Using neuroscience techniques to back up what you think you know about potential candidates can support and improve recruitment processes. But it’s not the only area of HR that can benefit from the principles of neuroscience. Advocates believe change management, performance reviews and training can also be supported by a better understanding of the mind and its effect on human behaviour.

Change management

From a HR perspective, one of the biggest impacts of gaining insights from neuroscience is to consider how the brain is affected by change management. We are undeniably creatures of habit. We’ve understood for centuries that people don’t like change. So why is this?

In general, many believe that if they’ve been doing something for some time then it must be right. Consequently, change isn't simply about embracing something unknown, it's also about giving up something old (and good) for something new (and therefore presumed to be not as good).

Our brain encourages us to create patterns and regular ways of doing things and this is quickly extended to the way we do our jobs.

Changes are often well thought through to increase productivity and make employees’ lives easier. But an unconscious bias towards things that have been established for a long time reigns supreme. Ineffectual change does not often stem from instant or direct resistance.

In fact, individuals are often receptive to proposed changes when they are first communicated - but they eventually revert back to their old ways after a while, often with no logical reason why. Achieving a change in mood and behaviour is tough, but studies show that neuroscience techniques can help the process of change.

For example, when NeuroLeadership Group helped a global telecommunications company apply neuroscience thinking to a change management process, the results were overwhelmingly positive. By using neuroscience to understand how its employees would react in specific conditions and situations, the company could minimise the impact of the change management on the morale and performance of staff. After the process, some 98% of participants felt they were better equipped to have difficult conversations with workers. And around 87% of direct reports agreed their manager effectively managed their emotions during the process. All promising results.

Performance reviews

Although performance appraisals are important, they are notoriously hard to get right. When a tough conversation is required, even the best articulated feedback can often be met with dismay at best, or outright hostility and anger at worst.

Neuroscience can help HR to understand how to alter performance management processes to ensure a better outcome. There is no one size fits all. For people with a growth mind-set, they will make a mistake, listen to direct feedback from a manager and learn from it. For those who have a more fixed mind-set, they will often be much more resistant to making a change. As a consequence, management may need to adopt a different, subtler approach. By being more conversational, they can empower and encourage individuals to come up with their own solutions to problems. In addition, subtle changes in how to approach difficult conversations, e.g. sitting alongside an individual rather than opposite them, will improve engagement with the process.

Juniper Networks, in the US, deployed an innovative new approach by abandoning traditional performance appraisals and replacing them with ‘conversation days’. Alongside this, management were trained on developing better conversational skills and improving their rapport with colleagues. This fostering of empowerment and personal responsibility seems to have helped with an overwhelming 88% of employees reporting an increase in engagement among colleagues. What’s more another 76% believed their peers were better placed to enact positive change.

Training and collaboration

Neuroscience helps us to understand what kind of thinking and action can enable good collaboration and idea generation. By using neuroscience, you can find new approaches to training and learning and development by understanding how the brain will respond to certain activities.

One example of this is introducing exercise into training courses, known to improve engagement and ‘stickiness’ of skills learnt. However, this is one area where a little knowledge might not necessarily lead you to the right results. The exercise that supports learning is aerobic which, for obvious reasons, can be quite difficult to incorporate into a training programme, whereas a short walk is much easier.

With that in mind, organisations need to think about which elements of neuroscience are relevant for them and what they can realistically implement. Executing neuroscience into your processes can bean investment, so you must do it for the right reasons, not just because it’s the latest fad. It’s about ensuring that the ideas you put in place are actually addressing your business challenges in a sustainable way that recognises the complexity of the way people think. The human brain remains a wonderful and still only partly resolved mystery. As we continue to learn more about it, I’ve no doubt the application of neuroscience in a business context will become ever more popular and effective.

By Jo Matkin, Sales and Marketing Director, Capita