Interesting Articles

Are you building an intelligent enterprise?

Posted on August 25, 2014. Filed under: Interesting Articles, Linda Ray, Practical Strategies, Tara Neven | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

In this post, Tara Neven, the co-founder and co-director of neuresource group,  looks at why applying neuroscience to organisational leadership matters and what it means to be an intelligent organisation.

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In today’s global economy and in an increasingly hyperkinetic business climate, an organisation’s long-term success is determined by the ability of its supervisors, managers or senior executives to lead effectively through periods of economic uncertainty and constant change. In an era of unprecedented complexity and disruptive change, organisations must respond quickly and creatively to shifting markets and fluctuating social, and political conditions—to survive and to thrive.

Aligning your people to your organisational strategy and having a clear roadmap for getting there, is one of the foundations of a balanced scorecard. A balanced scorecard supports you to build human capital value and an intelligent enterprise. We can’t fight biology but we can leverage what we know about it. As we understand more about how the human brain works, organisational leadership may become defined as the art of building ‘neurocapability’ and creating brain-friendly organisations.

Applying neuroscience to organisational leadership matters. Science is revolutionising our understanding of what it is to be human. An explosion of advances in human neuroscience is giving us a window into why people behave as they do and how we can manage our environments and behaviors with others to maximise results. These new scientific findings challenge old assumptions of what it means to lead. While intelligence is our greatest strategic asset, our way of life has become profoundly out of sync with our neurology, and we largely fail to practice brain-friendly leadership principles and practices.

So what is an intelligent organisation, and why should this be important to you as a business owner, director, decision maker or leader? Why should you give this focus and attention when there are so many other issues in your business to deal with (for some it is just about keeping the doors open)? Simply put, building a brain-friendly organisation addresses and manages the disconnect between what science knows and business does. Dan Pink showcased this disconnect in his 2009 Ted talk the puzzle of motivation. Fast forward five years and there is still a massive disconnect between what science knows and business does.

Our knowledge of neuroscience and its application to practical business practices and leadership is fast evolving. Some would even suggest we are living in a neuro-revolution. The question becomes: So what?  How can we tap into emerging insights about the brain and apply them to the everyday work environment? How can we use what we’re learning to address the engagement and leadership crisis also regularly featured in the media?

If we embrace this new lens (through what we call the ‘neuro-lens’) to review and reinvent leadership and organisational practices and frameworks, we stand to be far more effective managers, leaders, CEOs, executives, and supervisors. The best organisations and the wisest leaders intuitively know how to create ‘brain-friendly’ environments, and they are reaping the rewards in productivity, performance, staff retention, and engagement levels.

In her article about building brain friendly organisations, Janet Crawford looks at the implications of taking brain science into the workplace. Crawford argues that many “nice to have” neuroleadership practices are, in fact, critically necessary. Organisations today use the rhetoric of work life balance, diversity and that they don’t tolerate bullying but have no real idea how to overcome it. Janet states that even if an organisation acknowledges that brain-friendly work environments are desirable, most organisations don’t truly understand how to create them, or don’t believe that they are possible.

She points out that if, as leaders, we commit ourselves to the task of cultivating environments, which optimise the human operating system, much of the rest will take care of itself. People will be excited and motivated and actually become engaged. This engagement, providing the processes are in place will last. They will think clearly and efficiently. Creativity and focus will abound. Collaboration and commitment become possible.

Neuroscience confirms something that HR and OD professionals have known for a long time: People fear change and change in the modern world is constant and is only going to get faster and more constant, change is the new norm. We need to get better at understanding change approaching change with the brain in mind.

A recent whitepaper, The Neuroscience of Leadership: Practical Applications, authored by Kimberly Schaufenbuel, program director of UNC Executive Development, examines this emerging field and provides examples of how applying neuroleadership can improve leadership practices, change management, innovation and creativity, and employee engagement.

According to Schaufenbuel, “HR professionals and leaders should try to reduce stress and anxiety by focusing on the positive aspects of the proposed change, asking questions, and listening actively to employees’ concerns. This process enhances the brain’s ability to adjust its response to the change and perceive it as non-threatening.”

If you want to get started on building your intelligent enterprise, consider these questions, can you answer or measure them?

  • Do you have a clear strategic vision?   – do your people know your “why” (watch Simon Sinek on TED Talks)
  • Have you got the right people doing the right thing and are you supporting and developing human capital?
  • Are your people consistently in a state of high engagement?
  • Can your people quickly respond to unexpected challenges?
  • Do your people know what they need to do every day to execute on strategy and have they got a forum to collaborate to discuss this?

Brain-friendly organisations are intelligent enterprises and they get a tick for each of these questions. They understand the importance of supporting people across the organisation to connect to the purpose or the why.

Brain-friendly organisations understand people are their greatest asset and tapping into their strengths and talents and having them doing the right job supports consistent high levels of motivation.

Brain-friendly organisations are committed to creating a workplace that engages the hearts and minds of people. Employees are not viewed as commodities with endless supplies of energy, rather they are viewed as a valuable resource.

In a climate of rapid change brain-friendly organisations have practices in place that support the organisation to be agile. Agile organisations are innovative and take advantage of unexpected opportunities as they arise. People in the business are supported to challenge the status quo and to think outside of the box.

Brain-friendly organisations understand people need a clear roadmap to implement the business strategy and support people to pursue business goals by creating strategies that keep people’s attention focussed on the areas that are important. This is key in the current environment where invitations to distract us and derail our focus are rife.

One of the best compliments I had recently from a senior leader in a large transport infrastructure company we are working with is ‘What have you done to my people? They are thinking for themselves and coming up with solutions’. Some small ‘tweaks’ to how an organisation is operating can reap big rewards. Is your organisation taking advantage of the neuro-revolution? Is it time to address any disconnects between what science is showing us and what your business does?

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Collaborate Across Teams, Silos, and Even Companies

Posted on August 12, 2014. Filed under: Interesting Articles | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Business psychologist discusses the need for collaborative leadership and the five factors that drive success in collaboration.



Everywhere I turn right now, I hear leaders talking about their need for collaborative leadership. It’s being identified as the fundamental differentiator in achieving strategic objectives. In order to make a difference though, it has to go beyond the polite, thoughtful behaviours of involving others, sharing information and lending strength when it’s needed. I define real collaborative leadership as: facilitating constructive interpersonal connections and activities between heterogenous groups to achieve shared goals. It is proactive and purpose-driven.

Dubai Airports offers a case study. Leaders there are being incredibly proactive in their collaborative leadership efforts, with a very clear purpose. While already running the world’s busiest airport (passenger traffic grew to almost 66.5 million in 2013, a 15% rise on the previous year), they recognised that to achieve their vision of becoming the world’s leading airport company, they need to drive a new service culture through the 3,400-person organization. But they knew they couldn’t make a meaningful change in their culture alone. To change customers’ real experience of Dubai Airports, they needed to engage their vendors and partners as well.

One of the outcomes is a customer-service training program that is being rolled out over a three-year period across many stakeholder organizations and 43,000 employees. The Dubai Airports team is investing in training for over 39,000 people outside of their own organisation, aiming to ensure behavioral consistency and therefore customer experience consistency at every possible touch point. Samya Ketait, VP for Learning and Development, says, “This is a huge project, but a worthwhile one. It means that regardless of who you meet at Dubai Airports – a police officer, a cleaner, an immigration officer… you should have the same positive customer experience. Collaborating with our stakeholder leaders has made this possible.”

