The neuroscience behind better performance

Dr Jon Finn explains how learning better self-control can help employees overcome the uncertainty of the modern workplace

Modern workplaces require a radically different mindset. We are now challenged by the volatility, unpredictability, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) of new technology and processes. If we are not equipped for this, wellbeing, morale, performance, productivity and innovation will suffer for workers, managers and leaders. In fact, a recent Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) report estimated that workplace stress and burnout cost up to £97bn per year. 

The human brain is a major obstacle to us consistently being our best in the VUCA world. Evolution means it focuses on survival, and not on health and happiness as we measure them today. The limbic regions of the brain concentrate on keeping us alive, how we are perceived by others, and conserving energy. 

This evolutionary legacy can result in us lacking self-control. Psychologist Professor Roy Baumeister describes that as “the greatest human strength”. As Baumeister explains, effective self-control allows us to be healthier, happier and at our best more often.  

He recently said, “People who have good self-control are more successful in school … and at work ... they make more money, become more prominent and successful.”

“They are also better at relationships. They are more popular with other people. People trust them more. They have stronger marriages, intimate and romantic relationships. They are happier. They have lower stress ... they are better adjusted. [They have] fewer drinking problems, and drugs and eating disorders … [they have] better mental health, better physical health too. They behave better, commit fewer crimes, are less likely to be arrested, fewer traffic accidents and partner abuse, and prejudice and everything like that. And at the far end of life they live longer.”

Effective self-control, or what neuroscientists call ‘emotional regulation’, allows people to resist unhelpful thoughts and actions. It means recognising that you are thinking or doing something that is unhelpful for health, happiness or performance. We coined the term ‘helpful attention control’ (HAC) and describe refocusing attention onto helpful thoughts as brain 'HAC-ing'. This is the central component of being resilient. Ambitious organisations seeking success need to help their people to build better self-control habits. These suppress primal impulses and make it easier to be at our best more often.

It is important to note that behavioural science shows only sustained programmes can effectively develop wellbeing and beneficial habits. Reminders and triggers are therefore crucial if helpful behaviour is to become hard-wired. Training should offer insights into brain function, and its potentially damaging consequences. This is the starting point in our Tougher Minds programmes.

People should also be given an understanding of emotional regulation. This supports effective daily planning and shows how to refocus attention onto helpful thoughts. Progress made by people in their roles should be reinforced. Remind them of their purpose within a team and how they successfully contribute to overall objectives. 

Environmental design can also encourage helpful habits. Changes could include light exercise during work and offering resources to promote structured planning and reflection. Business benefits because people are hard-wired to feel fulfilled when they make personal progress. 

We teach simple and practical skills to help people build helpful habits. Controlling motivation, confidence, emotional regulation and stress management is also included. We show how these attributes enhance leadership. The overall effect helps everyone to be at their best more often.

Feedback on Tougher Minds' training includes reports of reduced stress, improved morale and better employee engagement. This underpins improved leadership, productivity and better performance under pressure. For a growing number of businesses and organisations training that delivers these outcomes is the best investment they can make, if they want to prosper and flourish.

Dr Jon Finn is founder and managing director of Tougher Minds