From neurochemistry to HR
By Riina Hellström, An HR pro studying for an Executive Masters in NeuroLeadership
HR will and must change.
Studying organizational development and work psychology in the late nineties was awesome. Being introduced to leadership and management theories, enjoying the process orientation topped with some competence management and some total quality management was the thing. Working in corporate and local HRD for ten years revealed that the theories of a perfectly functioning, structured and compliant human resource army, which could be managed by setting annual objectives and motivated by carrot-and-stick incentive directives was the biggest bluff on earth.
HR professionals are living a very exciting period, because our way of working is in a rapid paradigm change. The working life, leadership models, project work as we knew it, is changing from the inside out (neuroscience) and from the outside in (people finding their own methods of working, freelancing, agile teams, crowdsourcing, complex self-directing systems). Hopefully we won’t fool ourselves any longer that HR/Managers actually can “manage” (as in control and direct) the “workforce”. We need to step up and learn. FAST.
New knowledge will change our thinking
Neuroscience will help us out. It will prove our previous choices wrong, it will support some of the previous decisions with biological facts and it will bring totally new science to develop or verify new, previously unthinkable, brain friendly ways of working (i.e. Netflix, Futurice). Going inside the brain adds new levels of analysis that can advance and connect theories of organizational behavior, human interaction and work life in general. (Becker at al, 2011). The research reveals that our neural processes have evolved over millennia, for specific biological purposes, they are often automatic and somewhat inflexible. (Becker et al citing Lieberman, 2007). We run on autopilot very often. Some of the corporation processes/structures work, if not always against, but at least not aligned with our biological neural processes. (Rock 2007, Rock 2013).
In this blog I’d like you to say hello to the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and connect it to stress reactions. This part of HR’s “must know”.
The Pre-frontal Cortex for the HR professional
Your PFC is primarily responsible for your thinking and acting, symbolizing, being able to think about abstract ideas (or things not directly in front of you, instinctive). The PCF turns your primitive, basic feelings into emotions, makes you aware of yourselves and others, combines the now with the memories of the past and the expectations of the future into one. This part of the brain is your control center, your mental sketchpad. Guess what? Unfortunately your PFC is not a diesel machine running controlled and smooth throughout your working day. Your PFC is like Goldilocks (the fairytale of the girl in the house of the three bears). It must have everything just right to function well, meaning not too little, and not too much of catecholamines, which are very important molecules in our brains (also called neurotransmitters). (Arnsten, 2013).
Now, I would grow a deep interest in the PFC if I were a CHRO, VP HR or HRD pro. Taking care of the PFC of your managers and staff could be seen as a core element of what HR can do. A healthy and well working PFC really constitutes the performance on an individual level in the information age.
Stress significantly changes our thinking capacity
Stress elevates the level of catecholamines in the PFC. Sometimes this is a good thing. Without stress reactions, we would not be here. A stress reaction can be caused by basically feeling out of control, being under some kind of pressure, being imposed to any stressor (cold, hunger, thirst, threat, illness, lurking deadline combined with an unresponsive computer, bullies at the workplace, a terrible boss).
The good thing is that moderate levels of these molecules will help you stay alert, focused, and performing accurately. The bad thing is that the levels may pretty easily rise over your individual “optimal level”. Our biology comes with a “baggage” of wanting to save ourselves. Our stress level is basically a “save yourself!” biological sign for our brains and bodies. Fight, flee or freeze! The stress reaction will make the body and brain shut down the functions unnecessary for survival. So, together with your digestion (“you don’t need to eat or digest food when running from a lion”) your PFC practically shuts down (“you don’t need to reflect over options and weigh intuition with facts when meeting a bear”). The brain hands over most of the (re)actions to quicker and lower parts of the brain (e.g. the amygdala with its emotional responses, strong habits which don’t require reasoning & mentalising from the brain). (Arnsten). In English, you are really not doing your best, newest, most creative or socially useful thinking there, mate! And as a VP HR you probably don’t want your managers to make important decisions or to have important discussions with employees in the state where their amygdala is doing the reacting and PFC is shut.
A great thing about our brain is that it is plastic, changing and reinforcing the connections and networks according to what you often need, and getting rid of the connections which are unnecessary and not frequently used.
