B.E.T.T.E.R. Conversations

Posted on September 9, 2014. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

Michelle Loch is a PCC qualified coach and an expert in Neuroleadership.  Her passion is educating and coaching leaders to high performance using neuroscience as a foundational theory.


Better Conversations_Original

I work with individuals who want to be better leaders, and with organisations that want to grow and develop better leaders. Leadership is about change, and change happens one conversation at a time. But often, the quality of our conversations in the workplace is poor; and as a result, leadership is becoming an unnecessarily time-consuming, exhausting and all-encompassing (read increasingly frustrating) activity.

Do you find that your team is constantly interrupting you to ask questions? Do you sometimes feel that you seem to be doing everyone’s job for them? Is it sometimes just easier to ‘do it yourself’’ or tell them what they need to know?

Research conducted by Judith E Glaser, author of ‘Conversational Intelligence’, found that as many as 95% of verbal exchanges in the workplace were ‘telling’ conversations.

When we are told what to do, we don’t have to think! And when we don’t have to think, we don’t engage! And when we don’t engage we don’t own!

The brain is ‘lazy’. It likes to conserve energy and will avoid doing the ‘hard work’ of thinking unless it is forced to! And we can do that through cleverly constructed conversations.

As leaders, we want to engage our team (and ourselves) in ‘effortful thinking’ and to find ways to create new thinking, and mental shifts. We want to be constantly moving the thinking of our people forward and into new places.  The ROI on effortful thinking is engagement and ownership of work-related issues and resolutions. And who doesn’t want that!

Recent discoveries, particularly in the area of social cognitive neuroscience, provide us with a fact-based, deeper understanding of how relationships are built and broken; how emotions impact us and how to better communicate with each other. We can use this new knowledge to our benefit in our workplace conversations.

We can have B.E.T.T.E.R Conversations!    

BETTER Conversations…

B: are Brain-friendly

E: are Emotionally balanced

T: are Toward focused

T: have Tested Assumptions

E: are Encouraging

R: challenge Responsibility

 And above all, BETTER Conversations are USEFUL rather than just INTERESTING! Think about how many conversations in your work day are really useful in terms of achieving your KPI’s. When you really look into it, we spend a lot of conversation and meeting time in the INTERESTING space, which feels good, but doesn’t leverage our time and productivity.

Let’s take a quick look into what a brain-based BETTER Conversation looks like, along with the associated mindSHIFTS that BETTER Conversationalists make in their skilled conversations.

Brain-friendly:   We have a great capacity for complex and creative thinking. Unfortunately we have habitually developed ways of interacting that interfere with that capacity.  Brain-friendly conversations are structured to account for how our brain is principally organised and follow a process that creates the optimal environment for focus, insight, solution-focus and social connection – all the ingredients for employee innovation and collaboration.

BETTER Conversations are designed to reduce the myriad of potential threat responses in the brain that draw precious brain fuel away from the pre-frontal cortex, our thinking brain, to our primitive limbic system (our emotional and survival centre) – resulting in a literal ‘logic shutdown’.  Brain-friendly conversations also focus deliberately on questioning techniques designed to enable insight – the AHA moment – which is a underused, powerful motivator in terms of employee engagement and behaviour.

SO….the brain-friendly mindSHIFTs a BETTER Conversationalist makes are:



Emotionally balanced:  You would know from your own experience that you cannot be really upset and think logically at the same time. Perhaps you have experienced making some less than desirable decisions in a moment of excitement?

Our brain cannot be limbic (emotional) and logic (PFC focused) at the same time. BETTER Conversations include the use of techniques and skills to manage and capitalise on our emotional responses to get the best from our brain and our collaboration efforts.

SO….the emotional mindSHIFT a BETTER Conversationalist makes is:


Toward focused:  Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to rewire itself based on response to experience. It’s how we adapt to our environment, and it is one of the ‘big neuroscience discoveries’.

Hebb’s Law tells us that ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. We create and strengthen neuronal connections and pathways through attention and focus. The more attention we give to a particular pathway the stronger it becomes and the more prevalent it will be in our thinking, particularly when under stress when we have less executive brain to control where our thinking goes.

Creating new thinking means creating new neural pathways, and that happens via attention. BETTER Conversations deliberately focus on the Toward State – where we need to go and how we need to get there. So many of our work conversations focus on where we have been, and the issues at hand…which is interesting, but not particularly useful!

SO….the focus mindSHIFT a BETTER Conversationalist makes is:


Tested Assumptions:  If there is one thing that I would say creates the greatest barrier to great thinking and effective collaboration, it’s assumptions we make. Of course, assumptions are merely our brain’s way of using its energy effectively. It saves energy by accessing past memories and hardwiring to make sense and meaning of what is occurring in the moment. Unfortunately, that information may not always be the most useful or appropriate for the situation.

Our brains are also biased, again, a survival mechanism. BETTER Conversations are curious. They take the time to examine our assumptions, to test the possibility of bias and to bridge the gap between one person’s reality and anothers allowing for leveraged productivity and outcomes.

