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Three ways neuroscience can improve your performance

14 Oct 2019 By Gill McKay

Understanding the brain helps both HR professionals and employees, says Gill McKay, as she looks at its impact on everyday working life

Neuroscience is fashionable, no doubt about it. But as fashion fades to make room for the next style, neuroscience is here to stay. As an emerging science, we will see an increasing flow of empirically sound, useful insights that can help us to understand people better across all HR disciplines.

Neuroscience paves the way for deepening the scientific understanding of human behaviour and psychology and can be practically applied in people development, performance, effectiveness, individual differences, processing styles, motivation, happiness and reward, to name just a few. 

This has opened up exciting possibilities for all of us interested in the development of the self and others. After all, people are innately curious about what makes them tick.

Here are three areas where discussing the brain engages attention:

Stress

Everyone experiences stress at some stage. It is easy to recognise: you experience ‘brain fog’, you are forgetful, irrational and emotional and you do things out of character. Stress can cause your brain to seize up at the worst possible time, whether in an interview, presentation or meeting your future boss for the first time. But this is a survival mechanism – when faced with a threatening situation, instinct overrides any rational thinking. Some stress is useful, as it readies your brain for an optimal response, motivating you to work hard and do well under pressure. 

Top tips 

  • Calm your stress with single-tasking for brain efficiency. 
  • Have a plan. Unfinished tasks distract you, while planning to finish lifts the anxiety.
  • Get moving to modify brain circuits and reduce stress hormones.

Decision-making

You make decisions all the time, both consciously and subconsciously, relying on working memory to help you weigh up your different options and accessing long-term memory for clues from past experiences. Recalling a particular event may trigger an emotion and fire up your emotional limbic system. At the same time, the cortical brain areas keep attention on the decision by adding in some rationale. It takes effort to use all the parts of the brain involved in making sense of all the factors.

Sometimes, decision fatigue sets in and you get distracted, make mistakes and put your head in the sand. Think of your brain like your smartphone: the more ways you use it – for apps, music, data roaming, voice calls, Facetime, texts, WhatsApp, Instagram – the quicker the juice will run out. 

Using your brain for multiple decisions is the same as using your smartphone at different intensities throughout the day. With decision fatigue, you have less stamina and have run out of battery life.

Top tips

  • Distance yourself from the problem to enable ‘wise reasoning’.
  • Consciously weigh up options to unify your rational brain with emotional signals that come up.
  • Use your imagination to curb impulses. Pressing the snooze button means 10 minutes more sleep, but getting up means you have time for breakfast.

Motivation

Employee engagement and motivation are issues for organisations with a backdrop of changing roles, flexible working, mergers, restructuring and increasing insecurity. Technology, while representing progress, has added in 24/7 contact, which can be hard to disconnect from. 

Humans are driven to undertake activities that reward or remove you from threat. This drive towards or away from something reinforces behaviours so you are motivated to take the same action again. Your brain treats survival needs as rewarding and motivates you to fulfil those needs.

The strength of connections to the parts of the brain that connect to the reward systems depends on both genetics and experience. People are motivated in different ways. Some, for example, may be more sensitive to status, while others may be affected by others’ opinions.

Top tips 

  • Connect with your purpose. Remember why you are doing something, especially when carrying out boring, repetitive tasks.
  • Keep curious to increase interactions in the brain’s reward circuits.
  • Reward yourself for tedious tasks. Give yourself a dopamine boost by ticking off what you have achieved or promising yourself a coffee break.

Gill McKay is co-founder of MyBrain International

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