Neuroscience is coming out of the lab and into the workplace, and it’s a subject every leader will benefit from understanding, because it is also the science of human performance and motivation. We all have good and bad days at work — days when we feel a real sense of achievement and others when we wonder where the hours went. What makes the difference? Understanding our brains a little better, how they function, and what they need to be focused on means we can have more beneficial, productive hours at work. For leaders, in particular, this is essential knowledge.

Our brains are not designed for the twenty-first century workplace

One of the challenges we face is that work has changed hugely, but our brains havenot. In fact, we haven’t evolved all that much since our ancestors were out on the Savannah. However, one part of the brain has developed: the prefrontal cortex. This area plays an important role in decision-making and analytical thinking, and so it is essential for modern work.

But the rest of our brains are still set up to deal with the challenges of basic survival — escape predators, belong to a tribe, find shelter and food. This means that we are trying to lead people with brains that are designed for a different environment — not the twenty-first-century workplace.

Our brains are ‘prediction machines’

Our brains want to be able to predict. If they can anticipate events, they are better able to protect us. To show how good your brain is at predicting and making sense, take a look at the following paragraph:

Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid, aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae.

You can read it as if all the letters were in the right order.

Our lazy brains

Our minds also want to be lazy. They are just two per cent of our body weight but use up 20 per cent of our energy, so they want to conserve mental energy. As a result, they like habits because they require less mental effort. This is one of the reasons we carry on running meetings in the same old way, even though we know they are not that productive anymore.

Why do we find organisational change difficult?

What does organisational change mean? For employees, it means that their brains cannot instantly and easily predict outcomes. It also requires learning to do things differently, which needs mental effort. Our brains simply don’t like it.

In fact, change that is unpredictable and feels uncontrollable is very stressful to the human brain. Choice — the feeling that we have some influence over what is going on — is very important to the brain. The mental state of leaders who are better informed about imminent changes, and who have influence, will be in a very different place to the brains of employees who feel they have less control or no choice in the matter.

What does all this mean? When our brains are in this state of uncertainty, they cannot think at their best. Designed to cope with life in the wild, they go into flight, fight, flock or freeze mode. This means that blood flows away from the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that is so important for decision-making and emotional control, and goes to those parts that get us ready to run away or to fight.

This defensive ‘threat’ state means that we are not highly productive — we are distracted and see the world of work through a filter of threat. Being aware of how we respond to change is half the battle; and once we understand the neurological reasons we are better placed to get the most out of ourselves and our team as we support them through periods of transition.

4 things leaders can do to help people during change

  1. Create  awareness among teams.

    Simply being aware that the brain is not designed to like change that is unpredictable and uncontrollable means that we should be more empathic towards ourselves and towards others. If we are struggling with change, it is comforting to know it is not because we are weak: our brains simply aren’t hardwired to cope with it very well.

  2. Consider how you can create more certainty for people.

    Having some certainty settles the brain.

  3. Learn to involve people in some way.

    The brain likes choice, and even small amounts of autonomy make a big difference to our brain and help it to regain focus.

  4. Set short-term goals for people.

    Achieving a goal puts our head into a better place and changes the chemical balance in the brain. Achieving a goal feels rewarding to the brain and enables it to take on the next challenge.