Now, how can you connect this plasticity to a state of chronic stress? In chronic stress (ongoing, long-term) the brain will deplete connections not in use, i.e. weakening the PFC network and strengthening the networks involved in the stress reaction. Your stressed out managers will be reactive/reflexive (instead of reflective), use their old habits (unable to learn new habits/behavior) and additionally strengthen this old-habitual-reactive behavior during the stressful period. Yes. The amygdala (center of the brain taking care of initial emotional responses) is actually growing stronger for people under long term stress. Unfortunately our current information age work is more of less about constant or frequent stress reactions.
There is more, much more
This is just a taster of what recent neuroscience is revealing from our biology. Fortunately social and cognitive neuroscience is also giving us hints and methodologies on how to work in a brain friendlier way. New measuring devices, such as e.g. Firstbeat® heart-rate-variation monitors can be used to monitor the level of a person’s physical state, giving indications of stress levels. Big data and quantified self brings facts of people’s wellbeing/performance.
Be careful with your sources of information, though, and remember to check for references, always. There is way too much popular neuroscience on the market. We should not be too quick to draw conclusions from molecular/cell-level neuroscience findings. To create practical new leadership or work methodology based on neuroscience requires quite a lot of studying and knowledge of the field, and years of methodology validation with real people. This field is something you can’t cherry pick from.
Choose who you believe carefully
Management & leadership researchers have also now found neuroscience, and a new field is forming between the fields of neuroscience and management/leadership/ organizational development. (i.e. Becker et al, Rock et Al, Lee et al). There is very healthy skepticism within the corporate world against drawing fast popular science conclusions from e.g. isolated fMRI results (so called “neurobollocks”). Please remember that scientists have to know, discuss and publish the limitations, relevance, accuracy and applications of their methodology and results (i.e. Buckner et al, Jones et al). It is the non-scientists who usually draw conclusions too quickly. So again, check for references.
Join me on a journey towards excellence in HR
In procedural work the best are 2 x as good as the average. In creative, inventive work the best are 10 x better than the average (Netflix). How much do YOU think your brain and thinking capacity has to do with your performance? Would it be time to agree on this and start creating workplaces with the brain in mind, and not with the budget in mind.
Welcome to join me on my journey towards growing into a “HR-Neuro-Agile/Lean” professional in Scandinavia. I’ll do my best to share interesting and relevant stuff with you, trying to make the scientific parts a quick and easy to grasp for an HR professional. I believe both Neuroscience and Lean thinking will change the way HR functions forever.
- Netflix Culture Slideshare http://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664
- Futurice (Best place to work in Europe 2013) Culture Audit results and blog http://blog.futurice.com/a-kick-starter-for-sharing-futurices-culture-audit
- Becker, W. J., Cropanzano, R., Sanfey, A., 2011, Journal of Management 37: 933, Online version: http://jom.sagepub.com/content/37/4/933
- Becker at al (ref 2) citing Lieberman, M. D. 2007. Social cognitive neuroscience: A review of core processes. Annual Review of Psychology, 58: 259-289.
- Rock, D., Schwartz, J., 4.10.2007, Strategy + Business (exclusive number), Why Neuroscience Matters to Executives.
- Rock, D. June 2013, HBR Blog, Give Your Performance management a review, http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/06/give-your-performance-manageme/
- Arnsten, A., 2013, NeuroLeadership Lecture about PFC, Yale Univesity, Dept of Neurobiology.
- Rock, D., 2010, The neuroscience of Leadership – A project submitted for a professional doctorate, Middlesex University.
- Lee, N., Senior, C., Butler, M.J.R, 2012, The Domain of Organizational Cognitive Neuroscience – Theoretical and Empirical Challenges, Journal of Management, 38:4, 921-931.
- Buckner, R. L., Krienen, F.M, Yeo, B.T.T., 2013, Opportunities and limitations of intrinsic functional connectivity MRI, Nature Neuroscience, 16:7, 832-837.
- Jones, O.D, Wagner, A.D., Faigman, D.L., Raichle, M.E. 2013, Neuroscientists in Court, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 14, 730–736.