A guide to neuroscience in the workplace

Written by
Sue Paterson

24 Oct 2016

24 Oct 2016 • by Sue Paterson

Who knows best?

Picture the scence... Robert knew he could do this task so much better, but his boss, Susan, was clear that she wanted it done according to company procedures. The processes laid out just simply didn’t fit with the way his brain thought, but he felt he couldn’t tell anyone that. George, on the other hand, found it really easy to follow the company practices. It brought out the best in him, and his thinking easily built onto the prescribed framework. 

Susan was worried. The team had been awarded a significant project that was company-critical, and she knew she had to get the best out of both of her team members in order to deliver what was required. She knew that Robert could be brilliant, but she found it frustrating to have to make exceptions for him all the time. She felt she had to manage him closely and that was time consuming. George’s work was very run-of-the-mill, but he could be relied upon to deliver as expected and that was comforting. 

In order to make the most of her employees, Susan needs to take a step back and deepen her understanding of how humans’ brains work. Recent research in neuroscience is helping to clarify the fundamentals of the human brain’s structure and function, which in turn is enabling scientists to piece together what makes people tick. This can be applied to the work place to help build more effective teams and companies.


At its most simple level, the brain can be thought of as being composed of three distinctive parts. The oldest part is called the reptilian brain, and its function is to oversee basic functions like the body’s metabolism and breathing. The mammalian brain developed later, partly in response to the evolution of mammals as they lived together in groups and families. This part of the brain is responsible for emotions, memory and behaviour. Finally, the most recent development of the brain is the cognitive brain, which is most well developed in humans, and is related to language, logic and conscious deliberate decision-making.

Neuroscience has shown that it is the mammalian part of the brain that responds the fastest when changes are detected in a person’s environment. This initial response will always be emotional, and it will be uniquely shaped by the experiences stored in their memory. It is only later that the cognitive part of the brain makes sense of what has happened. Everyone has their own way of seeing and understanding the world, which makes sense to them because of their past experiences and emotions. It will be absolutely logical for them, but may not appear so to someone else, because of their own life story. 

The brain is an associative learning system: it builds and structures itself through neuronal pathways that are developed through repeated stimulation. Because of well-developed neural pathways, people tend to respond to the world around them in a consistent way that makes them unique. 

New neural pathways can also be developed, and this is how people adapt to changes or learn new things. Change often represents a big threat to the brain, which prefers to trust its own experience rather than someone else’s assumptions, so making changes it often hard and takes a lot of energy. The brain can however allow adaptation, or at least not object to change, when is it in a state neuroscientists call ‘flow’. During these periods, parts of the Cognitive brain temporarily shut down, allowing the individual to be more courageous and less critical. Chemicals related to reward flood the brain, giving a feel-good feeling.

‘Flow’ happens when people are really in tune with themselves and their actions, so that everything they do is effortless. This brings out the best they can be. ‘Flow’ demands both attention and skill – it requires the ability to focus intensely and to relax at the same time. It is experienced during periods of complete attention as feelings of high energy, motivation and focus. Self-consciousness seems to disappear, and time seems to slow down (every second is noticed) as well as speed up (two hours pass in what seems like two minutes).

Back to the orginal scenario... helping Robert and George to achieve a state of ‘flow’ is the most effective way that Susan has to get the best out of them. Helping them do that involves giving them well-defined tasks that they are capable of doing, and giving immediate feedback on how they are doing in order to encourage them. It does not include being prescriptive in how they are to do the task. It is also very important for Susan to create the conditions for their attention to be wholly focussed and their brain to be relaxed. This means encouraging the emotions of trust, love, joy and excitement in the team, and removing all conditions that may trigger fear, anger, disgust, shame and sadness.