While it’s spoken of highly in organisational life, it’s not something that necessarily comes easily. It may seem like a lovely, generous gesture of Dubai Airports to offer to provide customer-service training for so many other organisations’ employees, but the leaders from outside who bought into these collaborative processes had to weigh the costs of their employees’ time out of work to participate and to trust Dubai Airports with training their teams in a way that would match their own organization’s values and objectives. To sustain the three-year collaborative process and achieve its goals, these leaders recognised the behaviors that would make it work.

When it comes to collaborative leadership, these factors can drive success:

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    Photo credit: Paul Shanks

    Focusing on interests rather than positions. As with negotiations and conflict resolution, one of the most important keys to successful collaborative leadership is focusing on interests rather than positions. When leaders are “collaborating” they are typically not from the same team – otherwise we would most likely frame it as “teamwork.” What makes teamwork different from collaboration is the goal. In collaborative leadership cases the goals may be different – the leaders may have different positions, but yet common ground can be almost always be found at the level of interests. In collaborating with others, ask: “What’s most important to you here? What really matters?”. Encourage their openness and foster trust by sharing personally what your main drivers are.

  • Being an agent and a target of influence. We spend a lot of time in leadership development helping professionals to have greater influence (i.e., be a more successful agent of influence). Rightly so, as influence (e.g., influencing people towards common goals) is at the core of what constitutes leadership. Of equal importance when it comes to collaborative leadership is being prepared to be a target of others’ influence. This requires: openness to alternative ideas; inquisitiveness to understand the foundation of others’ arguments before pushing back and asserting one’s own ideas; and recognition of the value the other party has and therefore can add to the collaborative venture.
  • Having clear roles and responsibilities. Research has shown that where leaders are successfully leading together, they have a clear sense of who is responsible for what. Mapping out these roles and responsibilities early, and refining them along the collaborative journey, ensures a smoother road.
  • Sharing and acknowledging the credit. We know that acknowledging our own part in a problem, even if it’s taking only 5% of the blame, alleviates tension during conflict and leads to faster reconciliation. The reverse is true of facilitating collaborative success. Acknowledging others’ contributions – be they big or even incredibly small, in the success of our ventures, energizes them in our collaborative efforts. Nothing undermines collaborative leadership like one leader taking — be it actively or passively allowing others to allocate them — all the credit.
  • Carving out space and time to collaborate – and a mission worthy of that effort. Too often in organisational life we know we’re meant to be collaborating and so try to squeeze it into our schedules when really we just want to get the pressing things on our to-do list done, or collaborate simply to the point of meeting our own immediate priorities. In order for collaborative leadership to be purposeful and sustainable, it needs to meet all parties’ true interests, warrant their time, and help them achieve their core objectives. Leaders need to highlight why this particular collaboration matters (not just extol “collaboration” in general), what difference it will make, and encourage the project’s participants to create the time and space it deserves.

One of the most exciting parts of the collaborative leadership journey is that while it is purpose-driven (there are clear goals and objectives in mind to achieve along the way), the end is unwritten: we never know where our collaborative leadership efforts may take us. One door opens another possibility and one creative venture prequels another.


Article first published on the HBR Blog Network in July 2014.



 is a business psychologist, leadership advisor, and Visiting Fellow in the Department of Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Professional flow in the brain-friendly workplace

Posted on June 5, 2014. Filed under: Interesting Articles | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Dr. Erika Garms transforms theory into practical, exciting tools and strategies for professionals.  Her focus is to incorporate brain science research into existing workplace practices to yield lasting behavior change and learning. In this article, she looks at how getting in a flow state engenders deep engagement, something that positively impacts organisational productivity.





I would venture to guess that most of you have experienced the feeling of being “in the zone” with your professional work. By that I mean feeling perfectly challenged so that you are engaged, just slightly pulled outside of your comfort zone, and also supported in your learning and risk-taking. Perhaps you felt this when you took a lead role in an area in which you were less familiar, or on a project that represented some newness or risk to you. You may have been “in the zone” after having intentionally learned and practiced a skill.

Professor and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to this beautiful balance in the place between challenge and anxiety as being “in flow.” When we can pinpoint for ourselves what kind of external and internal factors have allowed for us to be in “flow” in the past, we may be able to re-create this zone. I think I’ve done that, and I want to share with you what this zone is for me, as a preface to a four-part Human Capital Community of Practice blog series on brain-friendly workplaces.

Throughout my career, I have needed to understand why things worked, or didn’t. It isn’t comfortable—or self-respecting—to me to grab a popular teaching method or a culture change system (for example) and impose it onto learners or employees in good faith. There were times at meetings with colleagues that I know I was the oddball, having not yet started to use an approach that everyone else had incorporated into their work environments. But unless I knew that the approach was safe—that the intended and unintended outcomes of trying it out would not harm people consciously or subconsciously—I didn’t feel it was in good conscience to use it.

Concern for organisation and individual

Though at first blush it may seem at odds with the organizational effectiveness focus, humanness in the workplace has also been extremely important to me since I first set foot in the labour pool. The compelling central idea for me has been that workplaces and the people within them must treat each other with respect, first and foremost. With record high use of short-term disability leave and worker’s compensation for anxiety and depression in the workplace, a sharp rise in workplace bullying, and mind-numbing malaise and disconnection, those in today’s workforce need support.

I’d used brain science for decades in learning contexts, but when I began to integrate brain science with management theory, change theory, leadership theory, and organisational behavior, my head exploded (in a good way). Now, after working at the intersection of neuroscience, sociology, learning, and organisation development for years, I can tell you with certainty that this is my “super-flow” zone. In this line of study and work, I get to apply research from connected fields of study to individuals to help them grow and change. I also am fortunate to take a whole system organisation view to bring positive change to entire workplaces, which is very fulfilling. And even more broadly, from my little spot in the world, I feel that I am contributing useful ideas and practices to help the morphing shape of work and the workplace in a time when people and their organisations are struggling in many ways.

Introducing brain-friendliness

In The Brain-Friendly Workplace: Five Big Ideas From Neuroscience That Address Organizational Challenges (ASTD Press, 2014), I define brain-friendly workplaces as organisations where people are able to do their best thinking and produce great work in vibrant, healthy environments.

I’ll lay out the ideas behind brain-friendliness here, and invite your comments in response. Brain-friendliness in the workplace combines tenets of good management, effective leadership, organisational health and wellbeing, positive and productive cultures, and humanity and respect. It is equal parts organisation effectiveness and positive psychology. While it can start in one work group, it is ideal when the entire organisational culture has embraced the foundations of brain-friendliness and the principles are embedded at all levels.

Personal interaction habits

Though it is better to have some work groups practicing brain-friendliness than none at all, it can also be anxiety-producing to our brains to witness misalignments within an organisation. Have you worked in a company where leadership touted a set of particular values, but in action, the rewards and performance management systems reinforced very different kinds of values and behaviors? This is internal contradiction, and it generates distrust. Distrust engenders disengagement. Disengagement kills productivity, and the whole organisation’s success metrics suffer.

