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Brain Training | Human Resource Executive Online New research on the human brain is challenging some long-held beliefs that deal with how we think, learn and lead. So prepare to teach your old dogs some new tricks, with the help of neuroscience.

Sunday, November 1, 2009
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With all the fancy computers and other expensive equipment currently being used by white-coated researchers to unlock the full potential of the human brain, perhaps it's surprising that something as low-tech as an FM radio can be an effective tool to improve the way a brain, and its owner, can work together.

The idea that a radio can be used to improve brain activity (read on to see just how) is part of "the biggest discovery" in the field of brain research in the last 20 years, according to Louis Csoka, president and founder of Apex Performance, a Charlotte, N.C.-based leadership-development firm. The discovery, he says, involves the concept of neuroplasticity, pioneered by scientists including Paul Bach-y-Rita and Michael Merzenich, which states that experience actually changes the structure of the brain.

"In other words, if you literally repeat certain things, thoughts or behaviors, neuro-connections are made and repeatedly strengthened so that you've restructured the element of the brain that deals with that kind of behavior or thought," Csoka says.

"Previously, we thought that everything was fixed from the moment of birth and that, basically, your brain would be unchanged," he says, "and, in fact, that's one of the reasons we used to think that getting older [meant] you automatically [suffered from] dementia and senility. We now know that's not true at all."

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based Institute for the Future recently wrote in a white paper that soon, hiring practices, training and management "will draw from a deeper understanding of neuroscience and complex behavioral algorithms. Already, start-ups have emerged that promise to train individuals to increase their mental acuity, focus and efficiency based on brain science.

"As science comes to work, human resource managers will need to become versed in these new disciplines. While most HR practitioners will likely not be scientists, they will need to be able to understand the language of these disciplines and collaborate with scientists in order to assess and implement some of the new tools."

Csoka, who holds a doctorate in psychology and leadership from the University of Washington, says that, among the many business-related areas related to brain research, the concept of honing one's attention stands out.

"In the world today, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity do not allow you to predict what to pay attention to," he says. "So the only thing we can do is train people how to pay attention, then the brain learns that and is more adaptable in new situations, so that the capabilities like decision-making and problem-solving can kick in," and that's where the old FM radio comes in.

"The challenge is being able to narrow attention to be focused on the right thing at the right time," he says. "So I tell people: 'Look, you all listen to music. Next time you listen to a song, pick out one instrument and stay with it as long as you can through the whole song. Keep doing that with different songs.' By doing that, you literally are developing the brain to stay focused on one part.

"The instrument you focus on is your target and the rest of the song is just distraction, or noise. And the more times you repeat that, the better you get at it. And believe me, if you've never done this, it's not as easy as you think. The first time people do it, they can stay on it for five, 10 seconds, maybe. Eventually, through repetition, if they do it long enough, they can do it for the entire song."

Admittedly, "this may sound silly," he says, "[but] we know it works if people are willing to stick with it. The whole secret here is repetition. You have to repeat things often enough to where these neuroconnections become stronger and broader until they become the dominant pattern. ... So basically, it's unlimited how much you can learn when you're 85 or 90, because of that new discovery."

While the incorporation of neuroscience in the business world may be increasing as the research expands, organizations are very hesitant to discuss their experiences putting executives through neuroscientific tests and exercises, and the professional firms that operate in the field closely guard their clients' privacy.

"Managers don't like it to be known that they're not absolutely perfect," says Charles Jacobs, the Boston-based author of Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn't Work and Other Surprising Lessons for the Latest Brain Science.

Nevertheless, says Csoka, new research on the brain not only offers many opportunities for growth and success in the business world, but also challenges.

"We all talk about mental toughness of our leaders," he says, "but how can you talk about the mind if you don't know anything about the brain?"

Root Skills

The primary skills or capabilities of good executives, according to Csoka, include decision-making, analysis, mental agility, adaptive thinking and -- especially considering the current economic environment -- stress-energy management.

Such skills he classifies as "inner" skills, and, much like acquiring any new skill, such as learning to hit a golf ball, "... you need two things: You need a demonstration of the right way to do it, and you need good, quality feedback. How do you get good feedback on stuff that's going on inside your head, like thinking and emotions. The only way to do that is biofeedback."