SO….the assumption mindSHIFT a BETTER Conversationalist makes is:


Encouraging:  Taking time to encourage the right thinking, and then hold attention on the right brain wiring can fast-track behaviour change. Carol Dweck’s work ‘Mindset’ suggests that we can operate in either Fixed Mindset or a Growth Mindset.   BETTER Conversations are great at creating Growth Mindsets, and people with growth mindsets….grow!

SO….the encouraging mindSHIFT a BETTER Conversationalist makes is:


Clear Responsibility:  And finally, BETTER Conversations are clear about who is responsible for doing the thinking in an interaction. We pay our people to think, but we often end up doing the thinking for them. Instead we need to support them to engage in their own effortful and insightful thinking.

Instead of asking ‘How can I help you with this problem?’ and ending up with the problem squarely in your court, you can ask ‘How can I help you think this though?’ As a leader, your role is to facilitate great work, rather than always being the consultant and driver of that work.

BETTER Conversations make it clear that people are responsible for their own thinking, and skillfully support them to do that thinking as well.

SO….the responsibility mindSHIFT a BETTER Conversationalist makes is:


Of course there are times when information simply needs to be shared, however even in those situations, using a brain-based approach to any conversation adds much value in making stuff stick.

Are you a BETTER Conversationalist? It’s a skill, and a skill that can be learned…after all, our brains are designed to make new connections and to learn and grow. Becoming a BETTER Conversationalist may require you to rewire you brain around how you engage with your people…but it’s worth it for the leverage, productivity, engagement and connection you will create in your team.

Michell Loch     Michelle Loch is the Founder and Director of UnLOCHed Potential and one of Australia’s leading experts in developing High Performance through NeuroLeadership, Team Engagement and Brain Fitness.
As a highly experienced Executive Coach, Facilitator and HR Consultant with over 25 years experience in the corporate arena, Michelle has helped countless business owners, management teams and entrepreneurs around the globe hone their thinking, improve their decision-making, and increase their ability to communicate, connect, inspire and engage with their team.

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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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Is time management an outdated concept?

Posted on July 28, 2014. Filed under: Linda Ray | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Linda Ray, the co-founder and co-director of neuresource group, coined the term “attentional intelligence” in 2012. In this post, she looks at how when we speak about ‘time management, what we are really talking about is ‘attention management’.


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There are a plethora of time management training programs that employees have been obliged to attend in an attempt to support them to become more efficient and ultimately more productive. The question is: do they work?

There is no doubt people walk away with a few useful tips, but do these training programs actually change employee habits around how they manage their time? From my observations and personal experience, the answer is often a resounding no. Is it, in fact, time we are managing? Or are we really managing our attention and focus in an attempt to be more productive?

The issue is really how in charge of our focus and attention we are in the increasingly hyperkinetic world we find ourselves operating within. In a recent interview, Daniel Goleman, the author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, notes:

It has become an axiom of modern life that we’re a people under attack, assailed by a barrage of technologies and near-constant communications. Amidst this wealth of data and information, one resource is in short supply: our ability to pay attention.

Want to know my favourite joke about procrastination?  I'll tell you later.

Want to know my favourite joke about time management?  — I’ll tell you later.

As we learn more about human behaviour through our increasing understanding of the brain, we need to be ready to rethink some of our approaches to how we approach time management. How can we get back in charge of our attention and ultimately reclaim our time — or lack thereof?

In an article published in Global Association for Neurobiology Studies in 2009, by Lynda Klau  she suggests that old solutions to time management don’t work and most traditional approaches to time management only ask us to change our behaviours, as if all our conflicts with time could be solved simply by ‘establishing our priorities’, ‘sticking to a concrete schedule’, or ‘organising our files’.

These external solutions are logical, but they’re not psychological: they ignore the internal emotional conflicts and pressures that influence us on the most fundamental levels. Klau proposes that key to improving our relationship with time is to develop a ‘mindful awareness’ of ourselves at all levels.

Students in our Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership report noticeable improvements in their productivity through being introduced to simple concepts that support them to grow their ‘attentional intelligence’. For example:

It seems so obvious, and yet we don’t do the things each day that support us to be productive. I have been amazed at the improvements in my productivity by simply prioritising prioristing, practicing mindfulness and taking charge again of my attention. I now know how mentally taxing prioristising is and why I need to do it at the beginning of my day if I am to have any hope of getting through my ever expanding to do list. There is intense satisfaction in crossing off a greater number of items each day because I am now much more mindful of where my attention is focused and whether it is where it should be or I want it to be.

Replace time management strategy with a focus management strategy

Given the importance of attention and focus we recommend you develop a focus management strategy. Try out the following tips:

  1. Do a distraction management audit. Identify all of the external and internal distractions that vie for your attention and develop strategies to minimize them (e.g., turn off the pop-up email alert and ensure you don’t start a hard thinking task when you are hungry or thirsty).
  2. Chunk your day into the areas you want to focus on that will add value and schedule them into your diary. If you notice your attention moving from your plan, gently bring your attention back to where you want it to be.
  3. Try to remain in the present moment, if you notice your thoughts turning to past events or to the future, bring your attention back to the present moment.
  4. When you run out of puff, rather than pushing yourself to the limit, take a brain break. This might sound counter intuitive, however, we know the brain works best in 20-25 minute time periods before we begin looking for a different focus for our attention. Work with your natural biology as opposed to against it.
  5. When you experience something unexpected that leads to frustration, anger, or disappointment, notice the feeling and label it. The very act of labelling your feeling or emotion will lessen the impact and dampen down arousal in your limbic brain. The limbic brain is designed to make us pay attention to perceived threats in the environment and can easily derail our best intentions to stay focused.
  6. Celebrate what you have achieved in the day rather than ruminate on what you haven’t accomplished, and reset your attention plan for the next day accordingly.