Brain-friendly workplaces make practical use of the neuroscience that shows us how we make sense of information; how we interpret language; how we move toward goals; how we change and learn; and how to manage our own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Informed by the field of neuroleadership, brain-friendly workplaces also have a point of view about collaboration and decision-making that informs certain routines and procedures.

As we’ll see in next week’s blog post, brain-friendly workplaces share some characteristics with organisations that boast high employee engagement or high productivity. Stay tuned!


This article, the first in an ongoing series, was first published on the ASTD blog in April 2014.



erika garms copyDr. Erika Garms transforms theory into practical, exciting tools and strategies for professionals.  Erika works with learning and development and organization development practitioners to incorporate brain science research into their existing approaches to yield lasting behavior change and learning. She helps business leaders and managers shape brain-friendly workplaces where people can do their best work, work effectively together on high-performing teams, and maintain healthy and thriving work environments.

Erika considers herself both a humanist and a social scientist, intrigued by blending the art and science of learning, performance, and change. Erika earned her BA and MA from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a PhD from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. She completed a post-graduate program in neuroscience of leadership from the NeuroLeadership Insitute and University of Sussex.  Erika also leads the Minneapolis-St. Paul NeuroLeadership Institute Local Interest Group, one of just a handful in the U.S. at this time. Erika is a regular workshop, keynote, retreat, and breakout session speaker.


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The Power of Emotional Intelligence

Posted on May 8, 2014. Filed under: Interesting Articles | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Charles Coy, the Senior Director of Analyst and Community Relations at Cornerstone, considers innovations in talent management and speaks about the power emotional intelligence adds to our businesses.




When companies are recruiting or assessing a candidate’s capacity for a position, it’s not uncommon for them to administer a personality test such as the Myers-Briggs. While personality tests may offer some insight, they fail to capture a key indicator for success — emotional intelligence. For example, hiring extroverts for sales positions is a tried and true practice, but based on a personality test, an employer can’t tell whether a candidate will be persistent enough to develop and close new deals. Emotional intelligence (EQ) involves a person’s capacity to be empathetic, maintain optimism in the face of adversity, provide clear thinking and remain composed in stressful situations — all important traits for a leader or team player. When used as an alternative or supplemental tool in the recruiting process, testing emotional intelligence can yield significant long-term results.

“An employee with high emotional intelligence can manage his or her impulses, communicate with others effectively, manage change well, solve problems, and use humor to build rapport in tense situations,” says Mike Poskey, vice president of human resources consulting firm ZeroRisk.

Instead of looking at personality and experience, companies are increasingly incorporating EQ into the recruitment process. One in four hiring managers say they are placing greater emphasis on emotional intelligence when hiring and promoting in the wake of the recession, according to a Career Builder survey.

Emotional Intelligence Programs at Work

There’s no doubt that there’s value in evaluating job candidates based on their emotional intelligence, but how do companies put that into action? Here’s how three companies are employing emotional intelligence programs:

Become centered

Google, known for its innovative programs, offers emotional intelligence training to help employees find their inner peace and a state of meditation. More than 1,000 employees have completed the Search Inside Yourself (SIY) program, developed by Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s resident “Jolly Good Fellow,” according to Wired. Employees learn about the five crucial skills of empathy, motivation, social skills, self-awareness and self-regulation.

Teach soft skills

The world’s second-largest construction equipment maker Komatsu looked to increase the emotional intelligence of its employees after the economic plummet in Europe by first conducting engagement surveys and addressing issues that were top of mind for employees. Managers and employees alike participated in a leadership program that encouraged innovation and developed people-based skills.

Hire for retention

To tackle the problem of high turnover, auto dealer Park Place Dealerships focused on emotional intelligence during the recruiting process. The company evaluated a candidate’s emotional response to various phrases such as “With this ring, I thee wed.” After integrating emotional intelligence into the hiring process, sales employee turnover decreased from 60 percent to 12 percent on an annual basis, according to Chief Learning Officer.

3 Tips for Integrating EQ into Recruitment

Baking emotional intelligence into the evaluation process is easy with these three steps, notes Anna Gibbons, corporate communications manager at recruitment agency Sellick Partnership:

  1. Write a job description that goes beyond qualifications to describe softer skills required, such as adaptability, communication skills, teamwork and motivation.
  2. Employ psychometric testing, such as the Thomas International Personal Profile Analysis (PPA), to identify what motivates candidates and how they react under pressure.
  3. Pay attention to a candidate’s body language and word choice — they can greatly impact first instincts, which hiring managers should always take into account.

“In every decision, emotions count,” Max Ghini, director of global strategy for emotional intelligence consulting firm Six Seconds, told Chief Learning Officer. “Better engagement is key for bottom line, and emotional intelligence is greatly connected to organisational performance.”


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Charles Coy is the Senior Director of Analyst and Community Relations at Cornerstone. He is responsible for getting the word out about Cornerstone as a company, as well as evangelizing Cornerstone’s innovation in talent management technology solutions. Charles continues to be interested in the ways that technology can impact how organizations evaluate, motivate and value their employees.

Charles brings a background in public policy analysis and research to Cornerstone. Having studied regional economic development and education policy, Charles originally came to the company with an interest in the convergence of technology and higher education.  He has worked in marketing, sales, and corporate development at Cornerstone since the early days of the company more than a decade ago.

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Do we have the heart to lead?

Posted on April 3, 2014. Filed under: Interesting Articles | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Chris Phillips, the Manager for People & Performance at Gladstone Regional Council and an expert on human capital management, looks at the neuroscience behind leadership and why it takes emotional courage to lead well.



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We know all the skills – we did the course, read the articles, and got the latest email. There’s nothing new about leadership – at least in theory.

Why is it, then, that we all talk about leadership like breakfast cereal but rarely do people demonstrate quality leadership? Why is it easier for us to recall the leadership flaws and failings than the inspirations? When discussing leadership with the participants of my Leadership Academy Future Leaders Program, a common response is, “I was taught what not to do!” And, while the answer is simple to identify, it’s complex in terms of how the brain affects the outcome.

Leadership requires emotional courage

Plato once said, “All learning has an emotional base”. He died in 347 BC, so we’ve known about the connection between emotion and leadership for a little while now! If emotion is as important as all that, we are in real leadership trouble – particularly those of us leaders who are male, because we are taught from an early age that emotions are bad and being emotional is worse.

A few years back, David Rock came up with the SCARF model to explain the basic areas the brain experiences motivation: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness.  If we consider that the brain has two primary stimuli being threat (risk) and reward, and we apply the SCARF Model to our actions and reactions, we start to understand the “why” behind our lack of emotional courage to lead.

The basic principles of threat and reward, of course, colour our interactions daily. We subconsciously move away from anything we consider to be detrimental to our overall well being, and we welcome what we perceive to be rewarding. Does this mean, then, that even if we are often highly skilled at the theories of leadership and can rattle off principles and core competencies with ease, we are not necessarily wired to put them into practice?

As individuals we have a series of radars that apply to perceptions of risk and reward with the radar changing regularly. Our radars are affected by all sorts of influences and can vary each and every hour; however, we do have a base measure that constitutes our ‘point of truth’.

Do we have the heart to lead?

Looking at the SCARF domains is instructive as a tool to show us the inherent problems with the courage to lead.

