Why Neuroscience Should Change the Way We Work

Most organizations and their leaders take pride in updating their systems with the latest technology and equipment. They devote significant resources to ensure their employees are using state of the art processes and materials.

Most organizational leaders would agree that without constant upgrades, they would be trying to achieve success with their hands tied behind their backs.
That’s why it is so baffling that so many of these leaders and their companies continue to operate their most precious “assets” – their employees – using badly dated thinking, outmoded concepts and really old-school beliefs. As the data from neuroscience continues to mount, we wonder why this crucial evidence-based information is still being so widely overlooked?
One problem is focus – most business leaders simply aren’t focused on this type of information.  Some might argue that it is due to a lack of understanding of human dynamics. Many organizational leaders continue to rely on old management philosophies and the mostly discredited theories behind them. Another thing that keeps old management thinking and systems in place is the persistent belief that psychology is not relevant to business.  Certainly our cultural views and policies on mental health reflect a deep seated reluctance to accept the primacy of psychological health in our overall well-being and success.

But in the last fifteen years, there has been unremitting neurological research which reveals fundamental insights about how we humans function.  This information is not arbitrary – it’s factual.  These studies impact everything about how we structure work. They show how brain functions affect perception, emotion and conscious thought.
While the growing  body of neuroscience  must stand the scrutiny of further research, we can begin to see applications in the workplace. These core ideas have implications for all management practices:

 Evolving Ideas That Should Change the Way We Work

  • Managing Expectations – As motivation plays a critical role in the how and why of people functioning, it’s important to understand that the brain is essentially a social organ.  Research now clearly shows that the brain’s primary organizing principle is to detect whether incoming stimuli is a reward – or threat.  It’s part of our early survival mechanism that allows the brain to quickly classify the “danger” level of any situation.  According to Dr. David Rock, core social domains (such as social status and certainty (control) drive human behavior.

Rock says, “Labeling and understanding these drivers draws conscious awareness to other non-conscious processes which help in two ways. Knowing the drivers that can cause a threat response in others enables people to design interactions to minimize threats (for example, knowing that a lack of autonomy (for some) may activate a threat response, a leader may consciously avoid micromanaging their employee. Second, knowing about these drivers can activate a reward response enabling people to motivate others more effectively by tapping into internal rewards thereby reducing the reliance on external rewards such as money.”

It raises important questions, for example, about some of the “staples” of the modern workplace like performance reviews and motivation tools that have no basis in understanding individual and group dynamics in light of the social neuroscience.

  • Emotional Contagion is Real – Studies in the past decade have shown that emotions can be “infectious.” The moods of others, especially those in positions of power, can have a real and lasting effect on individuals and groups. Toxic bosses, bully environments and aggressive cultures can “breed” more of the same.  Leaders play a key role in their ability to influence the spread of certain types of emotions over others.

The evidence shows that while all emotions can be contagious, “negative” emotions have greater power to influence.  That makes sense because when we are negatively “triggered” emotionally, the  amygdala in the brain’s limbic system is activated and the “fight or flight” system kicks in, draining energy from the pre-frontal cortex (the “reasoning” part of the brain).  All of this can happen unconsciously, unless we develop the tools to bring it into awareness and mitigate the responses.

  • Suppressing Emotions Costs – The prevailing thinking in business still leans towards the maxim that “emotions don’t belong in business.” These declarations are still being made despite overwhelming knowledge that emotion is as integral to human functioning as any of the so-called rational processes.  One recent study provided illuminating information on the costs of emotional suppression, which is still the norm, in most workplace situations.

When we suppress any emotion –the resources that are involved in suppressing that emotion come from the same area of our brains (the Pre Frontal Cortex or PFC) that is used for problem solving and analytical thinking.  Like a car, the PFC has only a limited supply of fuel, and if we are using that fuel in another area, then you can believe that there is less fuel to service more important things like being effective on the job and managing your other emotions.

UCLA researcher, Dr. Matthew Lieberman, found that learning to “label” our emotions maximizes cognitive ability.  He asserts that using simple language to “name” anticipated and experienced emotions, actually lowers  the arousal of the limbic system producing a quieter brain state. This in turn, allows the PFC to function more effectively.   According to Dr. Libermann,”When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala, when you attach the name ‘Harry,’ you don’t see the reduction in the amygdala response. In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words; you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses. As a result, an individual may feel less angry or less sad.”