Developing your attentional intelligence and becoming the CEO of your attention is key to reclaiming time. Implementing simple strategies to notice where your attention is focused and to bring it back to where you want it to be will improve your productivity and maybe even give you some extra time to do the things you enjoy.


linda-ray-copy1Linda is the Managing Director of NeuroCapability and the co-founder/director of neuresource groupThese organisations are playing key roles in developing a new generation of thinking leaders through delivery of the Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership and other innovative programs informed by neuroscience.  Linda is gaining recognition both in Australia and internationally as a thought leader in the neuroleadership field.  She is actively contributing to the body of knowledge that supports the building of individual and organisational ‘neurocapability’.



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5 things you can do to as a leader to make your organisation more productive

Posted on July 18, 2014. Filed under: Our Leaders Say, Practical Strategies | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, looks at how applying neuroscience to work practices can make organisations more productive.


Artist: Egon Philipp

Photo: Egon Philipp

Most organisations are committed to keeping apace of technological advances, updating equipment frequently, and devoting resources to state-of-the-art processes and materials. The general feeling is that constant upgrades are a necessity to survive in an increasingly harsh and competitive economic climate. It’s perplexing, however, that this attitude doesn’t extend to any organisation’s most important resource – its people. Dated thinking, old-school beliefs, and outmoded approaches are all-to-often applied to how people work together. And leaders are left wondering why productivity falters. Outdated management thinking insists the psychology is not relevant to business. However, what we are discovering about the brain tells us that this just isn’t the case. We now have scientific evidence that what goes on inside the brain, from emotional responses to higher cognitive skills, impacts everything we do and should be incorporated into how we structure work. Brain functions affect perception, emotion, and conscious thought. More and more, leaders are borrowing from neuroscience research, and we are beginning to see practical applications – and big rewards – in the workplace.

The top five ways to use what we’re learning from neuroscience to improve productivity

Manage expectations Because motivation plays a critical role in how and why people function the way they do, it’s important to understand that the brain is essentially a social organ. Research clearly shows that the brain’s primary organizing principle is to detect whether incoming stimuli is a reward or a threat.  It’s part of our early survival mechanism that allows the brain to quickly classify the “danger” level of any situation. Understanding this, it’s possible to manage expectations of employees and clients alike. Because no two brains are alike, this can be complicated, but it’s well worth the effort to learn what motivates each person and to what degree. Wolfram Schultz of Cambridge University in England has studied the links between dopamine and the brain’s reward circuitry. When a cue from the environment indicates you’re going to get a reward, dopamine is released. Interestingly, unexpected rewards release more dopamine than expected ones. This means that the surprise success, like unexpected praise, for example, can positively impact your brain chemistry far more dramatically than an expected promotion or pay rise. On the other hand, if you’re expecting a reward and don’t get it, dopamine levels fall steadily. It could take some time for a person to internalise this disappointment, re-frame it, and regain lost momentum at work. The savvy leader anticipates where expectations might be overshooting the mark and works to minimise them as much as possible. Keeping expectations low avoids disappointment if a goal isn’t achieved and sets up a situation for happy surprise and delight if it is. Understand emotions Remember, emotions are contagious. The moods of others, especially those in positions of power, can have a real and lasting effect on individuals and groups. Toxic bosses, bullying environments and aggressive cultures can infect every one. Leaders play an important role in their ability to influence the spread of certain types of emotions over others. Your emotions matter because they impact on those around you. A growing body of evidence emerging from the social cognitive neuroscience field suggests that many of our emotion regulation strategies not only don’t work but are bad for our health and those around us. Matthew Lieberman, of UCLA, found that learning to label our emotions maximises cognitive ability.  He’s found 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 prefrontal cortex – the brain’s CEO – to function more effectively. Suppressing emotion is the most commonly used emotion regulation strategy. Studies show that suppressing emotion physiologically impacts on those around you and increases heart rate and blood pressure of those you are interacting with. The discovery of mirror neurons has also shown how we are wired to detect and mirror emotion of others. The brain is highly tuned to emotions in others, which can in turn generate reward or threat cues. Many studies examining the emotion contagion effect are showing their impact on morale in an organisation. Fear, anxiety and anger are contagious but remember so is enthusiasm and joy. Develop attentional intelligence Attentional intelligence allows you to effortlessly but ‘mindfully’ notice where your attention is at any moment and to intentionally choose where you want it to be. This kind of mindfulness can have a huge impact on productivity. In a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, conducted by Zindel Segal and colleagues, mindfulness meditation has been found to be as effective as antidepressants to prevent depression relapse. If it’s that powerful for people overwhelmed with troubles, imagine what it can do for those who are healthy and motivated. Greater focus, more effective planning, and greater stress reduction are just a few of the benefits. If we operate in the present, rather than brooding about the past or feeling anxious about the future, our minds are clear to deal with the issues at hand. It’s a simple principle, really: what we pay attention to gets accomplished. What we think, what we do, and what we focus on actually changes the structure and function of our brains. But, like any training, it takes practice for this to take full effect. It ultimately enables you not only to become calmer but also more creative. Cultivate creativity Image of young man sitting on floor looking at photosA number of large surveys done in the past few years show creativity at the top of the business leader’s wish list. 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. This just isn’t the case. We are all creative. In fact, it’s one of the defining characteristics of being human. However, creativity does require cultivation. Different parts of the brain and different areas of focus yield different results. For example, holding big picture ideas and day-to-day details in your mind at the same time can lead to major stress. This common problem was first identified by J.P. Guilford in 1967 as two different types of thinking that occur in response to a problem: divergent thinking generates ideas, while convergent thinking sorts and analyses these ideas towards the best outcome. This concept explains why we find it so difficult to come up with a snappy title that completely illustrates everything in that detailed power point presentation you’ve just written. Respect your limitations Respecting our limits isn’t something modern Western culture encourages us to do. We are taught to break down barriers, reach for the stars, and never-say-never.  However, acknowledging that you are tired or burned out or unmotivated can be incredibly liberating and ultimately restorative. As long as you take positive action to rest, relax, and nourish yourself. As long as we are grounded in our human bodies, there are basic needs and limits that warrant respect. Eat when hungry, rest when tired, say no when too busy. Attitudes towards sleep also plays a role against ‘nurturing’ the seeds of creativity and productivity. Yes, sleep! Getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis can do wonders for productivity. When our alertness dips mid-afternoon, as it’s genetically programmed to do even when you are well-slept, responding with a powernap is a proven way to boost mood, concentration, alertness and memory.   An awareness of how advances in neuroscience might best be applied to the workplace can bring about amazing results in performance and productivity. The best news of all is that it doesn’t take a big organisational overhaul. Incorporating small shifts in thinking and doing yield big results.


  . Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest passion. . . .  

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Collective intelligence: building smart teams

Posted on July 10, 2014. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, looks at what is central to human motivation and how we can tap into it to build smart teams that perform.




Getting ‘social’ right

Sociologists and economists have long studied human capital as a driver of productivity in organisations, something they define as the amount of intelligence, experience, and education a person has. Traditionally, the reward for an individual possessing high levels of human capital has been an equally high salary. In the past twenty years or so, this has been shown to be ineffective  – even counterproductive.

Researchers have struggled to explain why. Charles M. Elson, director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, and Craig K. Ferrere, one of its Edgar S. Woolard fellows have studied CEO salaries and conclude that, contrary to the prevailing line, that chief executives can’t readily transfer their skills from one company to another. In other words, the argument that CEOs will leave if they aren’t compensated well, perhaps even lavishly, is bogus.

Dan Ariely, from the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience and the Department of Economics at Duke University, has participated in numerous studies relating to the complexities of human behaviour, the conclusions of which he explains in his book The Upside of Irrationality. Overwhelmingly, Ariely’s research has confirmed that, for tasks that require cognitive ability, low to moderate performance-based incentives can help. But when the incentive level is very high, it can command too much attention and thereby distract the person’s mind with thoughts about the reward. This can create stress and ultimately reduce the level of performance.

Why should this counter-intuitive outcome be the case?  Enter Matthew Lieberman, Professor and SCN Lab Director at the UCLA Department of Psychology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences. Based on a decade of research in social neuroscience (how our brains respond to social engagement, in other words), he concludes that our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental than our need for food and shelter.

Lieberman argues that our success as a species and one of the reasons we’ve evolved large brains in the first place is because of our need for social connection. We are motivated by something beyond self-interest: the drive for social connection. Lieberman concludes that the adaptive value of brain systems is that it give us insights into others. These include not just the social cognition network but a network for ‘mentalising’ (intuiting what others are thinking), another for ‘harmonising’ (using self-control to keep from alienating others) and so on. Relationships are a central part of a flourishing life and working collaboratively is at the centre of human activity.

“Given what we know about the social brain, creating the right social environment in our workplaces should be a top priority for anyone who wants the best out of themselves and those around them,” says Lieberman. “Yet most organisations don’t get ‘social’ right.”

Towards a new theory of group performance

28290bc95af9907a474cefd3d0bf4090Thomas W. Malone, director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence,  is one of the leading thinkers in how to tap into the collective intelligence of groups.The centre’s ambition is to  bringing together insights from social psychology, computer science, group dynamics, social media, crowdsourcing, and the centre’s own experiments in group behavior. The results could help business teams get ‘social’ right and thereby develop a new theory of group performance.

According to Malone, the critical factor appears to be social perception.  In general, social perceptiveness is described as having an understanding of other’s verbal and non-verbal behaviour and actions. This can include having to interpret a combination of what they are saying as well as their tone of voice, body language, gestures, and facial expressions. Being socially perceptive is important in all social settings, but – because so much is often at stake  – especially the workplace.

Some people may not be aware of their lack of social perceptiveness and how it potentially impacts on relationships and interactions with others at work. For example, they may not be able to recognise when a co-worker is stressed and may ask for assistance at a bad time. Women, in general, are more socially perceptive than men. Simply adding women to a team can dramatically improve team cohesion and productivity.

