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Sometimes the key to turning a business around lies in changing the actions of those who work in it. Management consultants have been using behavioural and organisational psychologists to help analyse leadership and workplace behaviour for decades. Now, however, they are turning to a new breed of expert on human behaviour — the neuroscientist.
Adam Canwell, Deloitte Leadership Consulting head, says that while the company draws on psychology for many insights, findings emerging from neuroscience add valuable knowledge and scientific rigour.
“There’s been some quite interesting work in neuroscience . . . particularly looking at brain elasticity and what it is that we can truly develop in people,” he says. “Neuroscience would be saying you need more neural pathways to make people think differently,” he explains. “If you can change the way a leader thinks, it has a much quicker impact on raising their capability than changing their behaviours.” But can neuroscience really deliver in a workplace environment? Paul Zak, an applied neuroscientist at Claremont Graduate University in California, urges caution. “I think most of what’s out there is snake oil,” he says.
Nonetheless, Prof Zak, author of The Moral Molecule, is dedicating himself to research that integrates neuroscience and economics. His work has seen him study companies including shoe and clothing retailer Zappos.com, Barry-Wehmiller, the technology and services provider, and The Morning Star Company, a California-based agribusiness and food processing company.
He has come to the conclusion that their management practices can be explained through neuroscience.
Prof Zak’s insights are founded in his research into the neuroscience of trust.
At a country level, he says, high trust between individuals correlates strongly with investment, per capita income growth and even happiness. Low trust correlates with depression.
Trust, he believes, acts as an “economic lubricant”.
His laboratory experiments identified a neurochemical, oxytocin (OT), which fleetingly raises our trust in others when they act kindly toward us. But when we are highly-stressed, its release is inhibited by the hormone epinephrine, and we move into survival mode, to focus only on ourselves. Testosterone is also an OT inhibitor, and young and successful men tend to have more of it.
Deriving effective management techniques from this brain soup is tricky. Yet Prof Zak says: “Where people are empowered with trust you get to control your life more.
“And when you control your life, you are psychologically and physically healthier, and more engaged.”
The recipe for success, he says, is “a trusting organisation with a transcendent purpose”. It is a formula which he says can nourish the kind of motivation that causes employees to email at 3am with solutions to longstanding work problems.
Jonathon Hogg, head of people and talent management at PA Consulting Group, says: “We instinctively react to workplace uncertainty with fight or flight responses. Neuroscience shows the brain needs certainty to think rationally. If we can’t see the full picture, we react as if we face a physical threat.”
Openness and allowing individuals to offer input and to shape outcomes can reduce the risk of destroying value when remodelling organisations, he says.
Barbara Marder, a senior partner with talent consultant Mercer, based in Washington, DC, leads a team studying innovations in “predictive hiring”. Instead of relying upon CVs and interviews, they ask applicants to play 15 or 20 computer games designed with the aid of neuroscience — revealing a cognitive and emotional profile.
The result is matched against the gaming profile of high-performers in the role to be filled. Combined with techniques such as machine-learning and trawling social media profiles, this approach opens the way to hiring based on capability. “Companies won’t worry where they went to school or what their grades are,” adds Ms Marder.
Neuroscience is also contributing to a better understanding of behavioural psychology, a field which is shaping the design of public policy. The Behavioural Insights Team, a consulting firm spun out of the UK Prime Minister’s office, is now solicited worldwide. Owain Service, managing director, says two particular insights help put more jobseekers at government agencies back into work.
First, he says, if you want somebody to do something, make it easy for them. Second, we are much more likely to do things if we create plans that are linked to our daily routine. Mr Service says he can even persuade many of the unwilling to pay their taxes.
Being able to develop that kind of influence would give many companies plenty to think about.