The implications of these findings in the workplace (and beyond) are staggering. While we are busy pushing down our true feelings (in some cases we call this being “professional”) we’re not only denying our real experience but we are taxing our cognitive functions and wasting precious brain fuel in the process.

  • Creativity Needs Cultivation – A number of large surveys done in the past few years show creativity at the top of the business leader’s wish  list in today’s competitive  environment. It’s instructive to know then, what creativity needs to thrive.  Old notions still prevail about “creative” types – that like “leaders” “creatives” are born – not made.  Another prevailing belief that plays a role against “nurturing” the seeds of creativity are attitudes towards sleep. Yes, sleep!

Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School explains, There is a cultural bias against sleep that sees it akin to shutting down – or even death. Most people think of the sleeping brain as similar to a computer that has gone to sleep. Wrong. Sleep enhances performance, learning and memory. Most unappreciated of all, sleep improves creative ability to generate aha! moments and to uncover novel connections among seemingly unrelated ideas.”

While nap rooms in today’s corporations are still rare, resting the body and mind doesn’t just depend on a nap.  Increased workloads and cyber overload all contribute to a general sense of overwhelm and exhaustion.  It’s not uncommon for people to work 12 hours a day, which in many cases has become the new normal.  Many organizational leaders model and expect it.  But findings in neuroscience signal that an entirely new mindset needs to inform how and how long people should work to perform optimally.

  •  Learning Mindfulness – The popular imagery still evokes a holy man sitting in an ashram meditating most of the day. There is general misunderstanding about the differences between being “mindful” and practicing mindfulness meditation. While research results show that meditation offers a wide range of benefits (in remarkably short periods of time) learning to become more “mindful” enhances cognition in amazing ways.

A simple description of mindfulness is “slowing down and examining one’s thought process and learning to be in the moment.” Simple enough it seems, but a tall order for most people. UCLA researchers also describe mindfulness as a technique where someone pays attentions to their thoughts, present emotions and body sensations, without “passing judgment or reacting.” The result is that the amygdala is less activated and emotions are less intense. A major Canadian study showed mindfulness to be as effective as antidepressants when it came to preventing depression relapse.  Other studies show it offers significant benefits in response to stress and anxiety.

The good news is that what we are learning about the brain and its effect on our well-being and work performance is rich with promise.  And nearly every study brings more useful – and potentially life changing information. The mysteries of the brain are unfolding.  Only a generation ago, we believed that our brains were static and fixed, prone to inevitable atrophy.  Now we are beginning to understand that the brain can rewire itself in remarkable ways. And we are the catalysts!

The not-so-good news is that what often remains – as stagnant and immobile as our brains are not – are the ways we still cling to old ideas about organizational systems that do not maximize human performance.

Thanks for reading,

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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  1. Are there books on this subject you could recommend?

  2. Nice! Keep up the good work.

  3. Sangeeta says:

    Thanks for compiling so many useful summaries in one place Louise.
    Along with neuroscience, the findings from The Institute of Heart Math are also supportive of the importance of emotional intelligence and mindfulness at the workplace.
    Society seems to have reached a point where we require science and research to justify and validate the value of returning to what our instincts and common sense naturally guide us to do. Such articles are useful in provoking the cynics to reconsider. All good wishes for the great work you are doing!

  4. Hi Sangeeta,
    Thanks for your wise comments. Yes, society, especially those in business, do seem to be more open to their own experience, once it is validated externally, in this case by science. I am grateful for that. I do think all of the recent neuroscience is opening a window to the path to self-knowledge. An interesting path to take us home.
    And yes, The Institute of Heart Math has been doing great work for many years in contributing to this knowledge.
    Thx again!

  5. Thank you for this useful and thought-provoking summary. I’m grateful to have found a kindred spirit with respect to the efforts and ideas that David Rock and others are contributing to improving our lives at work.
    Best regards,

    • Hello Andrew,
      Pleased that we found each other. Thanks for your interest and the comment. Yes, I think that David Rock has pioneered some great work in this area. Now I would like to see this integrated with the work on emotional intelligence and the groundbreaking neurobiological work of Dr Daniel Siegel. Let’s keep shining lights in this direction – and stay in touch!

