Neuroscience is the key to unlocking high performance

4 Apr 2017 By Clive Hyland

Clive Hyland explains how understanding the workings of the ‘triune brain’ will help HR develop more effective performance strategies

We spend a great deal of time and energy analysing performance, and searching for it via a vast array of claims and theories. Within this complexity, we are in danger of missing the point: there are certain fundamental principles we should keep sight of to re-establish some much-needed simplicity in this debate. A great starting point is to understand the ‘triune brain’.

The triune brain

This model represents the important distinctions between the three evolutionary stages of human brain development. These layers are the basal region (the reptilian brain) sitting at the base, just above the brainstem; the limbic system (the mammalian brain) located in the middle; and the cortex, which comprises the outer layer at the top and sides of the brain. All three regions play an important role in establishing our behavioural responses and performance, but treating them as broadly the same thing misses a huge opportunity to unlock our potential.

The contribution of each layer is significantly different. The basal region is the realm of our instincts, where we respond instantaneously to external stimuli without analysis and reflection. In instinctive mode, we react quickly and decisively.

The limbic region is all about emotional and energetic connection. Our limbic systems were our main machinery for interpersonal connection and communication long before we had language and sophisticated thinking ability. This capacity to connect energetically remains with us today and is the key to sensations such as fear or trust, anger or peace, anxiety or gravitas.

And then, in evolutionary terms, came the cortex, the ‘thinking’ region, where we learned to become rational, reflect, plan and imagine – competencies that set us apart from other species.

A performance strategy

The point here is that any human performance strategy – whether individual, team or organisational – needs to draw the best from each of these brain regions if it is to unlock our true potential. In practical terms, this means:

  • Having the right ‘machinery’ in place
  • Ensuring appropriate relationships are sustained, and
  • Most crucially, working to establish a believable vision

The machinery

‘Machinery’ here means things such as plans, analysis, tactics, operating structures, roles and responsibilities. The goal of the cortex is to seek out clarity, and it will set down in the neural pathways of our brains precise rules of engagement. But, as we sometimes learn to our cost, being clear about what to do is not always the same as doing it. As we enter the arena of public performance we face emotional demands that are more than capable of swamping our rational thoughts.


A performance strategy therefore needs to build and sustain relationships based on trust, where we feel able to perform with the support of our colleagues. In a place of trust our limbic system will trigger hormonal responses that are vital to effective motivation, concentration and team engagement. Perceived threat will cause our bodies and minds to close down and focus only on personal survival, where we remain tuned in to fear and blocked to free-flowing performance.

A believable vision

Having created clarity and trust, the crucial third step is establishing a vision that depicts an environment where we feel we belong. If we perceive an environment (whether an external one, or an internally imagined one) where our instincts tell us we can thrive, we will be focused and confident.

The essence here is belief. Belief sits at a deep place within us – an inner state known as physiological entrainment – where our brain, heart and gut energetically synchronise to become one united force. When we have belief, our energy is calm and our attention targeted; we can visualise success, there is no fuss and no distraction – just a job we know we are equipped to perform.

Collective organisational confidence is a hugely significant goal. By understanding the inner dynamics of the different brain regions, we are making a significant step in transforming the elusive into the understandable and the actionable.

Clive Hyland is a people adviser at The Happiness Index and author of The Neuro Edge, which will be published in April

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