Anita Woolley, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon University, concurs:

What do you hear about great groups? Not that the members are all really smart but that they listen to each other. They share criticism constructively. They have open minds. They’re not autocratic. And in our study we saw pretty clearly that groups that had smart people dominating the conversation were not very intelligent groups. 

Woolley looked at the collective intelligence scores of 192 teams against the percentage of women on those teams. Teams with a higher percentage of women were found to be more effective and productive than teams with a higher percentage of men. This fact may be what’s behind the thinking of the Australian federal government’s push to get more women on boards by tripling funding to a scholarship program for top-performing corporate women.

It’s difficult to know if strong teams naturally result in a higher collective intelligence or if building the elements of a high collective intelligence lead to strong teams. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter. The good news for leaders is that because we are driven by a desire to connect, social perceptiveness can be easily learned and practiced. Building it into how teams function can have dramatic results on team harmony and overall productivity.



Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest passion.




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This is your brain on long meetings…

Posted on June 26, 2014. Filed under: Attention Matters, Linda Ray | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Linda Ray, the co-founder and co-director of neuresource group, coined the term “attentional intelligence” in 2012. In this post, she looks at the reasons long meetings get in the way of productivity and what can be done about it.



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On a good day, you wake up rested and raring to go. You make a mental list of things to do during your commute and, by the time you walk through the door of the office, you are clear about what needs to get accomplished and in what order.  There’s only one problem: the early morning meeting that usually runs overtime. Your mood deflates and your momentum screeches to a halt. Not only that, you may not regain momentum for some time after the meeting has ended – if you regain it all all.

Your brain on long meetings

The brain is easily exhausted. Our brains frequently shift its focus between external events and internal memories and interests. It’s designed this way in order to consolidate learning and long-term memory. However, every time you focus your attention you use a measurable amount of glucose and other metablic resources. This makes attention a limited resource.  Long meetings have the effect of exhausting cognitive reserves. Focus decreases as the meeting drags on. Unfortunately, the brain requires regular replenishment to retain attention and to remain engaged.

Crammed agendas are overwhelming. When faced with a daunting agenda, the default is for people to look at their watches. Attention is on the time rather than on the discussion at hand. Eyes glaze over. People stop listening, begin to doodle, think of the weekend. All of this hampers productivity.

The brain wants assignments that are achievable. Too often, meetings are used as a way of generating ideas rather than actions. But the brain wants certainty and is always looking for the reward of breaking down tasks into manageable chunks – a to-do list that can be completed to a schedule and in good order.

Emotions are contagious. The recent discovery of mirror neurones explains the phenomenon we’ve all experienced: when one person begins to yawn, people nearby begin yawning too. All it takes is one sleepy or fidgety person in a meeting to affect everyone around the table.

Efficiency can hinder productivity. When brains come together, they can accomplish great things – but trying to silo a group’s efforts into agenda chunks isn’t the best way to realise that greatness.  People need time to coalesce around an idea, to work it like clay, and to test different ways of making it happen.

Focusing on numbers saps creativity. If everyone believes that the real reason for the meeting is to figure out how to ‘make the numbers’, creativity is sapped before the meeting even begins. Structuring meetings around financial performance metrics is not a good way to motivate people. Ideas are motivating. Developing and nurturing ideas will ultimately lead to making the numbers. Sadly, conventional meetings almost always have this backwards.

Meeting to prepare for the next meeting is not rewarding. Since our brains are reward-driven organs, knowing that the follow-on reward for spending all this time in a meeting is simply to have another meeting is not at all motivating.

7 things you can do about it

half-time-meetingsImplement a block on early meetings. Take the first hour of the day and throw it out the window – for meetings, at least. By refusing early meetings, you can spend time prioritising your to-do lists, including prioritising which meetings are actually necessary. You might be amazed at how much you can accomplish when you free your mornings for planning.

Take breaks. Focusing for an hour to an hour and a half can be exhausting for our brains.  Our brains gets depleted, start making errors, and we may grow irritable – not the best formula for planning and making decisions. Short breaks, even if they’re only a couple minutes, offer some much needed rejuvenation.

There’s a catch to making those breaks effective, however. Don’t use break time to email your boss or sign off on a report or discuss team goals with a colleague. To help your brain recover from absorbing an hour of PowerPoint slides, try to forget about work during your break.

Look for novelty. If you find yourself bored in a meeting, try – really try – to find something interesting going on in the room. You can train your brain to look for novelty in what’s happening around you, something that both lengthens your  attention span and gives you better control over it. Look at the people around the table and try to imagine something interesting and positive about them.

Remember the purpose of the meeting. As you fixate on details, wade through different viewpoints and perhaps lament over that to-do list, it may be easy to forget the point of the meeting. Think back to the meaning of the meeting, and ask, ‘Why are we doing this?’. Whenever you find your attention is wavering, remember why you’re there. Write it down in your notepad. By examining the cause of the meeting, you may find yourself “considering it a privilege rather than a duty.”

