Persuading leaders and managers to invest their time in learning and development can be a challenge. Although neuroscience (the study of the nervous system, including the brain) is still in its infancy, it is already providing significant insights into people, teams and organizations. It brings to light what enables us to focus, to learn and to perform at our best, especially during times of change and uncertainty.
For most organizations, people’s brains are what make the difference between thriving and failure. Teaching people about their brains and how to get the best out of them is essential for 21st-century success. There are many reasons why leaders and managers — all of us, in fact — benefit from a better understanding of our brains. Here are five.
1. Understanding a Few Key Facts Makes a Big Difference
Although the brain is complex, and there is still a great deal we have yet to learn, there are some key facts that, when we understand them, can lead to deeper self-awareness and understanding of others — and so equip us to lead better. For example, why is it that two people can go to the same meeting and leave having heard different messages? Neuroscience shows that past experience, current context, personality, expectations and biases act as filters on how we perceive the world.
Leaders need to remember this reality when communicating with others. It’s not good enough to say they held a meeting or sent an email and so people should now understand. Each brain will filter and understand information differently. People might have heard different messages, not because they are being stupid or obstinate but because their brains listen differently.
Another useful piece of knowledge is about neuroplasticity: the ability of the brain to change, restructure and learn. It’s a positive message for us all, including older leaders who might feel it is too late or too difficult for them to learn. Neuroscience research shows that that not only can we keep learning well into old age but that the effort of learning something difficult protects our cognitive ability. Just as exercise is good for the body, learning is good for the brain. The phrase, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is not true, as long as the old dog wants to learn. What’s more, learning might help keep the old dog’s brain more youthful.
2. It’s Science and Evidence-based
The fact that neuroscience is evidence-based appeals to even the most skeptical of leaders, including the ones who are less people-oriented. As one bank leader put it, “This is not the usual ‘psychofluff’ we get — this is science!”
For example, we tend to consider physical pain and social pain (e.g., feeling rejected) as distinct, but neuroscience research has shown that our brains do not make the same distinction; both activate the brain’s pain network. When leaders see how real social pain is, points about teamwork and making people feel that they belong become more salient and are more likely to stick.
3. Novelty Is Appealing to the Brain
Neuroscience shows that novelty is appealing to the brain. For most leaders, learning about their brains and what they need to work at their best is, itself, new. It provides a new lens through which to understand people. Simply using the language of science in leadership and management training is unusual and catches attention.
4. Small Things Can Make a Big Difference
Our brains are complex, but small actions can make a big difference. Once leaders have participated in applied neuroscience workshops, they do not have to wait for cultural change in the organization to shift the way they behave. Each leader can apply the learning immediately and in small ways. For example, after learning that small social interactions boost our sense of mental well-being, leaders can share a few friendly words in the elevator with someone from another department; check in on how a co-worker is doing; or have a brief, friendly exchange of words with the barista — small actions that help make a positive difference to the leaders’ brains.
5. We Have More Control Over Our Brains Than We Realize
We all have good days and bad days at work. If we can understand our brains better, we can help ourselves and the people we work with to have more good days — or at least more good hours. We can choose how we set our filters, which will influence what we pay attention to and how we interact with people. For example, we can go into a meeting expecting people to be difficult or obstreperous or looking for collaboration and what we have in common. What we look for influences what we perceive.
In the 21st century, our brains are our key tool, and we all benefit from learning how to get the best out of them. Neuroscience provides a new lens through which to look at people and understand their behavior. It provides a win-win for the organization and the people who work in it. Learning about neuroscience and the brain is a no-brainer for every 21st-century leader, manager … and everyone else.