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Jan Hills

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Want to get your HR initiative agreed? How understanding the brain can help you


‘The goal of a presentation to your boss is not to get him to think you're smart, but to get him to think he's smart to support your idea’.

This is a tweet (the new form of quote) from Tom Peters. It struck me as perfect for this article on how understanding the brain can help you get your HR initiative agreed. When you are trying to influence, there are three aspects we take into account:

  • How you need to be in yourself
  • The thoughts and feelings of the key stakeholder(s)
  • The culture or commercial environment.

The understanding of the brain can help in the first two. I am going to share a model you can use to understand yourself and your stakeholders better and give an example of how you may use it.

Neuroscience has shed a new and fascinating light on how people react in social situations and therefore, how we can form better relationships and better influence others.

The brain is highly evolved to work in a social environment. And if that social environment appears to be in any way threatening, then it will switch into survival mode. If the environment does not provide the social support that the brain needs, like being included in the group, knowing what is happening, feeling a connection with others, there being trust and congruence between values and behaviours… the list goes on –  then older parts of the brain, the

These parts of the brain take resources away from the newer parts of the brain which help lateral thinking, connection making, creativity, and the regulation of emotions. This happens because from an evolutionary survival perspective, we didn’t need those parts of the brain in order to protect ourselves from a threat in the environment. But in a modern business this impacts the ability to be engaged with others and perform well at work.

If an HR professional can be more skilled at understanding this reaction in themselves and their stakeholders they can build more productive relationships and be more influential.

The CORE Model

We have developed a memorable way for you to use the neuroscience of relationships. We call this the CORE model [VIDEO].

The CORE model identifies the common factors that activate both reward and threat responses in social situations.

These fall into four elements of human social experience:

  • Certainty: the knowledge that we can predict the future
  • Options: the extent to which we feel we have choice
  • Reputation: our relative importance to others
  • Equity: our sense that things are equitable

These four elements activate either the ‘primary reward’ or the ‘primary threat’ circuitry of the brain. For example, a perceived threat to one’s sense of equity activates similar brain networks to a threat to one’s life. A perceived increase to your reputation activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary reward. The reaction happens in a nanosecond and is automatic, driving behaviour before the individual has a chance to rationally consider their response.

Using this model in practice

The model can be used in three main ways:

  • To understand your feelings about a relationship, this is especially useful when it is a difficult relationship or you are concerned about an initiative
  • To understand your stakeholder better
  • To plan how to position an idea or project where you want to gain agreement and to influence a key stakeholder or colleague

How CORE works – an example

When we first meet a person we unconsciously categorise them as friend or foe. Foe is the default – the category assigned unless we receive signals that suggest otherwise. The brain is constantly scanning for threat or reward signals. This can mean we react to things strongly or quickly before we have had a chance for our rational brain to assess the situation. So we may experience a new acquaintance as a threat in all or some of these four CORE elements. Circumstances may also trigger threat or reward responses for individuals such as changes to team members, roles or the smile on the boss’s face.

Imagine you are giving a presentation to your boss to agree a new project. To manage the boss’s sense of certainty it’s important to think about how the presentation material links to existing business knowledge or activity thus reducing the threat of uncertainty (Certainty). Give him/her some choice so they feel they have control over the decision (Options). Point out how adopting the idea will enhance his/her future success and you should avoid threatening their reputation by suggesting that current work methods which they are associated with, are not working (Reputation). Finally the idea must be positioned equitably in the culture of the business (Equity).

Sometimes it is not possible to create a sense of reward so it is important to also think about the specific person to be influenced. What might trigger their sense of threat and which of the CORE elements are most important to them in the situation?

Whether people feel a threat or a reward will have a significant impact on their problem solving, decision-making, stress-management, collaboration and motivation. Knowing the drivers that cause a threat response enables us to design initiatives to minimise threats. Knowing about the drivers that can activate a reward response enables us to motivate people more.

CORE and Influence

Many HR professionals will recognise this situation. You believe you have the solution to a long standing problem or a creative idea for getting more engagement but the person you need to agree has batted the suggestion away once, asked for more data and you feel apprehensive about going back to them.

Reducing threat

Use CORE to analyse what might be a threat to the stakeholder. What about the suggestion might activate a threat response?

  • Certainty – Do they have information about how this solution will impact their work or role?
  • Options – Do they have some control over how the solution will be implemented, communicated and used?
  • Reputations – Is their reputation impacted negatively by adopting this solution?
  • Equity – How might this seem inequitable or unfair?

Creating reward

You can also look at building a sense of reward.

  • Certainty – What links to existing activity or information can be made to explain how the solution will work? How can you make the idea more tangible?
  • Options – What options can be given to this stakeholder to increase their sense of control?
  • Reputation – How will this solution enhance their reputation or the reputation of their work unit?
  • Equity – How can it enhance their sense of equity?

These are just some of the applications of the CORE model to influence. Once you begin to think about relationships through the lens of how the brain works and the threat and reward response provoked, you are able to adjust your own approach to achieve more productive relationships and gain greater influence.

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Jan Hills


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