Go back to the basics. Engage in the meeting, whether it’s asking questions, proposing ideas, or at the very least, taking notes. It’s also a good idea to leave phones at desks in in handbags in order to avoid distraction. Bouncing back from a single distraction can take several minutes.  It’s also useful to practice active listening skills.

Snack and hydrate. Bring water to meetings and snack wisely beforehand. Say no to high-carbohydrate, high-energy density foods that will tempt you to rest your eyes (just for a second!) a few minutes into the meeting. Opt instead for healthy fruits, vegetables, and trail mix.

Make them shorter and more frequent. Incorporate daily or twice weekly 10-minute standing meetings into your workplace. Ideally, the 10-minute standing meeting has an agenda of no more than four items. This works nicely with our brains preference for chunking information. Also, the fact that people are standing rather than sitting helps. Your blood circulation increases. Standing is also mentally revitalising, making you sharper and more aware. What seems like an insurmountable pile of paperwork when you’re sitting down appears suddenly manageable while standing. Standing can even improve motivation, morale, and mood.


Linda is the Managing Director of NeuroCapability and the co-founder/director of neuresource groupThese organisations are playing key roles in developing a new generation of thinking leaders through delivery of the Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership and other innovative programs informed by neuroscience.  Linda is gaining recognition both in Australia and internationally as a thought leader in the neuroleadership field.  She is actively contributing to the body of knowledge that supports the building of individual and organisational ‘neurocapability’





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Disconnect: what science knows versus what business does

Posted on June 23, 2014. Filed under: Events | Tags: , , , , , , , |



2014 National Retailers Association Conference Jupiters Hotel & Casino, Gold Coast


On the weekend of June 14-15, 2014, Linda Ray and Tara Neven, co-founders and co-directors of neuresource group, headed down to Jupiters Hotel & Casino on the Gold Coast for the National Retailers Association (NRA) Conference. Both had important roles to fill –  Neven as the conference host and Ray as an ‘Insight’ speaker.

The summit was the first of its kind for the National Retailers Association with a specific focus on “people and operations development” (also known as POD). The POD concept provides a unique platform for applying groundbreaking ideas to the world of retail –  and, for that matter, event management.

Neven said. “I’ve been very impressed with how acute and far-sighted the organisers have been to include some of our ideas in order to make the summit more brain-friendly. This includes offering brain-friendly food, delivering content in ‘chunks’, and giving practical applications as to how neuroscience can change the way people work.”


Linda Ray

Ray’s keynote address focused on the disconnect between what science knows and what business does. For example, in order for people to remain productive, people need to be kept in a ‘reward’ state. This isn’t necessarily about money or accolades, rather, it refers to how the brain is organised.  At any given moment, we can be either calm and engaged, moving towards an experience, or we can feel threatened and want to move away from an experience –  in other words, so stressed we feel pushed into a fight or flight state. The problem is that many workplaces are set up in such a way that people are kept uncertain, worried about status, with little autonomy. A command-and-control hierarchy actually prevents people from being productive.

Science tells us that we can do only one thing at a time, and yet more and more demands are heaped on our heads. We are asked to do more with less support. Time is fractured by long meetings and constant interruptions. Multitasking is a myth and yet many businesses require their employees to switch tasks all day long. Not only does this tire the brain, leading to increasing ineffectiveness, but it can take up to 23 minutes to get back into the thinking space you were in before the interruption.

“It’s a wonder we get anything done at all,” Ray says.

She has a solution, however. Science has shown that adjusting one’s attention can have a big impact on focus. Being aware of your awareness builds ‘attentional intelligence’, a term Ray coined in 2012. She defines attentional Intelligence is an intelligence which when highly developed allows you to effortlessly but ‘mindfully’ notice where your attention is at any moment and to intentionally choose where you want it to be.

“The problem is,” Ray adds, “most workplaces are hives of distraction. We need to find ways to offer quiet spaces for long stretches of time, as well as open areas for meetings and social connections.”

The brain-friendly organisation accommodates all kinds of work tasks and all types of work preferences.

We know from science that the brain resists change.  However, many businesses are constantly seeking new ways of doing things, often implementing change plans without considering that employees feel stressed when changes are announced and they are naturally designed to revert to old ways of doing things when they feel stress. Handled the wrong way –  by not considering the neuroscience of change, in other words –  means a change plan is set for failure even before it’s been implemented.

“The paradox is that the brain is highly plastic throughout our lives, so we know we can change. We just have to get the formula right, Ray says.

It can take anywhere from 18 – 236 days for a planned change  to become a habit. It is no wonder, then, that a big issue facing organisations attempting to implement a change plan is that change doesn’t always happen to the proposed schedule and it doesn’t always ‘stick’. Even when employees are well-prepared and amenable, it’s still important to communicate openly (avoiding threat states), focus on areas of resistance (developing emotional intelligence), and remain patient. In time, brains can be rewired to accept new processes and procedures in ways that are sustainable over the long-term.

Ray left the audience with a final question: “What can you do when you get back to work to address the disconnect between what science knows and what your business does?”

She suggests it might be time to do something different.

“All of the speakers offered solid insights and emphasised  that engagement, vulnerability, and a focus on increasing the number of women in senior leadership were the way forward,” adds Neven. “And we think the best way to do this is to use what we’re learning from neuroscience in our business practices.”