  6. Denise Green says:

    Wonderful article! Thank you Louise. I plan on sharing this with my clients. You’ve probably seen Rock’s article, Managing With the Brain in Mind (available online somewhere or I can send you a copy) where he introduces the SCARF model. I find that I can easily get clients to read it (whereas they may be reluctant to read an entire book) and it really gets them seeing how they unwittingly create unsafe environments. All my best, Denise

    • Hi Denise,
      Thanks so much for stopping by. Yes, we are familiar with the SCARF model – and sharing the article with clients is a good idea. I really like your reference to “unwittingly creating unsafe environments.” Oh, if only the majority of organizations and leaders could get that. Hold the vision!
      Thx again,

  7. John Wenger says:

    Wow, great post, great to have found someone else who works in organisations who has heard of Daniel Siegel, great to read such a lucid, research-backed blogpost, great to have found another person who sees humans as systems and not automatons-who-work-in-cubicles.
    Glad I found your blog!

    • Hi John,
      Don’t you just love getting comments like yours! Especially after a long day and it’s still only 3PM?
      Thanks so much for your appreciation. And yes the “people” part is what drives our work. Too much unnecessary suffering in the workplace.
      This neuroscience post has gotten a great response since I posted it. The work in this area has really shifted and reinforced our thinking about what’s needed to maximize “engagement” and support people in finding more meaning in their work. I really do believe it will change the way we work over time.
      Pleased to discover your blog too – going over there now to subscribe – and thanks for the Twitter follow!

      • John Wenger says:

        Much appreciated Louise. I’m not surprised you have had such a warm response to your article. I look forward to reading more from you and to hearing comments you may have on my writings.

  8. HI Louise,
    I disagree…leave the neuroscientists with their brains and let’s focus on what we now know about human beings and get that knowledge organized. At least that is what I try to do.
    1. Managing expectations….that has been around at least since ancient Rome…we don’t need neuroscience to tell us that. Our politicians are very good at it….do they do secret courses in neuroscience?
    2. Emotional contagion is real….that probably predates Rome and goes back to primitive man: shamans knew all about that but little about biology. Police handling crowd control are aware of it: obviously they are dedicated to science as well as to beating up protesters.
    3. Suppressing emotions costs….true but releasing emotions also costs in the workplace. No one likes a ranter.
    4. Creativity needs cultivation….what skill, good behaviour, or positive attitude does not? Again, why do we need neuroscience to know this?
    5. Learning mindfulness…..I think Buddha got in first. Simple common-sense tells you that if you are inattentive you will miss things and make mistakes.
    I notice some sort of love affair with neuroscience which (being originally a research neurophysiologist) I cannot understand. This blog, like many in the blogosphere, seems to express a lost confidence in our own intuition and common-sense. I notice a fall-back on to extremes: one is spiritual aspirations and the other is physical science. Neither will do the job. It is possible to codify and apply common-sense reflection tp how we live, relate and work properly. But the Zeitgeist seems to be against it.
    Spirituality is no problem: it never is. However, I suspect that science is now where superstition was prior to the 18th Century Enlightenment: an impediment to proper thinking by ordinary people.

    • Hello Warren,
      I appreciate your taking the time to comment.
      I think of all knowledge as cumulative. I don’t think that we have to choose between neuroscience and common sense. Even though I agree that we are in the midst of a kind of romance with technology (neuroscience being part of that) the findings of neuroscience can help us to more deeply understand our internal and social natures. It is a great tool – but as with all tools must be used with conscious attention and application.
      I hope you will take a look at some of my earlier posts on emotional intelligence, thought and the 4 Rooms of Wellness. They all speak to the balanced and integrated understanding of human thinking, feeling and actions.
      I think this quote speaks to our discussion.
      “In our sheer preoccupation with technology, we do not realize the inherent artistic choices when creating technology … and the questioning and reflection that the process of creating art implies.”
      – Tapan Parikh –
      Thank you,

  9. Great article thank you. My experience is leaders like to know about this research and it lessens or removes much of the resistance to ‘soft’ skills.

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