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Neuroscience key in uncertain times

The human brain craves autonomy and control, which is important to realise in times of change

Organisations must embrace neuroscience’s teachings around emotions, autonomy and control to remain successful in an increasingly uncertain world, according to speakers at the CIPD’s annual conference.

Speaking in a session entitled ‘Using Insights from Behavioural Science to Improve Business Performance', head of leadership development at drinks company SABMiller Samantha Rockey said that applying theory around the workings of the human brain and emotion had been pivotal in navigating a recent takeover by ABINBev.

She explored the importance of employees feeling they were in control to some degree, even during unpredictable uncertain times, and explained the importance of “adult to adult” honest communication. “We said ‘we’re going to highlight as frequently as possible what was going on'. This isn’t always going to be good news; sometimes it’s about explaining you have no good news. But once employees understand what’s at play they can plan around it.”

Also speaking, neuroscience and change specialist Hilary Scarlett confirmed that the six factors neurologically important to people’s ability to perform are: self-esteem, purpose, autonomy, certainty, equality and social connection. Brains crave predicting and seeing patterns, she said. She shared an anecdote regarding a bank that saw much higher levels of engagement in a department where (post-financial-crisis) people knew they’d be losing their jobs and so could plan for this, compared with other apparently more secure departments.

Scarlett added the example of a study at an elderly care home where one group of people were given more autonomy through factors such as being told they needed to look after a plant, could choose which film night to attend, and decorate their own rooms, and another was told these things would be done for them. The first group reported much higher levels of wellbeing, even living longer on the whole than the second.

Rockey stressed the importance of launching programmes to build employee resilience and agile autonomous leadership in times of apparent security. “I think resilience programmes often come at the point where people need to be resilient, rather than years before when they can build up their resilience,” she said. “I think this should be part and parcel of what you do with your employees so they can deal with the ups and downs.”

She added that giving people permission to engage with their emotional sides at work had been powerful. “Leaving emotions at the door is a wonderful idea in theory but in reality I think it’s completely untenable,” she said, describing steps SABMiller has taken to train team leaders to hold conversations where they ask the simple questions: what are you thinking? and what are you feeling? “We’ve given people the licence to use emotional language,” she added.

“Our brains are not designed for the 21st century workplace, which has changed a lot but our brains have not,” added Scarlett of the importance of engaging with what makes the human brain tick and perform well.