Neuroscience of Business

More and more, the word neuroscience pops up in various aspects of life. Knowledge of the brain has entered the mainstream, everywhere from education to business, and even to pop culture. The Disney-Pixar movie Inside Out is just one example of how ordinary talking about the brain has become. It seems like everyone knows something about neuroscience these days.

Keeping up with the new trends in employee engagement and leadership now requires a basic understanding of the brain and neuroscience.

Companies are twisting themselves into knots to empower and challenge their employees. They’re anxious about the sad state of engagement, and rightly so, given the value they’re losing. Consider Gallup’s meta-analysis of decades’ worth of data: It shows that high engagement—defined largely as having a strong connection with one’s work and colleagues, feeling like a real contributor, and enjoying ample chances to learn—consistently leads to positive outcomes for both individuals and organizations. The rewards include higher productivity, better-quality products, and increased profitability.

So it’s clear that creating an employee-centric culture can be good for business. But how do you do that effectively? Culture is typically designed in an ad hoc way around random perks like gourmet meals or “karaoke Fridays,” often in thrall to some psychological fad. And despite the evidence that you can’t buy higher job satisfaction, organizations still use golden handcuffs to keep good employees in place. While such efforts might boost workplace happiness in the short term, they fail to have any lasting effect on talent retention or performance.

What’s the Role of Neuroscience in Business?

Imagine that you are a manager discussing quarterly earnings in a meeting. Outside of your awareness, your brain stem makes sure your heart beats and you are able to breathe. Your limbic system is taking in all the outside information about heat, light, people, sounds, and funneling it through a complex network to help you interpret it and react to it emotionally. Your cortex is allowing you to speak fluently and coherently, to plan for what you are going to say next, to focus your thoughts, to calm you nerves, and to respond to questions. Most of that is going on beyond awareness.

All of a sudden, if there is a loud bang, your brain automatically processes the sound, where it came from, and if it is a threat. Your heart-rate might increase. Your breathing may stop for a second. You will look toward the source of the sound and a split second of fear or shock may be all that you can think about. In the moments after, your cortex may start to take control and you may realize that it was an employee banging their fist on the table. You would then need to process how to respond (in emotions, in tone, in posture, in words).

All this happens in parallel and in less than seconds. If you can understand the process of your own brain and how sensory information, emotions, and thoughts impact you and your behaviors, you can begin to realize how it may impact the brains of others. This increased awareness of the brain and how it functions can give you an advantage in being a better leader and creating a better workplace.