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Balancing act: the neuroscience of negotiation

Posted on June 12, 2014. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |


Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, looks at what we can learn from neurobiology in order to improve negotiation and mediation processes. 



Pencil on a finger


Emotions are central

In Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (1995)neuroscientist Antonio Damasio outlined a groundbreaking discovery. He studied people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He found that they seemed normal, except that they were not able to feel emotions. But they all had something peculiar in common: they also couldn’t make decisions. They could describe what they should be doing in logical terms, yet they found it very difficult to make even simple decisions. This means that even when we believe we are motivated by logic, the very point of making a decision is based on emotion. Damasio’s discovery has had a profound impact on those who are involved with negotiation and mediation processes.

Jim Camp, the founder and CEO of The Camp Negotiation Institute, believes that:

In general, if you can get the other party to reveal their problems, pain, and unmet objectives, then you can build a vision for them of their problem, with you and your proposal as the solution. They won’t make their decision because it is logical. They’ll make their decision because you have helped them feel that it’s to their advantage to do so.


Ten neuro-principles of the negotiation process

Building on Damasio’s work, mediation specialist  Jeremy Lack and his colleague François Bogacz, an expert negotiator, posit ten ‘neuro-principles’ that influence negotiation and dispute resolution situations:

    1.  We consume our brain’s resources efficiently, and create patterns/scripts/memories
    2.  We predict according to our patterns/scripts/memories
    3.  We are conditioned to avoid and be far more sensitive to danger/fear than to  reward/pleasure, which we seek 
    4.  We first perceive via emotions (unconsciously) before being able to self-regulate (consciously or by habit)
    5.  We seek safe or comfortable status positions at all times
    6.  We relate and empathise in-group (but not ‘out-of-group’)
    7.  We believe in ‘fairness’ and react negatively to ‘unfair’ behavior
    8.  We need autonomy/feelings of autonomy and feel/suffer if it is lost
    9.  Our ‘social’ stimuli are as powerful as our ‘physical’ ones
    10.  We operate cognitively in two gears (‘reflexive’& ‘refleCtive’ modes) but tend to favour X-mode

According to their research, these principles have practical implications for the way negotiators can prepare, generate options, and seek compliance.They also reveal insight into how mediators and leaders can best intervene in conflict prevention and resolution processes.


The cognitive bias effect

Since all information is perceived, filtered, distorted, and framed according to individual patterns, scripts, and memories, and since decisions are based on emotions, cognitive bias plays a huge role in how negotiations unfold. Bias can take many forms, but there are those that directly affect negotiation, ranging from an irrational escalation of commitment to the mythical belief that the issues under negotiation are all fixed to the process of reactive devaluation.

For example, initial commitments may become set in stone, and a desire for consistency prevents negotiators from changing them. This desire for consistency is often exacerbated by a desire to save face or to maintain an impression of expertise or control in front of others. No one likes to admit error or failure, especially when the other party may perceive doing so as a weakness. And then, all too often, negotiators approach negotiation opportunities as zero-sum situations or win–lose exchanges. They assume there is no possibility for integrative settlements or mutually beneficial trade-offs, and they suppress efforts to search for them. Reactive devaluation is the process of devaluing the other party’s concessions. The very offer of a particular proposal or concession — especially if the offer comes from an adversary — may diminish its apparent value or attractiveness in the eyes of the recipient.

As you can see, each of the biases described above could potentially operate as a significant barrier to agreement. And these are only a few of the cognitive and psychological factors at play in a given negotiation process. (See our comprehensive list of cognitive biases.)

Gender matters

15_Glass_Ceiling_6045There’s another aspect worth noting. For all the advances women have made in the workplace, when it comes to negotiation unconscious bias works against women more than it does men.

Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In and the chief operating officer of Facebook, recognises the difficulties of negotiation. However, she urges women not to be paralysed by fear but to take direct actions in their own best interest.  Nevertheless, many psychologists who study the role of gender in negotiation advise otherwise.

This type of caution is confirmed by Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the director of the Women and Power program, who has been researching gender effects on negotiation. Using the results of laboratory studies, case studies, and extensive interviews with executives and employees in diverse fields, she concludes that our implicit gender perceptions mean that much of the advice women are given may not have the intended effect. As much as we hear that women should stand up for themselves and assert their position strongly in negotiations, it can and often does backfire.

In several studies, Bowles and her colleagues found that people penalised women who initiated negotiations for higher compensation more than they did men. According to an article by Maria Konnikova for The New Yorker, “the effect held whether they saw the negotiation on video or read about it on paper, whether they viewed it from a disinterested third-party perspective or imagined themselves as senior managers in a corporation evaluating an internal candidate.”

A delicate balancing act

So what can be done?

Lack and Bogacz offer some suggestions. First, priming, framing or reformulating are very important, as they offer ways to shape how initial patterns of behavior and negotiations unfold. Even the use of a single word – like keep instead of lose – in the presentation of options can unconsciously influence the conscious choices people make. Furthermore, in addition to words, we need to be conscious of the para-verbal and non-verbal communications that pervade negotiations and group dynamics.