Let’s take a look at two of the areas of motivation: status and fairness. As a CEO, you may find that your radar regarding status is basically clear: you’ve achieved the status you were chasing for so long and your reward stimuli is satisfied. However, others around you may not feel the same in terms of their own ambitions, something that can colour your relationships and affect how you work together.  At the same time, with all the things that can affect your business, you may find your ‘fairness radar’ is buzzing, and the incoming missiles are not necessarily friendly fire. In fact, there are all kinds of fairness threats that can influence you and your business. It makes sense that your threat stimuli is heightened in this area, something that can blindside your balance.

When we have a heightened radar for parts of the SCARF model, our sliding scale of threat and reward is also skewed, which means our actions and attitude can be affected. Of course there are a number of other things in play, including our own biases, past experiences and memories that influence us.

As we gain self-awareness, we can start to manage our ability to lead and apply those core competencies we know are pivotal to leadership success.

To enable improvement in the leadership of our organisations, we look for reiteration of the good bits of leadership or exposure and forced rectification of the not so good bits. This takes courage, but it’s well worth the effort.

The 3600 Feedback Example

3pfs13600 feedback has been used traditionally to force an awareness of individual weaknesses in order to design a plan to improve behaviors. This, of course, is inconsistent with the idea of strengths-based leadership, identified by Tom Rath and Gallup. They claim there are three keys to being a more effective leader: knowing your strengths and investing in others’ strengths, getting people with the right strengths on your team, and understanding and meeting the four basic needs of those who look to you for leadership.

A 3600 feedback format can trigger a considerable threat response and turn the radar on in a negative way for all elements of the SCARF model. If we believe Plato, this means we have little chance of learning, since the brain will make every effort to move away from the threat (in this case the threat is the negative connotations of being exposed for weaknesses).

According to Phil Dixon, David Rock, and Kevin Ochsner in an article they wrote for NeuroLeadership Journal entitled “Turn the 360 around”, this feedback format affects people in the following ways:

  • Status is threatened because you are being questioned now even though you’ve used this same behavior to achieve success
  • Certainty is threatened because there is now a question about what you have been doing all these years
  • Autonomy is threatened because your peers are publicly judging you
  • Relatedness is threatened because you perceive friends turning into foes as they comment on your performance
  • Fairness is threatened as you think, Why should I be under the spotlight?

Unfortunately, when it comes to enabling people to use the competencies they have been shown, we sometimes use the very tools that narrow the brain due to the pressure it places on it. This, in turn, prevents us from embedding the thinking and transforming it into action.

From threat to reward

Real leadership means that we need to stand apart from all that is happening around us — in effect, we need to stand out from the crowd. That can be scary! No wonder many leaders appear to lack emotional courage and no wonder their leadership is floundering. We are often stuck in the ‘freeze phase’ of threat.

That is not to suggest that we should be elitist or egotistical — far from it  — we simply need to learn to be out of our comfort zones and love it. To have the heart to lead, to be able to have those ‘difficult conversations’, we need to turn leadership from threat to reward. Maybe leadership should be renamed “chocolate”!

As leaders ourselves, we must maximise the rewards that leadership brings. Read any leader’s bio and there will be a reference to enabling others to grow and be the best they can. This is an immense reward by itself but consider the exponential effect it has on an organisation and an organisation’s resilience.

Now is the right time to consider Pareto’s Principle, also known as the 80/20 Rule, which, should serve as a daily reminder to focus 80 percent of your time and energy on the 20 percent of you work that is really important. Don’t just “work smart”, work smart on the right things. in order You can apply the principle however you like to accommodate the situation you are in, even saying 20% of your staff create 80% of your work but the principle is the same. It’s the 20% that is the most challenging yet, at the same time, the most rewarding.

Managers tend to aartworks-000037686520-8gs0zt-originalvoid the 20% that is important to getting results. The leaders who do invest in that 20% get unashamedly positive results. That 20% is people. This makes perfect sense –after all, if it wasn’t for people we wouldn’t have anything worth leading.

If we are to turn leadership back into the reward end of our continuum, we need to reinforce the positives in order to enable our brains to re-wire the behaviors. Our courage to lead, our emotional courage, cannot be built from a threat base, so it is time we re-thought our approach to building leadership.

Do we have the heart to lead? Maybe not, however, we do have the brain to change that!




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Chris is currently the Manager for People & Performance at Gladstone Regional Council, where he is building and ‘driving’ his leadership and mentoring framework and creating meaningful change in culture, attitude, and performance within this ‘dynamic’ organisation. He has previously been recognised for his contemporary leadership by being named the Professional Manager of the Year (Rockhampton) by the Australian Institute of Management . Chris is a passionate student of neuroscience and believes in the potential the field has to revolutionise our thinking about leading people. His goal is to help and support others to successfully become the best they can be through coaching, mentoring, and empowerment.





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The neuroscience of talent management

Posted on March 13, 2014. Filed under: Human Capital, Interesting Articles | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Karen Borgelt, a ‘Neuro Social Science’ expert, weighs in on the neuroscience of talent management and what we can do to build winning teams.




It seems that every few years we are confronted by jargonistic words and phrases that seem to be revamped versions of earlier ones. Anecdotal reports indicate that “Talent Management” is one such phrase. Even though the term has been in common use since the beginning of this millennium, talent management has generally not been embraced in organisations as well as it might. Why is this? Feedback to this question seems to indicate that the term Talent Management is either largely not understood or the focus of talent management is limited in most organisations. With this in mind, let’s go back to basics.

What is talent management?

Generally speaking, talent management has to do with:

  • Recruiting and/or developing an ongoing pool of eligible, skilled, and knowledgeable people at all organisational levels
  • Preparing them for, and appropriately placing them into, suitable roles (ahead of a need)
  • Ensuring they are technically and behaviourally capable of performing their duties to a defined standard and level of performance
  • Ensuring they are appropriately supported and developed for their current and future roles

In following these guidelines, talent management provides the organisation with the necessary quantity and quality of human expertise when it needs it, which makes it possible for the organisation to achieve its short and long-term goals. Now this might seem an overly simplistic view and many may think that their organisation is already doing this, however, it’s not always the case.

A closer look

The concept of talent management has been long understood in the sporting world where clubs ‘buy in’ or develop and support up-and-coming players through the ranks. However, how many sportspeople do we hear of who display brilliant on field (technical) skills and yet their off-field (behavioural) antics bring them and their club (or even the game) into disrepute?

Sporting clubs are not alone in managing the technical aspects over the behavioural aspects of their ‘talent’. Unfortunately, we don’t always recognise poor talent management while it is occurring, but we do see the fall-out.

To name but a few of the issues, demotivation, absenteeism, stress, lack of commitment, lack of productivity, cliques, high staff turnover, regular external recruitment and even complaints, industrial disputes and bad reputations can all be linked to poor or ineffective talent management.

Thankfully, there are organisations that understand that talent management is not only paramount for performance, but also that it requires a balance between developing and aligning a person’s technical and behavioural knowledge, skills, and behaviour with the organisation’s needs.

A fitting metaphor

yachtPerhaps the effects of comprehensive talent management can be viewed through the eyes of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. A yacht can be likened to an organisation. It is an entity in its own right as is an organisation. It has a purpose and a goal; people work in it and for it so that it can achieve its short and long-term goals; it has owners or investors; it has a Skipper who can be likened to a CEO and a crew (like staff) of specialised, well trained people.  Just like an organisation, a yacht has to be a safe place in which to work and has to be in good shape so that it is able to stay afloat and compete with others in its own class.

