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The Neuroscience in Organisational Change And Pyschological Safety

This week, Bronwyn Coombes an independent people, process, and performance consultant based in Perth and a graduate of neuresource group’s Diploma of the Neuroscience of Leadership looks at the rise of neuroscience and it’s potential in answering organisational challenges.

image by Shigeyoshi

Neuroscience is making waves, its tide rising in popular culture, impacting us on a daily basis without us even realising it. Check out subtle influences in the latest Supermarket and Business magazines, which frequently include evidence from neuroscience research. There’s the application of exercise programmes to assist in management of some emotional conditions, and the use of visualisation to stimulate new behavioural practices. We know the benefits of meditation and yoga and hear about management of distraction techniques in the workplace. There are numerous tips on how to to draw on what we are learning about the brain in order to be a better leader. These are just some of the many examples.

A Balanced View

As a professional working with organisations in the People, Process, and Performance spaces, I am constantly looking at ways in which to influence authentic and lasting change by building internal, sustainable capability. As an advisor to organisations, I consider it to be my role to challenge mainstream organisational thinking as I explore and expand solution options for client issues.

So, why neuroscience?

Princeton University’s Professor Sam Wang, in his lectures on The Neuroscience of Everyday Life, explains neuroscience as “… a thriving discipline that has begun to provide mechanistic, biologically-oriented explanations for every aspect of behaviour…“

For me, the fact that neuroscience is evidenced in science is critical in helping me understand how brains are generally wired and the implications of this information on a daily basis for organisations, leaders, teams, and individuals.

People often ask me how neuroscience differs from other tools of the trade in the People, Process, and Performance industry. If you’re like me, you have a well-honed toolkit developed over time and built from professional as well as personal experience. Neuroscience is my latest addition to that toolkit – an addition that uniquely helps put shape to the shifting sands of organisational requirements in the ongoing search for sustained success.

Organisations are faced with day-to-day challenges in the race to stay ahead of the pack and to improve their bottom line. Neuroscience provides me with a practical ‘shaping lens’ in my work that helps my clients build internal, sustainable awareness and capability.

Using neuroscience tools in organisational change

In uncertain global economic activity and the fight for market survival, the top three challenges in my work with my clients are the following:

  1. Organisations are asking more of their people.
    As market demands increase, organisations seek to increase productivity with fewer people. They look for more innovation on stricter budgets and want to make smarter decisions with less time to focus. Because of this pressure, it’s not surprising to observe that people are under more stress than ever before, often being asked to do things they didn’t necessarily ‘sign up for’. When this happens, motivation drops, gaps in skill shortages grow, and absenteeism increases.Neuroscience helps us to better understand what we ‘feel in our gut’. There’s a language to articulate how uncertainty increases in the work environment raise fear levels in the brain, which then has a cascading effect. The capacity to focus attention declines. People are more prone to distraction. When the fit isn’t right and people are asked to perform in areas they naturally prefer to avoid, they experience increased fatigue, leading to unexpected reactions and, in some workplaces, even dangerous results. We now know that emotions are contagious: people pick up unconscious signals from leaders.Awareness is the first step. By using what we’re learning from neuroscience, we can gain important insight into what’s going on with the most important asset of any business — it’s people.
  2. Organisations are asking different skills of their leaders.
    In the hunt for the best organisational leaders, we are seeing the use of changing language. Leadership job ads and interviews now include language such as innovative; agile; able to deal with uncertainty and complexity; ability to manage change; collaborative leadership style; mentor to team members; ability to communicate at all levels, etc.Like the people they manage, leaders are also under increasing stress. They, too, are often required to do things they didn’t necessarily ‘sign up for’. Some discover that they really don’t want to be leaders after all. Resignations increase, resulting in leadership and management instability, which impacts on staff in all sorts of ways. Leadership authenticity becomes all important.Neuroscience helps us to understand that the stress of leadership can lead to ‘brain fatigue’. This happens because working memory from the brain uses more and more energy to cope day-to-day. Unless this resource is replenished regularly, it can lead to burnout. In addition, decision-making quality declines with less time for ‘considered’ thinking. Leaders become disconnected from organisational strategy and direction. Performance declines as it moves from proactive to reactive management. Team members lose connection and trust with their leaders.A simple use of some practical strategies drawn from neuroscience can stop this downward trajectory.
  3. Organisations are experiencing an alarming rate of employee disengagement.
    In Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce Report, 2013, Chairman and CEO, Jim Clifton states: “Hiring the right managers is absolutely essential to building an engaged workforce…”The report finds that “in Australia and New Zealand, 24% of employees are engaged, while 60% are not engaged and 16% are actively disengaged. The resulting ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees — 1.5-to-1 — is one of the highest among all global regions.”This situation can be explained by a number of factors. There’s a general lack of respect for team structures such as meeting attendance, start/finish times, and reporting processes. There could also be low levels of collaboration and creativity in solution finding. Because of this, team morale declines, productivity slips, and negative trends in leading Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) emerge.We understand from neuroscience that it doesn’t matter how much you pay someone, people are driven intrinsically to feel valued and to add value. We know too that insights occur in creative, purposeful environments leading to organisational innovation. Additionally, we know that trust in leadership is a vital contribution to team performance and employee engagement.

Why I’m a neuroscience early adopter

In the People, Process, and Performance industry, we’ve been very good at developing and providing a plethora of tools and methodologies for designing learning events, analysing employee compliance, predicting trends in people performance, and managing organisational change.

For me, neuroscience scientifically explains ‘gut feelings’ grounded in experience. I like that I can then translate this information into a shared practical language for organisational leadership to better understand, quantify and put into practice.

Having evidence from science not only helps me deliver a clearer picture for my clients of the service I provide, but there is also the opportunity for growing awareness about the organisation’s ‘collective brain’ as a valuable asset enhancing the organisation’s bottom line.

We are at the beginning of what I believe will be a major revolution in how we operate in workplaces. Being an ‘early adopter’ means I’m primed to catch the next big wave as it breaks.

One Response

  1. True, it is a continous improvement process whereby each day we need to ensure that management of change procesd is properly managed and that employees are involved and engaged to take their safety and of others a priority.

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