Opinion: How relevant is neuroscience to the workplace really?

We need to be careful about how we interpret and draw conclusions from neuroscience in all fields of behavioural study. There is no greater example of this than in organisational contexts, where it is easy to over-simplify and reduce to the extent that people end up making generalisations and assumptions that miss the subtleties, nuances and unknowns that make all the difference in practical workplace application. It is also true that, despite massive improvements in neuroscience research, there is still simply too much that is unknown to apply it as a specific universal truth or answer. So where does that leave us?

There are some things that are understood quite well. As an example, the neuroscience of motivation involves three systems that work together to drive every behaviour every day and the fear response’s mechanisms and effects are well-documented. Further, linked closely to the neurobiology of approach and avoidance responses, controllable stress is often very healthy, energising and life-giving, while distress (too much or too little stimulation), with the opposite qualities, is a response to feelings of uncontrollable or inadequate stress.  A healthy, fulfilling life is not about eliminating stress, it’s about seeking, managing and responding to it in positive and healthy ways.

There are new things coming up all the time too – for example, it was thought for a long time that language was processed on the left side of the brain only, but now it seems that both hemispheres are involved. The amygdala, thought to be active in the fear response almost exclusively, turns out to be active for every part of “emotional” and “rational” decision-making, not only as a gatekeeper but as a processor. And that takes us to the useful application of neuroscience in the workplace – not whether a specific region serves a particular function, but how simultaneously activated systems integrate, overlap, check each other and give rise to the emotions and judgements that drive behaviour and well-being in conjunction with the rest of the body. This is why, in our work at 21 Triangles, we are far more interested in the feelings, energy and behaviours driven by neurobiology, networks and biological systems than neuroscience for its own sake (although I find that pretty interesting too).

Beyond the physically measurable hardware that can be detected through tools such as fMRI and EEG scanning, the OS software that programs it can only be deduced, as observational best-guesses, from how it influences behaviour at an intrinsic level across the majority of the population – in other words, where it becomes useful. And. while it allows for a plethora of ill- and partially-informed theories by crackpots, manipulators and experts alike, there is genuine merit in exploring how the software and hardware intersect. This conjunction of hardware and software was rare in the past, including in psychotherapy, but is now becoming a little more common and will increasingly inform behavioural and therapeutic research and development in the coming decades.

My biggest influence here was through the publication “Neuropsychotherapy” (2007) by Klaus Grawe, where, drawing on the established research and theories of others, he described the neuroscience of basic brain structure, neuroplasticity, processing, communication, feedback and response mechanisms (the hardware) along with the basic needs and brain-system activation states that drive behaviour (the software). The book was written with a therapeutic perspective in mind, but its potential implications and applications are much broader, forming in large part the platform from which I developed the Integrated Model of Employee Engagement.

The necessity of overlaying the software onto the hardware (and vice-versa, as they are mutually dependent in the brain’s dynamic state) to be useful in in workplace settings is essential if we want to get and give real value from this knowledge. In conjunction with daily discoveries that change technicalities but rarely basic understanding or application at a workplace or therapeutic level, this is why neuroscience alone is limiting in workplace contexts, or indeed in therapeutic application. Further, where the programmed brain is understood as a part of the biological system, inexorably linked (e.g. via the central nervous system, vagus nerve and endocrine system) to all other bodily regions and functions, from rest to action, and from fear to love, a neurobiological-behavioural view is more useful to understanding and influencing attitude, effort, behaviour and well-being.

So, taking into account the amazing research and everyday new discoveries of technical neuroscience, for your practical application in learning, managing and recruiting and engaging a productive, fulfilled and healthy team, it is more useful to focus on the bigger picture of neurobiology (the most influential hardware) and intrinsic motivation (the most powerful software). This is the approach taken in all of our NeuroSmart® concepts, assessments, training and consultancy work. We hope you find it interesting and useful.