Of course if the boat has any chance of winning it can’t rely on the quality and seaworthiness of the vessel alone. The winning edge usually comes down to not only the level of technical talent displayed by the skipper and crew (their sailing ability) but also a myriad of behavioural aspects such as their ability to work together, respecting the command of the Skipper and the other crew members, communicating in ways that support the efforts of the race,  the ability to make good decisions and executing them, and speedily acting and reacting to ever changing and challenging conditions without getting into unmanageable trouble.

Having a highly skilled compliment of talented people at all levels, who are on-board; are in the right place at the right time and who make and act on the right decisions and do so, is paramount if dire consequences are to be avoided. In a yacht race the effects of poor performance and poor knowledge and skill sets can be immediately seen. So it is for organisations. Unfortunately although the symptoms might be present, they are often go unacknowledged or are not addressed until a crisis looms.

Again, why does this happen?

An understanding of the brain

Well, there are many reasons, and they all have to do with the workings of the brain. The explosive advances in neuroscience over the last fifty years have provided even non-scientists with powerful insights into how the brain functions from its most basic unit – the neurone – to the complex networks of interconnections made in the brain that are at work with every thought, action, reaction and experience in our lives. How and why leader’s lead, why we follow certain leaders, how we learn, make decisions, interact, work or not work within a team, what makes us stressful or emotional, how well we identify and manage talent, and so much more can be explained and enhanced with an everyday understanding of the brain and what is at work in these situations.

Talent management is not another jargonsitic term. It’s at the very core of your organisation, right here and right now. Your organisation is already launched, is at full sail, and is competing on the high seas of competition. It is a crowded race. Luck and instinct, like the weather, may play a small part; however, how well your organisation meets and conquers the elements will mostly depend on the degree of technical and behavioural talent within the organisation (at all levels) and how well that talent is managed at all stages of what is an ongoing cycle.

If you really want the winning edge, having a basic understanding of the neuroscience that underpins talent management is like having a GPS to keep you on course. And the good news is that, for most organisations, it’s not too late to get into the race but it will take good, ongoing talent management if you want to win.


karen-borgelt-phdKaren Borgelt, PhD, is a leading researcher and practitioner in the field of Neuro Social Science with particular emphasis on the neuroscience of leadership. She has more than 25 years experience in delivering consulting services, training and mentoring to national and international clients in the following fields: organisational development; organisational behaviour; leadership and management development; and transitional change and transformational change.

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The brain science of sleep (or the trouble with the snooze button)

Posted on December 19, 2013. Filed under: Interesting Articles | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Since this is the last post before the neuresource group offices close for the holidays—and especially because we all plan to catch up on lost sleep—we thought we’d reprint this intriguing article by Maria Konnikova on the importance of maintaining a natural sleep cycle and the high cost of ignoring it.

Also, since we’ve just announced that our next working breakfast will feature Australian nap advocate Thea O’Connor on ways to manage fatigue (28 March 2014 in Brisbane), it’s not only an appropriate way to end a great year but a perfect way to set the scene for the next.  Happy, restful holidays to all!




On a typical workday morning, if you’re like most people, you don’t wake up naturally. Instead, the ring of an alarm clock probably jerks you out of sleep. Depending on when you went to bed, what day of the week it is, and how deeply you were sleeping, you may not understand where you are, or why there’s an infernal chiming sound. Then you throw out your arm and hit the snooze button, silencing the noise for at least a few moments. Just another couple of minutes, you think. Then maybe a few minutes more.

It may seem like you’re giving yourself a few extra minutes to collect your thoughts. But what you’re actually doing is making the wake-up process more difficult and drawn out. If you manage to drift off again, you are likely plunging your brain back into the beginning of the sleep cycle, which is the worst point to be woken up—and the harder we feel it is for us to wake up, the worse we think we’ve slept.

One of the consequences of waking up suddenly, and too early, is a phenomenon called sleep inertia. First given a name in 1976, sleep inertia refers to that period between waking and being fully awake when you feel groggy. The more abruptly you are awakened, the more severe the sleep inertia. While we may feel that we wake up quickly enough, transitioning easily between sleep mode and awake mode, the process is in reality far more gradual. Our brain-stem arousal systems (the parts of the brain responsible for basic physiological functioning) are activated almost instantly. But our cortical regions, especially the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in decision-making and self-control), take longer to come on board.

In those early waking minutes, our memory, reaction time, ability to perform basic mathematical tasks, and alertness and attention all suffer. Even simple tasks, like finding and turning on the light switch, become far more complicated. As a result, our decisions are neither rational nor optimal. In fact, according to Kenneth Wright, a neuroscientist and chronobiology expert, “Cognition is best several hours prior to habitual sleep time, and worst near habitual wake time.” In the grip of sleep inertia, we may well do something we know we shouldn’t. Whether or not to hit the snooze button is just about the first decision we make. Little wonder that it’s not always the optimal one.

sleepy at work 2Other research has found that sleep inertia can last two hours or longer. In one study that monitored people for three days in a row, the sleep researchers Charles Czeisler and Megan Jewett and their colleagues at Harvard Medical School found that sleep inertia took anywhere from two to four hours to disappear completely. While the participants said they felt awake after two-thirds of an hour, their cognitive faculties didn’t entirely catch up for several hours. Eating breakfast, showering, or turning on all the lights for maximum morning brightness didn’t mitigate the results. No matter what, our brains take far longer than we might expect to get up to speed.

When we do wake up naturally, as on a relaxed weekend morning, we do so based mainly on two factors: the amount of external light and the setting of our internal alarm clock—our circadian rhythm. The internal clock isn’t perfectly correlated with the external one, and so every day, we use outside time cues, called “zeitgebers”, to make fine adjustments that mimic the changes in light and dark that take place throughout the year.

The difference between one’s actual, socially mandated wake-up time and one’s natural, biologically optimal wake-up time is something that Till Roenneberg, a professor of chronobiology at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, calls “social jet lag”. It’s a measurement not of sleep duration but of sleep timing: in other words, are we sleeping in the windows of time that are best for our bodies?

According to Roenneberg’s most recent estimates, based on a database of more than sixty-five thousand people, approximately a third of the population suffers from extreme social jetlag—an average difference of over two hours between their natural waking time and their socially obligated one. Sixty-nine per cent suffer from a milder form, of at least one hour.

Roenneberg and the psychologist Marc Wittmann have found that the chronic mismatch between biological and social sleep time comes at a high cost: alcohol, cigarette, and caffeine use increase—and each hour of social jetlag correlates with a roughly thirty-three per cent greater chance of obesity.

Appointment Time“The practice of going to sleep and waking up at ‘unnatural’ times,” Roenneberg says, “could be the most prevalent high-risk behaviour in modern society.” According to Roenneberg, poor sleep timing stresses our system so much that it is one of the reasons that night-shift workers often suffer higher-than-normal rates of cancer, potentially fatal heart conditions, and other chronic disease, like metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Another study, published earlier this year and focussing on medical-school performance, found that sleep timing, more than length or quality, affected how well students performed in class and on their preclinical board exams. It didn’t really matter how long they had slept or whether they saw themselves as morning people or not; what made a difference was when they actually went to bed—and when they woke up. It’s bad to sleep too little; it’s also bad, and maybe even worse, to wake up when it’s dark.