Csoka says the use of biofeedback, whereby a subject is hooked up to equipment that monitors changes in brain activity, can help business leaders get a better idea of the skills required to make better decisions.

But biofeedback isn't the only type of feedback that can be affected by the latest advances in brain research.

According to Jacobs, brain research is also providing insight into more effective ways to provide feedback to, and set objectives for, employees. Managers, he communicating with employees.

"When I, as a manager, think about giving [an employee] feedback," Jacobs says, "I have a view of what that feedback is: It's constructive, it's encouraging, it is the right thing to do for you. But, as an employee, your view of the feedback is going to be driven by your feelings, your emotions and they are not necessarily the same as mine. And, in fact, you will tend to see even constructive feedback as punitive."

When employees receive feedback that conflicts with their own positive self-image, he says, they tend not to change or to admit that something is wrong, but rather, they discount the feedback and its source, i.e., "My manager doesn't know what he's talking about and I'm right."

"All of a sudden," says Jacobs, "the motivation isn't to act on the feedback, but to do the opposite of what the feedback suggests we should be doing," he says. "And that blows apart 95 percent of what managers feel their job is."

It's not that feedback is bad, Jacobs says. "We need feedback. In fact, the brain is just one big feedback loop, but the best way is to focus on the source of the feedback," he says. "We need to manage both mind and behavior. Managers shouldn't direct their employees, but [should] instead use questions to engage them.

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"If the feedback is coming from a manager, everyone has all these weird psychological dynamics around how people perceive things differently," he says. "But if the feedback comes from the employee [via their own answers to questions], then there's every reason for the employee to take it to heart and make it work.

"Now the feedback is bound up with the self-image rather than in conflict with it. And the manager's role transitions from telling people what they're doing wrong to asking them how they feel they're performing. It's really being very Socratic, using questions and getting people to realize that any shortfall in performance, they own."

Will It Help?

Edie Weiner, president of New York-based futurist consulting group Weider, Edrich & Brown Inc., says the intersection of business and neuroscience research provides an opportunity for HR executives to finally get ahead of the curve on a business-critical issue.

"HR has really not played a role in the world of finance or technology" as it relates to internal business decisions, she says.

"Now, here is something critical coming along, neuroscience, which studies the very nature of what makes us do what we do within an organization and what makes us able to learn or perform something. ... The human resource is centered in the brain, and so that's exactly where [HR practitioners] should be, and they can't make the same mistake they made when they didn't understand finance and they didn't understand technology."

She says the current research being done can have positive impacts on everything from productivity to morale.

"[Because of the latest studies], we know that, if we stimulate certain parts of the brain, we can eventually stimulate the desired cognitive reactions and productivity can be greatly influenced. We may not be able to take a particular employee and image [his or her] brain, but we may know more about that employee from existing research," she says.

As an example, she says that, because of current brain research, "we know that, depending on how a message is framed, it will have people come to different conclusions. So by testing messages with a sample population, we'll know what kinds of communications will resonate more effectively with employees."

In essence, [this would be] a very literal example of "internal marketing," she says.

But Stephen Balzac, president of Stow, Mass.-based organizational development firm 7Steps Ahead, says there are limits to the use of brain science in the workplace.

"It strikes me as rather like trying to learn jiu jitsu or tennis through a detailed study of body mechanics. Will it help? To some degree; but ultimately, if you want to become skilled in those sports, you have to get out and practice under the supervision of a good coach. ... Understanding neuroscience can help you understand your target better, but it doesn't replace the need to do the practice to be able to hit that target reliably."

Despite such issues, Jacobs remains convinced that neuroscience can greatly improve the overall standing of HR in organizations.

"What this research means to HR is that the status of HR should go up dramatically in organizations," Jacobs says. "Our brain is three times the size, relative to our body weight, of any other species. Most cognitive scientists believe the brain evolved to help us deal with relationships with other people. Whenever I'm brought in to deal with a strategic or organizational issue, ultimately, it ends up being a human issue. People problems are what business is about."

HR leaders, he says, must start to invest in educating people to become leaders based on what is known today, and not by using models that may have been used in the past.

"This is not some Theory X or Theory Y or coddling people; this is what we're learning from the hard data," he says, "so HR executives should become conversant with what we're learning about neuroscience and how it affects the brain, and then become advocates for people not being seen as an interruption to the business, but as absolutely central to the business."

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