· 3 min read · Features

The malleable brain: Understand your employees better with neuroscience


By understanding how we are wired we can develop L&D packages that address the way our brains work best

No two employees are the same, yet an HR professional is expected to support them all in their careers, which is a difficult undertaking. Ultimately, to truly help someone you need to deeply understand them. This becomes problematic in large businesses because your colleagues may not work on the same site as you, or even live in the same country.

But understanding brain basics can help. When we know what motivates people and how we are ‘wired’ we can develop training and development packages that address the way our brains work best. We don’t need to know every employee on a personal level to help them thrive in the workplace.

What is neuroscience?

Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system and brain. It looks at how messages are transferred around our brains to become thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviour.

Our brains are malleable and this is known as ‘neuroplasticity’. This means deeply held patterns of behaviour can be changed with motivation and support. For example, if you have an employee prone to panic when faced with a heavy workload we know that this negative response to threat is called ‘fight, flight or freeze’ and is part of our prehistoric brain function. It’s a completely natural response to adversity and challenge.

The resulting negative thought patterns can be converted into more constructive ones by helping the employee to challenge the threat response rationally. This might involve the individual learning to habitually remind themselves of their prioritisation skills or the value of discussing workload with their manager rather than internalising their fear. Neuroscience tells us that externalising the problem in this way helps the brain manage overload and actively seek solutions.

Neuroscience can also help staff to be more efficient. The concept of multitasking has been dismissed by neuroscientists like Daniel Levitin. Levitin proposes that the brain is more productive when focused on one task at a time. So if your employee is struggling to concentrate encourage them to carve out dedicated uninterrupted time with no digital distractions. During complex tasks or problem-solving we are using what is termed ‘system two’ thinking. This is effortful and requires time and space to operate effectively. It is not an automatic state of mind and we can only remain in this zone for limited periods, punctuated by rest.

Promote periods of uninterrupted focus at work, along with taking regular short breaks to rest system two thinking. It is also important to discourage employees from working long hours, which can cause brain overload and has been shown to reduce productivity in the long run.

It’s a similar situation when considering workplace conflict. Any conflict between individuals or groups induces a ‘threat’, eliciting the same rapid stress response of fight, flight or freeze. Look out for the signals – has a worker become introverted? Is there an atmosphere in the office? Consider implementing an impartial counselling service (be that you or an external source) so that people aren’t afraid to step forward if they’re experiencing conflict.

The threat response also activates in times of change, whether predicted (such as an office move) or unpredictable (like redundancy). At these times the way HR and management communicate with employees is vital. The brain craves certainty and change compromises this. Without certainty our brains create scenarios, fill in gaps in knowledge, and make assumptions based on little information.

To support staff in these situations HR professionals must think about how best to communicate the information. For example, is it best to publicise it via email, at an organisation meeting, team meeting or one-to-one? It is essential that the HR team briefs workers explicitly on what this change entails and how it affects them. We should also anticipate that employee reactions will vary, and as such, we must be ready to respond to them individually. Good preparation, underpinned by clear, consistent communication will prevent speculation and panic (flight, fight or freeze response) that can spiral out of control.

As a tool for HR professionals neuroscience is in its infancy. But what we already know gives us crucial insight into employee motivation and behaviour. HR professionals are increasingly realising the value of neuroscience in supporting, managing and developing people. With this heightened awareness they can be one step ahead and pre-empt likely team behaviour in situations including conflict and organisational change. In doing so, HR can be instrumental in strategic planning for the business and support employees to excel in their roles through efficient and effective work practices.

Lucy Whitehall is wellbeing consultant at the Chartered Accountant's Benevolent Association (CABA)