Fortunately, the effects of sleep inertia and social jetlag seem to be reversible. When Wright asked a group of young adults to embark on a weeklong camping trip, he discovered a striking pattern: before the week was out, the negative sleep patterns that he’d previously observed disappeared. In the days leading up to the trip, he had noted that the subjects’ bodies would begin releasing the sleep hormone melatonin about two hours prior to sleep, around 10:30 P.M. A decrease in the hormone, on the other hand, took place after wake-up, around 8 A.M. After the camping trip, those patterns had changed significantly. Now the melatonin levels increased around sunset—and decreased just after sunrise, an average of fifty minutes before wake-up time. In other words, not only did the time outside, in the absence of artificial light and alarm clocks, make it easier for people to fall asleep, it made it easier for them to wake up: the subjects’ sleep rhythms would start preparing for wake-up just after sunrise, so that by the time they got up, they were far more awake than they would have otherwise been. The sleep inertia was largely gone.

Wright concluded that much of our early morning grogginess is a result of displaced melatonin—of the fact that, under current social-jetlag conditions, the hormone typically dissipates two hours after waking, as opposed to while we’re still asleep. If we could just synchronize our sleep more closely with natural light patterns, it would become far easier to wake up.

World-Times-ZonesIt wouldn’t be unprecedented. In the early nineteenth century, the United States had a hundred and forty-four separate time zones. Cities set their own local time, typically so that noon would correspond to the moment the sun reached its apex in the sky; when it was noon in Manhattan, it was five till in Philadelphia. But on November 18, 1883, the country settled on four standard time zones; railroads and interstate commerce had made the prior arrangement impractical. By 1884, the entire globe would be divided into twenty-four time zones. Reverting to hyperlocal time zones might seem like it could lead to a terrible loss of productivity. But who knows what could happen if people started work without a two-hour lag, during which their cognitive abilities are only shadows of their full selves?

Theodore Roethke had the right idea when he wrote his famous line “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.” We do wake to a sleep of sorts: a state of not-quite-alertness, more akin to a sleepwalker’s unconscious autopilot than the vigilance and care we’d most like to associate with our own thinking. And taking our waking slow, without the jar of an alarm and with the rhythms of light and biology, may be our best defense against the thoughtlessness of a sleep-addled brain, a way to insure that, when we do wake fully, we are making the most of what our minds have to offer.



mariaMaria Konnikova was born in Moscow, Russia and came to the United States when she was four years old. Her first book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Viking/Penguin, 2013), was a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into 16 languages. Her second book, on the psychology of the con, is scheduled for publication by Viking/Penguin next winter. Her writing has appeared online and in print in numerous publications including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Slate, The New Republic, The Paris Review, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, The Boston Globe, The Observer, Scientific American MIND, WIRED, and Scientific American.  Maria graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where she studied psychology, creative writing, and government, and received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia University. She previously worked as a producer for the Charlie Rose show on PBS. She still, on occasion, writes in Russian.

This article on sleep first appeared in The New Yorker on 10 December 2013.

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“Wired to Connect”

Posted on October 24, 2013. Filed under: Interesting Articles | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

Here at Brainwaves for Leaders, we were delighted to hear about the publication of Matthew Lieberman’s new book Social: Why our Brains are Wired to Connect. Since we frequently refer to Lieberman’s work in our Diploma of the Neuroscience of Leadership course, we are reprinting Gareth Cook’s recent interview with Lieberman for Scientific American.



When we experience social pain — a snub, a cruel word — the feeling is as real as physical pain. That finding is among those in a new book, Social, and it is part of scientist Matthew Lieberman’s case that our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water. He answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.

You argue that our need to connect socially is “powerful.” But just how powerful is it?

Different cultures have different beliefs about how important social connection and interdependence are to our lives.  In the West, we like to think of ourselves as relatively immune to sway of those around us while we each pursue our personal destiny.  But I think this is a story we like to tell ourselves rather than what really happens.

Across many studies of mammals, from the smallest rodents all the way to us humans, the data suggests that we are profoundly shaped by our social environment and that we suffer greatly when our social bonds are threatened or severed.  When this happens in childhood it can lead to long-term health and educational problems.  We may not like the fact that we are wired such that our well-being depends on our connections with others, but the facts are the facts.

What is the connection between physical pain and social pain? Why is this insight important?

Broken-Heart-Photo-from-www.21stcenturypoets.com_1Languages around the world use pain language to express social pain (“she broke my heart”, “he hurt my feelings”), but this could have all just have been a metaphor.  As it turns out it is more than a metaphor – social pain is real pain.

With respect to understanding human nature, I think this finding is pretty significant.  The things that cause us to feel pain are things that are evolutionary recognized as threats to our survival and the existence of social pain is a sign that evolution has treated social connection like a necessity, not a luxury.  It also alters our motivational landscape.  We tend to assume that people’s behavior is narrowly self-interested, focused on getting more material benefits for themselves and avoiding physical threats and the exertion of effort.  But because of how social pain and pleasure are wired into our operating system, these are motivational ends in and of themselves.  We don’t focus on being connected solely in order to extract money and other resources from people – being connected needs no ulterior motive.

This has major consequences for how we think about structuring our organizations and institutions.  At businesses worldwide, pay for performance is just about the only incentive used to motivate employees.  However, praise and an environment free from social threats are also powerful motivators.  Because social pain and pleasure haven’t been a part of our theory of “who we are” we tend not to use these social motivators as much as we could.

You devote a section of your book to what you call “mindreading.” What do you mean by this, and why do you see it as so essential?

First off, I’m not referring to the ESP kind of mindreading. I mean the everyday variety that each of us use in most social interactions.  We have a profound proclivity towards trying to understand the thoughts and feelings bouncing around inside the skulls of people we interact with, characters on television, and even animated shapes moving around a computer screen.  Although we are far from perfect at gleaning the actual mental states of others, the fact that we can do this at all gives us an unparalleled ability to cooperate and collaborate with others – using their goals to help drive our own behavior.

The funny thing is that thinking about others’ thoughts doesn’t feel particularly different from most kinds of analytical thinking we do.  Yet, fMRI research shows that there are two distinct networks that support social and non-social thinking and that as one network increases its activity the other tends to quiet down – kind of like a neural seesaw.  Here’s the really fascinating thing.  Whenever we finish doing some kind of non-social thinking, the network for social thinking comes back on like a reflex – almost instantly.

Why would the brain be set up to do this?  We have recently found that this reflex prepares us to walk into the next moment of our lives focused on the minds behind the actions that we see from others.  Evolution has placed a bet that the best thing for our brain to do in any spare moment is to get ready to see the world socially.  I think that makes a major statement about the extent to which we are built to be social creatures.

One of the long-standing mysteries of psychology is the question of where the “self” comes from, and what the “self” even means. Does your research shed any light on this question?

