HR Leadership Column

Linking Neuroscience and HR

HR leaders could soon reap the rewards of recent efforts to better understand the workings of the brain, especially in areas such as workplace fairness and compensation.

Monday, August 5, 2013
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Earlier this year, the Obama administration announced plans to fund a decade-long effort to examine the workings of the human brain. Funded at a rate of $300 million a year, the scientific research would be a $3 billion investment, with the goal of building a comprehensive map of the brain's activity. Just as science stepped up to the challenge of mapping the human gene with the Human Genome Project, the goal here is to map – in order to better understand -- the workings of the human brain.

With a commitment of federal funding, teams of neuroscientists and other scientists will be able to develop new technologies that enable us to gain a better understanding of how and why the brain does (or doesn't) work the way it does. Hopefully, we'll also gain a better understanding of mental illnesses and diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, and ways to help treat victims of brain injuries.

Neuroscientists, using more-advanced MRIs and greater computing power to perform statistical calculations, will be able to monitor brain activity of subjects in various situations and explore how changing variables impact activities in different parts of the brain.

Scientists have been actively researching the brain for years, and some of their research findings have seeped into the management literature already. If the pace of research increases as a result of the Obama initiative, it's likely that more information will be available to inform executives on better management techniques.

And while some researchers believe that much of the management literature already over-simplifies the complex workings of the brain, others point out that the research includes empirical findings that can provide helpful insights if you're a leader, or developing leaders, in your organization.

An excellent recent article in the Harvard Business Review, entitled "Your Brain at Work," provides what the authors describe as an " 'interim report' on the neuroscientific findings of the past 15 years that now have considerable empirical support."   

Among the areas described is the existence of a "reward network" in our brains. This is the phenomenon where the brain activates a network whenever something evokes enjoyment, and deactivates when something reduces enjoyment.  For example, reward systems are activated when animals are given food or something else necessary for their survival.

But research on humans has shown that the reward network is also sensitive to what the authors describe as "secondary" rewards -- such as money.

Of course, for HR executives, this is old news. We know that people tend to do what they're paid to do/be rewarded for. The notion is fundamental to compensation practices today.

But researchers have also found that fairness is another "secondary" motivating reward; people's reward networks are motivated by a sense of fairness, and demotivated when they feel they're operating in an unfair environment.

The notion of fairness at work goes beyond equal pay for equal work. It includes ensuring that employees are aware of and understand how pay is equitably established. It means understanding that ridiculously high executive compensation is likely to be viewed as unfair, and therefore has a demotivating impact. It means that transparency in how decisions are made and the business is run will be motivational, while secrecy and "need-to-know" work cultures will be demotivating.

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I think most HR professionals understand -- both intuitively and through their own experiences -- the importance of providing a fair workplace. Indeed, SHRM's 2012 study on Future HR Challenges and Talent Management Tactics reports that HR professionals consider "creating an organizational culture where trust, open communication and fairness are emphasized and demonstrated by leaders" as the second most-effective tactic for attracting, retaining and rewarding the best employees over the next 10 years. (The first tactic was providing "flexible work arrangements.")

But just having the intuition and experience to know that "fairness matters" really isn't enough if you're trying to convince skeptical colleagues that fairness isn't just "nice to do" -- it's a "must do" for driving profitability. The task is made much easier if armed with hard data from past -- and future -- neuroscience research, including findings that are likely to become available in the future.

Every HR professional has probably muttered, at some point, "I should have gotten a law degree," as they wrestled with a complicated compliance issue.

Someday, you may be muttering "I should have gotten a Ph.D. in neuroscience," as you grapple with the most effective way to change the culture of your organization.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.


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