Here’s a brainwave – unlock, create & motivate
Consider how lifting the lid on the brain can help you rethink the way you train and motivate staff. Yet, we understand less about the inner workings of our brains than we do our calf muscles. Bridging that gap could transform our understanding of the way people work, with a resulting revolution in training, change management and OD. So which neuroscientific breakthroughs could really make a difference in the workplace?
1 Neuroplasticity (why your brain never stops growing)
Until recently, our brains were viewed as fully formed by the time we reached our early twenties. A group of London cabbies to prove the theory wrong.
Researchers at UCL found that cabbies who rigorously learnt London’s streets over the course of decades had a larger hippocampus than bus drivers following a linear route, also pointing to neural development over time. Similar tests show that a taxing job enhances our brain chemistry and extreme stress has the opposite effect.
Understanding neuroplasticity is possible has huge implications for coaching. It means there’s no such thing as not being able to teach old dogs new tricks. It’s about finding the right mechanism to do it. Neuroplasticity also makes “brain training” a reality. If you want to be more positive, or interpret something in a different way, you can think long and hard about it. The brain doesn’t distinguish between thinking and doing (in tests, subjects who merely thought about lifting weights still added muscle mass).
2 Egocentricity bias (other people know stuff too, you know)
A big problem we face is believing we know better than other people. That’s why 94 per cent of us believe we have an above-average IQ, or 80 per cent are convinced we are better drivers than others. When we’re teaching, coaching or managing, such egocentricity bias creates a real headache: we focus on those who agree with us or who are so similar.
Geoff Bird, a cognitive neuroscientist at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry. “We are using less of our conscious mind when we make assumptions about people,” he points out – which is why it’s easy to ignore dissenters or people who are hard to reach.
Bird says bias often befalls reward managers. The benefits packages they design are often geared towards their own needs.
Egocentricity bias is the enemy of genuine empathy (stepping into someone else’s mindset), and considers mirroring or actively doing the opposite of someone else (crossing your right leg when they cross their left, for example) over a period of time seems to put us in the right frame of mind to recognise difference. Why not try it as an exercise before a training session or meeting when you need to make a connection.
3 The mentalising system (or ‘How to win friends and influence people’)
Why are some people at ease around others while others are awkward? The answer lies in the mentalising system – a way of processing the signals we receive from other people and our status in relation to them, in essence a form of “mindreading”.
L&D professionals would benefit from identifying people who are good at mentalising as they’re likely to learn well on the job, and benefit from peer support and mentoring (forms of “social learning”) because they are open to others. Those without such skills may need more formal learning techniques.
4 Generalisation decrement (or why you forget everything you learn)
If you want someone to learn something new, role-modelling is the key. If we don’t, we risk suffering the generalisation decrement – the difference between the condition of training and the condition of testing. Our brains struggle to apply things we understand in one context (a training course) in another (our working life).
Giving visual demonstrations of concepts and how they’ll be employed in the workplace can help provide context to learning, but it’s just as effective to mix up the locations and times of day for training or coaching, so people’s learning becomes less context-dependent.
The neuroscientific principles behind it were first determined by Giocomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma 20 or so years ago. He saw that when one monkey watched another monkey reach for a grape, the part of the brain that performs the same action was activated in its own simian shell. The “mirror neurons” in play help embed practical lessons and are important in decoding body language. This is why presenters can reinforce their message through the way they deliver it.
5 Unconscious thought theory (or the power of thinking without thinking)
When it comes to stimulating good ideas, the Apprentice has got it all wrong. Sugar and his panel force people to innovate while they’re being watched and judged, with the clock ticking, all of which is guaranteed to yield truly abysmal breakthroughs (advertising cereal in your Y-fronts, anyone?)
Unconscious thought theory tells us we solve our thorniest problems when we’re not trying – the so-called Eureka moment, because we’re putting things on the back burner. Our rational mind is excellent at analytical and convergent thinking, but not so good at the creative stuff. However, our intuitive mind is processing data even when we’re not aware of it, behind the screen of our conscious awareness. When neural activation levels reach a threshold, solutions often emerge as a ‘light bulb’ moment.” During this “thinking without thinking”, parts of our brain are working double time, processing data and reaching its own conclusions by connecting previously contrasting concepts.
The key is to be informed on your subject matter. Creativity is about joining the dots, but firstly, you need to have the dots to join.
It’s a clear call to anyone in HR, Management, L&D and OD. Equipping yourselves with the latest knowledge and the best emerging breakthroughs to stay one step ahead.
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