Social psychologists have long speculated that the self is a much more social phenomenon then it intuitively feels like from the inside.  There have certainly been studies over the years that are consistent with this idea, however neuroscience is bringing new data to bear that speaks directly to this idea.

mirror imageThere’s a region of the brain called “medial prefrontal cortex” that essentially sits between your eyes. This region has been shown again and again to be activated the more a person is reflecting on themselves. It is the region that most clearly and unambiguously is associated with “self-processing.”  If you think about your favorite flavor of ice-cream, precious personal memories, or consider aspects of your personality (e.g.  Are you generous? Are you messy?) you are likely to recruit this brain region.

Given that we tend to think of the self as the thing that separates us from others – that allows us to know how we are different and how to walk our own path – it would be surprising if this same medial prefrontal region was involved in allowing the beliefs of others to influence our own.  But this is exactly what we have seen in several studies.  The more active the medial prefrontal region is when someone is trying to persuade you of something (e.g. to wear sunscreen everyday) the more likely you’ll be to change your tune and start using sunscreen regularly.  Rather than being a hermetically sealed vault that separates us from others, our research suggests that the self is more of a Trojan horse, letting in the beliefs of others, under the cover of darkness and without us realizing it.  This socially-influenced self helps to ensure that we’ll have the same kind of beliefs and values as those of the people around us and this is a great catalyst for social harmony.

What does this research tell us about how we should be raising our children, and what does it mean for education? 
I think the most important thing is to educate our children about what we are learning about the true role of our social nature in our happiness and success in life.  Intellectually, I know all about these things, but if we don’t learn them as children, I’m not sure they ever really get into our guts and guide our intuitive decision-making.  I think kids would love learning about how the social world works and how their brain makes that possible.

The research on the social brain also leads to direct policy implications for education.  The data are clear that children learn better when they learn in order to teach someone else than when they learn in order to take a test.  Learning to teach someone else is prosocial and relies on the social networks of the brain.  We had no idea these networks could promote memory but now we do.  We ought to be doing much more peer learning, particularly age-staggered learning.  My ideal situation would be a 14 year who has trouble in the classroom being assigned to teach a 12 year old.  The teacher then becomes a coach helping to teach the 12 year old and the 14 year old will reap the benefits of prosocial learning.



Listen to Matthew Lieberman’s fascinating TED Talk on The Social Brain and It’s Superpowers




Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 1.45.43 PMGareth Cook is a Pulitzer Prize-winning magazine journalist, a contributor to, and the editor of a forthcoming book series, The Best American Infographics. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine,, WiredScientific American, the Washington Monthly, the Boston Globe Ideas section, Salon, and elsewhere. He is also editor of Scientific American’s Mind Matters neuroscience blog.

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How we really work

Posted on October 10, 2013. Filed under: Human Capital, Interesting Articles | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

At NeuroCapability, we were delighted to stumble on this great article about how we work from Why?, the Herman Miller blog.  Herman Miller is one of those design companies that transcends the simple practice of designing office furniture. By looking at human behaviour and designing spaces according to how we ‘really’ work, they have intuitively tapped into what neuroscience research is proving. By differentiating the subtleties of how, when, where, and why people connect—independent of content or industry—their team was able to articulate a universal “anatomy of collaboration”.


No matter what kind of work you do, or if you do it alone or together, this is how work gets done. In every workplace around the world you’ll find people engaged in the following 10 activities.

Collaboration, in its most basic form, is the collective process of creation, problem-solving, and achieving a common goal. But how we collaborate—both physically and virtually—varies greatly. Over the course of a year, Herman Miller’s Insight and Exploration team observed various workplaces to analyze how people collaborate and the ways in which their interactions vary over the course of a day, and throughout the life of a project. By differentiating the subtleties of how, when, where, and why people connect—independent of content or industry—the team was able to articulate a universal “anatomy of collaboration.” This research was supplemented with an exploration into individual work behaviors to help distill exactly how knowledge work happens. Senior Researcher Shilpi Kumar notes that, “outlining these collaborative work behaviors will empower designers and decision makers with a greater understanding for how people really work, and will enable more informed choices in regards to office spaces.”




Chat is an incidental and impromptu interaction with a colleague. It offers a chance to catch up, ask a quick question, or seek out an opinion. Chat often begins with a social focus that then sparks an idea or touches on an issue.





Converse is a purposeful interaction between two to three colleagues who address a defined topic. The activity varies in formality and privacy in accordance with the subject matter being addressed and the familiarity of the participants.  One or more of the parties may participate through a digital device.





Co-Create is the generation of new ideas and content among groups. The activity may range in scale and formality from a quick problem-solving exercise at a white board, to a multi-day retreat with an elaborate agenda. A variety of digital and physical tools assist people in sharing and generating ideas. Active engagement, conversation, content sharing, and creation are the key behaviors.


Divide & Conquer

Divide & Conquer

Divide & Conquer happens when a team with a common goal finds it valuable to work on individual components of a project while maintaining close proximity to one another. Working in parallel helps to resolve issues quickly and enables spontaneous collaboration as the need arises. Developments and content are shared among the group as the goal is reached.




Huddle occurs when a team needs to address an urgent issue, or discuss and receive instructions for a plan of action. The goal is shared resolution and accountability, with only a brief disruption to the flow of work.




Warm Up, Cool Down

Warm Up, Cool Down

Warm Up, Cool Down occurs in the time leading up to and immediately following more formally scheduled engagements. The “warm up” may consist of last-minute adjustments to a presentation, or productive conversation with colleagues. The “cool down” offers an opportunity to discuss the content of the meeting, set next steps, and ensure alignment.


Show & Tell

Show & Tell

Show & Tell is a planned gathering at which information is shared among teams, with clients and colleagues, or more broadly to the organization. The key focus is always the presenter or information being presented. These gatherings range from informal status updates and project reviews, to regimented and rehearsed speeches. The level of audience participation varies accordingly.


Process & Respond

Process & Respond

Process & Respond is the work generated by work. It occurs in response to (and generates) the feedback loop of emails, phone calls, texts, and messages that drive work forward. An individual may choose to set aside a specified time to do this work, or fill in the gaps of their day with it. It generally does not require extreme attention or deep thinking.




Create occurs when a person engages with the specific content associated with their role, solves problems, and develops deliverables. This activity is not limited to traditionally creative fields, but rather reflects the mix of concentrative, individual tasks that help move all work forward.





Contemplate is an opportunity for an individual to pause and consider the best way forward in their work, or ignore it momentarily and provide respite. The activity consists of whatever calms, inspires, and recharges the individual: enjoying a view of nature, reading a book or magazine, or sketching in a notepad. It also provides an opportunity to digest complex information with the necessary degree of focus. 



Written by: THE EDITORS
For more insights, concepts, ideas, and research about how we work, refer to the Herman Miller website.
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Strategies for Managing the Irrational Manager

Posted on August 15, 2013. Filed under: Interesting Articles, Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

The principal director of Eureka TrainingNick Mills—also a Neuroscience of Leadership graduate and a leading expert in emotional intelligence in Australia—looks at irrational responses in the workplace and offers effective neuroscience-based strategies for dealing with them.



‘I judge you on your behaviour, however, I judge me on my intent’.

When we look to others behaviour in the workplace, we tend to only look at the outward results of their actions in making judgements on the intent of those actions.  A careless remark by a manager, a ‘thoughtless’ lack of thanks for a great job done, an unreasonable request or, worse, an over the top reaction to a mistake can, and rightly does, upset our sense of social justice in the workplace and our sense of what may be right and wrong in terms of how to behave.

