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Jamie Lawrence


Insights Director

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Book review: Brain Savvy HR by Jan Hills


HRZone has a range of books available for review. If you would like to receive one of our business books, free of charge, please contact the editor on editor at hrzone dot com and we can send you a list of what’s available. In return, we ask for a 400-700 word review of the book, its content and whether it’s appropriate for a senior HR director audience and for business professionals looking to become more effective in their roles.

Title: Brain Savvy HR: A Neuroscience Evidence Base
Author: Jan Hills
Reviewer: Ben Morris, Employee Relations and Policy Manager, DAC Beachcroft LLP
Reviewer’s rating: 5 out of 5

I’ll open up by saying that I really liked this book. Both as a straight (if slightly lengthy) read and as a dip in and out resource, it is a great addition to the collection. It should be of appeal and interest to anybody who communicates or leads people, or anybody who responsible for designing and implementing change or delivering training. To varying degrees, all of us.

One of the residing challenges of our profession is providing hard evidence to support our initiatives. As a people business, it is often hard to put hard details to support our case, particularly when when attaching a pricetag is often easy and we are confronted with the cynicism of the FD. Being able to apply some hard science to our task is helpful.

However, as the 34 pages of references within the book hint at, the reading required to expand your skillset to include this relatively new, but expanding, field is not small. While the book looks a little heavyweight to sit on the nightstand, Jan Hills has conducted much of the legwork to give you an accelerated entrance.

Not only do you get a flying start as she clearly and simply condenses the reference material, you are given clear examples throughout of applying the theory.

The book opens with the strictly theoretical, explaining brain basics and bridging from the research by looking at the primary research into the interplay between HR and neuroscience. The greater part of the book deals with the practice: leading purpose; leading the function; leading talent, engagement and learning, and leading yourself.

However, it can be challenging, and as Jan herself explains, threat and reward are experienced in four key areas, our CORE: certainty, options, reputation, and equity. The good news is that while our sense of certainty is unsettled by discovering some of these areas, there is a good deal of reassurance to be taken from the text as well as plenty of options for improving in the future.

The downside for us as practitioners is the news that the brain is hardwired to prioritise responding to threats, and yet, at the same time, curiously, this is not news. Ever noticed why it is that in spite of a plethora of positive actions, one threat can undo the whole programme?

While the works of Pink; Ariely; Dweck; Csikszentmihalyi; Baumeister; Duhigg; Kabat-Zinn; Kahneman; Seligman, and Sinek et al are good reads (and some are probably familiar), your reading list is probably already as full as your calendar. Jan Hills gives you enough throughout the various chapters to satisfy your curiosity and need to take something away to use in your practice but also, having piqued your interest, clearly signposts the way for you take your further studies.

It is interesting to see, for the purposes of clarity, the distinction drawn between NLP and neuroscience, and yet for those familiar with NLP, there are occasional glimpses of scientific validation for the practice.

The chapter on detachment presented one opportunity for a wry smile, or reassurance (depending on your point of view) as the detached position recalls the third position in perceptual positioning. Whatever the label, it is not a bad tool for negotiations or training.

As much as that though, it is reassuring to see the presentation of the whole. It acknowledges that these various roles of ours operate several ways: a direction, through the function; engaging others and crucially, recognising that operating through and across people is a series of interactions. It reminds us of our role in these interactions and that to maximise our dealings with people we should be prepared to invest some time in ourselves and our understanding of our ourselves.

I have worked with many people over the years who could do with reading “I’m great! Why do I need self-awareness?”, many of the HR professionals I have spoken to over time have had, to varying degrees, the fear that one day they would get found out, for them, I’d suggest turning rapidly from the brain basics chapter to “Am I good enough?”.

That said though, one of the simplest and most impactful chapters is “I dream about performance management that works”, a simple canter through goals, feedback and performance that should be required reading.

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

Read more from Jamie Lawrence

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