Lack advances a view of mediation that tries to take neurobiology into account, claiming that it is not simply facilitated negotiation, but a facilitated social, emotional, and cognitive process. He considers the social and in-group scripts that are triggered by the process itself to be a key concern and feels that attention should be given to  how participants are primed and prepared for coming into the process.

In the words of mediator David Plant (who died in 2012), “We have to start by defining the process as part of the problem.” We need to be aware of human tendencies and how they might influence negotiation. And, finally, we need to be aware of how our own perceptions influence outcomes and how the process itself can trigger first impressions and affect the participants’ social scripts and patterns.

Emotions and emotional intelligence should be seen as central to effective negotiation, rather than something to be overcome. Teasing out which cognitive biases might be involved in a given situation is also critical. It’s a delicate, sometimes perilous balancing act – there are just too many complex variables involved. By applying what we are learning from neuroscience, however, we may arrive at the negotiating table with an advantage.



. .
Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest passion.

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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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Design thinking: solving problems and building an innovation culture

Posted on May 29, 2014. Filed under: Human Capital, Tara Neven | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Tara Neven, co-founder and director of neuresource group and an expert on human capital and organisational change, looks at how design thinking fits in with what we are learning about the brain and how it offers an integrated approach to problem solving in the workplace.




A new way of tackling problems

Traditionally, when a problem is identified in an organisation, a team is assembled, a brainstorming session organised, and solutions decided on. The team members then return to their various departments charged with the task of imposing the ‘solutions’ on the rest of the employees. No matter how enthusiastic the decision-makers or how sound the decisions, there is usually a great deal of resistance to new ways of doing things.

What we are learning from neuroscience explains why this happens: while the brain likes novelty, it is also designed to conserve resources. And new ways of doing things can be cognitively taxing.  In general, people don’t like change and experience it with varying degrees of threat. For those who feel high degrees of threat when faced with change, enacting it with any consistency is nearly impossible. They will always resort to old behaviours because that’s what feels most comfortable.

There is another way to approach problem solving, however. The following principles set the stage:

    • People have the right to participation.
    • Decision-makers have a social responsibility to others.
    • Everyone is an expert at something.
    • Participation creates ownership of the product or outcome.

Sounds straightforward, right?

These basic ideas are behind the framework known as participatory design – design thinking, in other words –   and it’s actually a radical approach when applied to problem solving in the business context.

In participatory design, the decision-makers, users, and even the wider public are all recognised as stakeholders and are brought into the process of designing solutions to problems. These leads to divergent thinking, unexpected solutions, and new ideas that have not previously existed.

Design thinking originated in the sciences and was initially used in design and visual engineering. It was promoted as a tool for business by IDEO CEO Tim Brown in early 2000. Stanford University and other learning institutions have refined the design thinking process so that it can now be used in any solution-creating scenario in the workplace.

There is an added benefit to incorporating this new way of approaching problem solving. You set the groundwork for establishing a culture of innovation, which will help to make your organisation more receptive to changes and more agile when faced with challenges.

Greater organisational resilience and change agility

Over the past decade, I’ve worked with corporate organisations and reviewed many case studies of successful companies in some of the world’s most turbulent geographical and service markets. What has really impressed me is that the key underlying need in organisations today is change agility and the flexibility to cope with the unexpected. Change in organisations can be dealt with in may ways and in essence it will always involve a multi-tiered solution, however, cultivating an innovation culture is one of the paramount factors for building change agility and resilience in organisations.

Design thinking offers a great framework for supporting and building innovation. This framework takes the view that radical collaboration and a solutions-based thinking process can be used in organisations not only to tackle entrenched problems, but to create a culture that is better prepared for the fluctuations of an increasingly complex global marketplace. It’s a formal method for practically and creatively dealing with major issues and unanticipated challenges.

5_tips_580pxThe most common way to employ design thinking is to use a 5-step process:

    • empathise
    • define
    • ideate
    • prototype
    • test



Within each of these steps, problems can be framed, the right questions asked, more ideas generated, and the best answers can be chosen. The steps aren’t linear; they can occur simultaneously and can be repeated as needed. The time frame for each step and between each step can and will vary depending on the problem, particularly if what you’re dealing with is a ‘wicked’ question.

The key  in any problem solving or discussion process in your business is to start off with a strong curiosity about something. This will allow you to experience the kind of deep empathy you need to feel not only for the right outcome but also for the people the solution will affect. Once you have that, you are on your way to defining the parameters and outlining the features of the issue, and you can then begin to ‘ideate’ a solution.

Design thinking (unlike other problem solving approaches) goes deeper than a purely rational approach.

As Brown states: “It relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognise patterns, to construct ideas that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional and to express ourselves through means beyond words or symbols… Nobody wants to run an organisation on feeling, intuition and inspiration, but an over-reliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as risky. Design thinking provides an integrated third way.”


Watch Tim Brown’s TEDTalk on ‘design thinking’:



Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 9.23.30 AMTara Neven is the co-founder/director of neuresource group.  As an entrepreneur, business strategist, facilitator, learning and development, and collective leadership specialist, Tara has over 15 years experience in corporate learning and development, education, business growth and organisational development. The last 10 years of this experience has been in remote and regional areas of Australia. Tara’s primary industry experience has been in the mining and resource sector, construction, local government and medium-to-large organisations.


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