Why HR should be brain-savvy

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Working in HR can be a tough call. HR policies are supposed to deliver policies that support people and improve the bottom line. But instead these policies all too often result in devastating individuals or teams and destroying performance. This is not how it’s meant to be, but it does happen. 

  • A well-intentioned performance management system can close down productivity and creativity.
  • A structured recruitment drive can miss out hiring the most talented of individuals.
  • A properly benchmarked reward system can demotivate employees and lead to increased resignations.
  • A change programme can lead to no change at all.
  • A cutting edge leadership development scheme can devastate high potential individuals.

One of the main reasons why policies fail is that in their design and implementation the way the human brains work is not taken into account. Helping HR to understand the crucial role that emotions play in how our brains work is key to future success. Recent advances in neuroscience are showing us exactly that.

The brain is made up of three parts that have evolved over millions of years. The oldest part is the Reptilian brain, which ensures survival and regulates bodily functions. The Mammalian brain evolved later and is the centre of emotions and memory. The Cognitive brain is the most recent development and is related to language, logic and decision-making.

When danger is perceived, it is the Mammalian brain that responds the fastest, based on emotions and memory, and it is only later that the Cognitive brain makes sense of what happened. As a result, all our reactions are suffused with emotion, not logic. 

Emotions are contagious, and it is relationships that are the carrier for emotions between people. Memories and emotions shape, and are shaped by, relationships. 

There are eight basic emotions that underpin the way people think, act and feel. Of these, five are related to keeping us safe and letting us know about danger (the escape/avoidance emotions: fear, anger, disgust, shame and sadness), two get us closely involved positively with people, objects and action (the attachment/growth emotions: excitement/joy, trust/love), and one can take us in either direction (surprise/startle or surprise/delight). 

The numerical balance of emotions is strongly in favour of the escape/avoidance ones, which evolutionally has kept us safe over thousands of years. These emotions are more easily triggered than the attachment/growth emotions, because survival is our number one priority - taking precedence over any other business we have been asked to deliver. 

In an organisation it is much more productive to trigger the attachment emotions of excitement/joy and trust/love than it is to encourage any of the escape/avoidance emotions, with fear being the most destructive. High quality creativity takes place best when the surprise emotion is present swinging into excitement/joy.

Brains are wired to survive - to look out for threats rather than rewards. When a threat is perceived, the brain will focus on dealing with it until it is resolved, to the detriment of other activities. The brain is effectively managing the energy available to it, ensuring that survival is paramount.

In any policy design and implementation it is important to identify and mitigate perceived threats. If that is not possible, then compensate the threats with suitable rewards. Threats at work are to do with losing something of importance. This sense of loss can be so powerful that it motivates people to take strong actions to avoid it. David Rock’s SCARF model is useful to summarise what people at work most fear losing:

  • Status: related to security or position in the workplace, and including the fear of losing power and/or status, of not being promoted or awarded a pay rise, and of losing the job.
  • Certainty: related to being able to predict how things will turn out, and including the fear of making a mistake, of not being good enough.
  • Autonomy: related to having a sense of control over events, and including the fear of doing a job that is hated or demeaning, of working long hours or doing a thankless task with no reward.
  • Relatedness: to do with a sense of safety with others, and including the fear of being judged, of not being appreciated for the efforts made, of dealing with difficult customers or clients, and of being subjected to violence or bullying.
  • Fairness: related to credibility or reputation and including the fear of being wrong or failing, of not being respected, and of not performing well. 

All HR systems should also be designed around the attachment/growth emotions. This means, organisationally, that individuals know they are welcomed and respected as individuals, can make honest mistakes, can expect support for recovering from those mistakes, and can see their work as part of their own life’s journey. This will allow them continuously to offer to the organisation the best of themselves.

Dr Sue Paterson, together with Joan Kingsley and Paul Brown, is the author of The Fear-Free Organization: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform your Business Culture, a new book that draws attention to the need for senior staff to appreciate how fear may be ruling their businesses and how this is affecting their teams, prohibiting the development of new ideas, creativity and unlimited potential.


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