brain, it can help to remind people of how far they’ve come in their career, advises Scarlett.

“Reminding people of their past achievements, for example, is positive for the brain and helps them feel their skills are growing and they’re better able to cope with what’s ahead,” she says. “Small things can make a big difference.”

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