Brain-savvy HR – what’s that all about then?

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If you’re reading this blog you must have a bit of interest in neuroscience. It may be no more than a thought that it’s one of those trendy, faddish things that’s caught the imagination of the media: there’s always plenty of coverage, especially in the US, of the latest neuroscience research, from the impact of an approaching spider to why we are dishonest.

In fact, neuroscience is not so new: it was born as a specialist field of scientific study in the 1960s with the Neurosciences Study Program sponsored by Rockefeller University. And pretty quickly academic connections began to be made between neuroscience and psychology.

But you’ll also have spotted that this blog is written for HR practitioners, so I'm assuming you have an interest in understanding what neuroscience has to say about human behaviour, leadership and change, and how that might have an impact on organisations, and HR policy and practice. 

Why neuroscience for HR?

Why do I think an understanding of neuroscience is essential for HR practitioners? That’s an easy one to answer: because it tests management theory and provides a sound evidence base for HR practice.

What’s more in my work, particularly with leaders in organisations, I’ve found that explaining how the brain actually works has been very effective in persuading leaders to be less resistant and more open to changing their own behaviour. Most leaders like the strength of evidence in science: it clicks with them.

The other reason I find the insights of neuroscience so useful is that they get leaders to think carefully about their own thinking processes, beliefs and experiences. Leaders recognise how their own brain reacts, and the research results make sense to them personally. This is a valuable tool in the HR armoury in creating the kind of insight and commitment that translates knowledge into action. 

For us, as HR professionals, neuroscience research explains the 'why' of our policies. Why is it a good idea to include social rewards? Why is an engagement policy working with some people and not others? Why is it important to understand the role of emotions in making decisions on talent? Why can bias creep in to decisions without anyone noticing?

I call all this ‘brain-savvy HR’ - as shorthand for HR practice that is informed by an understanding of how the human brain works.

Understanding neuroscience helps us in HR also know why people act the way they do; how we – and the people we work with – can change; and the way key concepts for us, like engagement, reward and motivation, work in the brain. I want to share some of this important evidence, propose how it can inform HR work, and give you some answers to a few thorny questions.

So what should HR know about the brain?

Understanding the brain basics helps to orientate you and helps make sense of a couple of key concepts and models. Like the brain is ‘wired’ to notice threat and reward - and in business one of the greatest threats can be social, the sense of threat when the boss is frowning or the sense of reward when you are praised publicly.

  • Leading purpose: one of the major findings of the research, The Success Profile for HR Leaders, was that one of the key attributes of a successful HR leader is having a clear purpose and a guiding sense of direction for the HR function within the business. Neuroscience can unpack the process of creating a purpose for your HR team, help you explore how you make decisions, where you focus, and how you gain the insight and creativity you need to clearly take the function forward.
  • Leading the function: this is all about applying the findings of neuroscience to policy and practices in HR. Understanding what the science is saying about reward and recognition, or implementing change, or designing learning programmes. As a specialist you might want to dip into a pick and mix here: you may only be interested in the findings of science on your particular areas of expertise, or HR business partners may find useful evidence throughout to support their approach and share with their business clients. Neuroscience is also challenging our current thinking about policy and practice - like the negative impact which hearing critical feedback has on the brain.
  • Leading yourself: how you can use an understanding of neuroscience to manage your own performance, mindset and skills is another reason for HR practitioners to know something about the science. There are lots of findings to challenge or add to your understanding of personal performance.

My research on how HR is using neuroscience

The research we carried out in late 2013 was aimed at gaining a greater understanding of attitudes to neuroscience within HR, how widely accepted it is within the profession, and the results of its application. I found that it is very early days with only around 12% of HR professionals saying they understand the science and are using it in their works. But there are some good case studies of how organisations are applying the findings of neuroscience in areas as diverse as change, leadership development and wellbeing. The research is a snapshot in time and we hope that future research will show even more widespread infiltration of neuroscience principles into the profession.


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