Sometimes we may react irrationally back at the person, however we won’t be as critical of our own reaction because we have the benefit of knowing our INTENT as well.  At other times we retreat, we may sulk, we may engage in avoidance behaviour or we may just stonewall.   A lot of the time, our reactions actually make it worse for us, while the irrational person seemingly wanders off and feels vindicated now that they’ve ‘put us in our place’.  Major frustration.

Therefore, this post is very much focused around our own reaction to irrational behaviour and helping us to move on from it more quickly and effectively.  I’m not excusing ‘bad’ behaviour at all; however, I do want to build self-regulation strategies so that I’m better at dealing with the ‘bad’ behaviour.

Getting better at dealing with ‘bad’ behaviour

We can maximise our impact on those we perceive we have trouble influencing, as well as those we feel are irrational, by first examining our own reaction to the aforementioned behaviour.  The idea behind this is that if you build your own self-regulation strategies and self-management tools, you can enhance your own effectiveness and also reduce the incidents of irrational behaviour in others by influencing and managing their behaviour.

The SCARF model, by David Rock, a leading neuroscience practitioner, builds on the understanding that the brain is focused on increasing or sustaining reward and avoiding negative experiences. From this focus on reward and avoidance of negativity develops various drives and behaviours in the workplace. Let’s look at each of these five areas of social response in a little detail:

1. Status

Our sense of worth.  Our sense of where we fit into the hierarchy at work both socially and organisationally. When we are given praise or criticism this will influence our status. Feelings of threat are processed uniquely by each of us. For example, being given a small ‘tip’, can already be seen as a threat and stimulate a defensive reaction.  Positivity and positive feedback is a much more effective way to generate wider status effects. This stimulates the brain’s reward centres and creates a positive environment for the brain.When we feel our own sense of status being threatened, we are less likely to respond in a way that helps the situation, we are more likely to ‘cherry pick’ pieces of information being sent by the other person and therefore.

Strategy for Improvement: We are more cued for ‘threat’ than ‘reward’ situations in the workplace. Take time to notice whether you are feeling slightly more threatened by someone’s behaviour and how that’s impact your sense of self. Status is a significant driver of workplace behaviour. You may just be encountering someone else’s extreme status threat response that’s unfortunately taking it out on you.

2. Certainty

Asking for clarity around tasks, asking for clarity around people and how people communicate is more important than you probably realise. In familiar situations the brain uses fewer resources than in unfamiliar situations. This means that in unfamiliar situations the brain will be strained, it will be uncomfortable. In familiar situations where the outcomes are predictable the reward system will be activated and a feeling of security will be generated. When we are asked to complete tasks or be involved in situations where we don’t have certainty about process or what the persons expects from us, it increases our stress levels dramatically and impairs our ability to be able to make effective balanced decisions.

Strategy for Improvement: Ask direct questions about expectations.  Don’t try and ‘fill in the gaps’ with your imagination.  If you are engaging in a task that someone has asked you to do and you don’t feel you have clarity, keep asking questions until you do.  When we find ourselves ‘reading meaning’ into situations, it may be time to directly ask what was meant, as often its meaning is not what we thought it was.  We spend 40% of our time predicting the future and most of the time we are wrong.

3. Autonomy

‘I have no control over my world.’ ‘I wish they would let me get my job done the way I want to do it, it would be so much better.’

Our ability to get things done through others is critical in the workplace.  Our need to feel safe in our abilities to get our job done competently without overt interference enhances our productivity, our engagement, our effectiveness and our accuracy.  Lack of autonomy can be processed as a threat situation and hence will promote stress and its negative implications in the brain.  Interestingly just being promised more autonomy will activate the reward system in the brain.

Strategy for Improvement: Focus on what you can control in your world.  Taking the time to focus on what you do have control of in your world (either at work or outside of work) helps to build perspective and increase the sense of autonomy.

4. Relatedness

‘I just can’t relate to this person’.  ‘She/he makes no effort to understand my perspective, it’s all about them.’

The social wiring in our brains means that in daily life and in business alike, we form social groups and build relationships. These groups build mutual trust and form a barrier against the unknown. These feelings and the interpersonal bonding promote the production of oxytocin, the trust and bonding hormone, which increases the positive feeling of trust and stabilizes these relationships.

But what do we do when we don’t feel a sense of connection?

Strategy for Improvement: Engage in some ‘cognitive empathy’.  Too often when we try to engage in empathy we are actually engaging in misplaced sympathy (or what we’d do if WE were them).  Cognitive empathy is about our ability to really try to be in that person’s shoes and engage with that person’s perspective.  A difficult and tricky thing when they might be yelling or narky at us.  By engaging in cognitive empathy which is about MAKING yourself look at it from their perspective, it can engage the flow of oxytocin.

5. Fairness

‘I can’t believe he just gave me that job to do; I can’t believe she spoke to me that way.’

Unfairness stimulates a strong emotional reaction in the brain, an automatic defence mechanism. This emotional reaction can for example be to shut down, with punishment of the source of the unfairness. This activates the reward centre in the brain and counteracts the negative impact of unfairness. This feeling of unfairness can unintentionally be promoted in organisations through unclear and in-transparent communication.  When we experience a strong unfairness threat (and irrational behaviour in others can cause that), we can quite often respond in a way that either exacerbates the situation or attempts to avoid the threat. Either are short-term fixes.

Strategy for Improvement: Label and reappraise:  How am I actually feeling in this incident?  What impact is it having on my ability to be rational in response?  How long is it likely to last and what’s another, more constructive way for me to react to it?

Photo: Libertine London
Photo: Libertine London

It’s all about gaining perspective

The essence of this model helps us to feel more energised, more trusting of colleagues, more engaged in our workplace and overall have a better understanding of why people do what they do.  The essence of this model is around gaining perspective. Negativity, irrational behaviour and conflict or however we wish to label it isn’t just something that makes our jobs uncomfortable from time to time, it is a real cost to business in the emotional toll it takes among staff morale. More compellingly, it translates to lost time  due to a lack of engagement leading to lower productivity, increased time spent by human resources or the practice manager having to deal with issues, and of course, the ever increasing litigious nature of our culture.

Finally, focus on your own and others SCARF triggers.  That person’s irrational reaction may be due to an unwitting status threat they experienced from another source that is currently being transferred to us.  We have the power and the choice to respond and react however we choose.  Make it proactive. Make it constructive.  And make it kind to your brain.


This article was first published in August 2013 in Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers, the Australasian Legal Practice Management Association blog.


Nick MillsNick Mills is an experienced leadership facilitator and coach with a passion for learning and facilitating change, and Principal Consultant at Eureka Training. He has worked with senior managers in professional services, corporate, not-for-profit and government agencies in Australia, as a leadership program facilitator, coach, trainer’s trainer and sales trainer. Nick has successfully managed and led management and leadership programs focused on building individual capability, with an emphasis on neuroscience, developing emotional intelligence and personal resilience.

Nick is accredited in a range of contemporary leadership tools, including Genos EI, Neuroscience, DISC, Situational Leadership and NLP.  He is also a devotee of lifelong learning.  Nick holds a Bachelor of Adult Education and Masters of Education and has recently completed a Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership.

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