Neuroscience Reveals Necessity of HR Leadership


By Jennifer Gerves-Keen

In their 17th Annual Global CEO Survey, PriceWaterhouse Coopers interviewed 1,344 CEOs in 68 countries during the fall of 2013. Sixty-three per cent of the CEOs interviewed said that “availability of skills was a serious concern”; cast in a slightly different light, an overwhelming 93 per cent recognized a need to change their organization’s talent strategy.

Looking ahead at transformational trends over the next five years, agility and adaptability were called upon most often. Interestingly and related, most of the CEOs surveyed admitted them were not using their HR professionals to their full potential.

As per the PriceWaterhouse Coopers survey: “The scale of the changes is massive, and organizations must adapt at every level. Their thinking, their strategy and their mindset around long-standing assumptions and processes (especially when it comes to talent management) must change”.

Top Five Goals for HR
Similarly, according to the 2014 report by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services entitled “The Age of Modern HR”, the top five goals for HR management in 2014 were:

  • Talent Acquisition
  • Employee engagement
  • Talent retention
  • Goal alignment
  • Training

Both the non-HR executives and HR executives surveyed agreed that HR management practices need to be improved. The question most asked—How?

Neuroscience can provide a key assist to help HR move forward into the elevated, strategic role it must take on to meet and drive business demands. As since its inception, that role revolves around talent—attracting, developing, and retaining the right people in the right roles. Only now, the stakes are higher and results anticipated.

Executive HR is Key
In an optimal environment, the HR function is part of the executive team, working together to strategically assess and develop talent and development goals that will support the economic success and growth of the organization.

Unfortunately, for many organizations this is not yet a reality. Further disruption of how HR has historically been perceived is required to access HR’s potential as a business driver, and long overdue for many businesses.

A Science of Mind to Assist
HR knows its business, and increasingly the nature of the business it functions within. In order to further realize the desired business results though, greater numbers are exploring the research now emerging through neuroscience.

Wikipedia offers the most succinct definition of neuroscience—“the scientific study of the nervous system.” In the context of the workplace, those are the people themselves. What impacts them, impacts the business is the most direct correlation to be made, but far from the only one.

Neuroscience (Already) at Work
Some of the areas where neuroscience is already making an impact include the following:

  • Learning, and specifically designing, more effective training programs by respecting how our brains actually learn;
  • Understanding threat/reward reactions in our brain, and the impact those reactions have on our levels of employee engagement and empowerment;
  • Attention deficiency syndrome, and how mindfulness can not only help us work better, but faster;
    Understanding that multitasking is not a positive, but a serious negative, and actually works against memory, focus, creativity and innovation, critical elements of an organization’s success;
  • Looking at behaviour within teams, our desire to conform and the impact social pain can have upon individuals; and
  • Re-imagining work, and specifically how we collaborate, motivate and empower our employees to be more productive, more innovative….and happier.

A Whole New Look at Talent (and HR)
The future is not just knocking on the door; it’s in the room. The perfect wave has been waving for a while.

CEOs and other senior leaders need to look to HR—who have been dealing with human behaviour for decades—for help in talent. In turn, HR professionals, need to refresh, expand and possibly relearn their toolkit.

Moreover, it is both imperative and urgent that senior leadership work together to mesh talent, total rewards, performance measurements and learning and development in full regard of the whole person—who is also their employee.

Neuroscience Nothing New: Applications Are
Much of the neuroscience coming into popular consciousness is not new. Many of us are aware of what is needed for employees to be engaged, how to motivate teams or what we need to do to develop our workforce. What is different is how we can use neuroscience to better apply that knowledge.

Here are four areas of neuroscience’s application in the workplace:

Performance: Managers need to be trained on “brain-friendly” feedback so that people don’t shut down during the conversation. Studies show that in order to receive feedback in a way that motivates and does not discourage, people need to feel safe, supported and respected. Most current performance reviews do not offer that kind of environment; approximately 10 per cent of US firms have now stopped using numerical ratings in performance, largely based on the evidence provided by neuroscience.

Productivity: Studies have shown that if people in repetitive roles (like assembly lines) actually know that the product they work on has a positive impact on someone else, productivity can actually triple.

Learning: As most are aware, the knowledge retention of your typical workshop sits at a roughly 10 per cent. Bringing ‘brain-friendly’ learning techniques into an organization raises both this figure, as well as retention.

Team behaviour: Did you know that the physical and social pain centres of our brain sit right next to each other? Managers need to be trained on “brain-friendly” feedback so that people don’t shut down during the conversation. Conversely, while memories of physical pain fade with time, social pain (rejection, bullying, etc.) can be relived repeatedly and become serious obstacles to learning and even impact IQ.

Empowering Positive Change
That change is a constant force in our lives is popularly embraced. However, what many still do not realize, or refuse to accept, is that on an individual level, we can actually change our own neural pathways to modify behaviours and make ourselves more effective. That alone is an exciting and empowering piece of science and opens up huge possibilities around potential and development.

To close with another interesting finding from the Global CEO Survey, only 34 per cent of CEOs feel that HR was prepared to capitalize on transformative global trends. What better way to get prepared than to really understand what is going on in everyone’s heads?

Recipient of the 2014 ICF Prism Award for excellence in organizational coaching, Jennifer Gervès-Keen is focused on offering exceptional learning & development experiences within organizations. Drawing on years of training and coaching, mostly in the area of leadership, Jennifer is now using new research from the field of neuroscience to create innovative effective learning and coaching programs.

(PeopleTalk Winter 2014)

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