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Jan Hills

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What should HR professionals know about neuroscience?


It's Neuroscience Learning Month on HRZone. You're reading one of the pieces that has been written to help you develop a sound understanding of why neuroscience principles are important to business, and a basic understanding of how you can apply them effectively. There's loads more content going live over the month to help you on your way, from articles to videos and podcasts, and it's all available in our Neuroscience Learning Hub. Head there today to read more!

I keep being asked ‘what relevance does neuroscience have for HR?’ These clients have done a little reading, seen the more sensational media on ideas like mirror neurons and the Tarantula study and some of the claims about research into the human brain. There are lots of claims and a vast amount of research being done and the number of articles makes it hard for HR professionals to sift through what is relevant and what is not.

I believe the best way of thinking about neuroscience if you are in HR, is as research which can verify or discredit our assumptions and psychological theories about how people interact, make decisions and work effectively. But look for reliable sources that reference the original peer reviewed research, for example the original article on Tarantula research.

In my view there are a number of important findings that have an impact in HR related business and particularly HR policy.

Social needs rule

Social needs are primary; basically Maslow got his hierarchy wrong! Humans are driven by the need to connect socially. This is a primary need like the need for water and food. This research suggests that the assumption that the relationship between employer and employee is an economic one. The employee’s effort for a monetary return is not the whole story. Social rewards and the social contract are more important than most policy gives credit.

Threat and reward

The human brain is wired to notice threat and to move away from it and move towards rewards. The sense of threat is stronger than reward. This is part of our evolutionary advantage. Noticing threat kept us safe but is not so helpful when it is the frown on the bosses face. Our research found 47 percent of employees in the UK feel a sense of threat from their leader. The reason this is important and an unhappy statistic is that when we feel threatened we are less creative, less open to ideas and the rational problem-solving systems in the brain are less effective.

Couple this with the importance of relationships and research has found that people will tend to experience threat, or reward, in four key areas: the degree of certainty at work, the options they have over their work, their reputation and their sense of equity. We call this the CORE model and understanding when a threat might be created and how it can be mitigated, or a sense of reward created in each of these social elements is essential for HR policies like change and reward and of course communications.

In-group and out-group

Another organising principle of the brain is to seek to categorise, this is a short cut and helps the brain to be more efficient. The trouble is that we categorise people into in-group and out-group – and this happens in the workplace too. In-group are people who we see as similar. Out-group we see as different. Once categorised the brain filters new information in accordance with the category. So it is hard to think of someone as a friend if the initial judgement is as foe. This all happens in a nanosecond and out of conscious awareness and means rituals like induction, team off-sites and sharing common goals are important for breaking down initial out-group judgements. This becomes crucial in teams that work remotely where there may be little opportunity for physical contact which can quickly break down judgements.

Efficient working

The brain is not as efficient as we think. The executive functioning areas, those areas responsible for planning, goal attainment, rational thought and inhibiting impulse tire easily. The brain runs most activity in the efficient older areas of the brain, the basal ganglia. This has been called the habit region. Scientist Kevin Oschner believes 70 percent of what we do is habit. How people do their jobs becomes a habit too. This is a much more brain efficient way of working but can cause difficulties when change is necessary. Many HR policies and cultures work against rather than with this habitual tendency and implicitly assume the brain has infinite capacity. However the brain quickly fatigues when for example it is required to make a lot of decisions. This leads to poorer judgements. Similarly, multitasking is a myth and leads to poor productivity and reduced cognitive functioning. This means you should plan creative or difficult tasks early in the day, and avoid routine working like emails in the morning. Learning and making connections is encouraged through reflection, linking new information to old and delivering information in small chunks. There are lots more interesting findings about learning and embedding new behaviours but not enough space to cover here.

Emotions matter

The stiff upper lip actually causes damage! Oh and you can’t make a decision without engaging emotions. Many people in business still treat emotions as unacceptable and few leadership development programmes help leaders to understand and manage emotions.

Matt Lieberman, a professor at UCLA, found that using simple language to “name” emotions lowers the arousal of the limbic system producing a quieter brain state. This allows the pre frontal cortex to function more effectively. The implications of these findings in the workplace are staggering. If people push down feelings by ‘being professional’ they make it harder to function and create physical stress.

Research by Antonio Damasio showed that all decisions have an emotional element. Understanding this, managing it in the decision-making process applies to HR and the leadership development they control.

There are lots more implications emerging for change but maybe we can cover that another time.


Below are a small number of articles that reference the science mentioned:

Gordon, E. et al. (2008), An “Integrative Neuroscience” platform: application to profiles of negativity and positivity bias, Journal of Integrative Neuroscience

Baumeister, R. F. & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.

Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRIstudy of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.

Carter, E. J. & Pelphrey, K. A., (2008). Friend or foe? Brain systems involved in the perception of dynamic signals of menacing and friendly social approaches. Journal Social Neuroscience, Volume 3, Issue 2 June 2008 , pages 151-163.

Izuma, K., Saito, D., Sadato, N. (2008). Processing of Social and Monetary Rewards in the Human Striatum. Neuron, 58(2), 284-294.

Tabibnia, G., & Lieberman M. D. (2007). Fairness and Cooperation Are Rewarding: Evidence from Social Cognitive Neuroscience. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1118, 90-101.

Mitchell, J. P., Macrae, C. N., & Banaji, M. R. (2006). Dissociable Medial Prefrontal Contributions to Judgments of Similar and Dissimilar Others. Neuron, 50, 655-663.

Ochsner K. N., & Gross, J. J. (2005). The cognitive control of emotion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(5), 242-249.
Putting feelings into words: affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli.

Lieberman MD, Eisenberger NI, Crockett MJ, Tom SM, Pfeifer JH, Way BM. Psychol Sci. 2007 May;18(5):421-8.

Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Putnam, 1994; revised Penguin edition, 2005

There's loads more content going live over the month to help you on your way, from articles to videos and podcasts, and it's all available in our Neuroscience Learning Hub. Head there today to read more!

7 Responses

  1. Great summary

     Thanks for sharing Jan.  What HR can do with this knowledge is start to influence a whole range of business behaviours, from adjusting meetings to allow for social interaction to minimise out group issues to re-working thinking on performance management to reduce the threat response of wondering how you did.  More articles please!

  2. Intriguing and Frustrating

     I found this article excellent as it contained several intriguing insights for the HR function. However it covers a lot of ground in a very short space. I would like to see each section ending expanded into stand alone articles which go into more depth.

  3. A valuable tool for HR

    I agree it is valuable and important for HR professionals to have an understanding of what the neuroscience research tells us about how we react and interact in social settings, particularly the workplace.  HR are often in a great position to influence what level of consideration is given to social needs, emotions and threat-reward reactions, for example in planning change initiatives. The more we can use this influence the better! In my experience speaking to people about some of these concepts often leads to a moment of insight by providing a biological (neurological) explanation for traits and experiences we all recognise in ourselves and others. Thanks for an interesting article.

  4. Next article

     Thank you for your recommendations and i agree with your comments. Look out for my next article i think you will like it!

  5. Thinking fast and slow

    As somebody who deals with money on a day to day basis I have made it my business to understand the basics of behavioural economics, or in simple terms why people are basically emotional and irrational animals conditioned over the last couple of million of years. However as this emotional irrational behaviour transcends money I believe any HR professional who does not understand this concept cannot do their job correctly.

    Two books, thinking and fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman and the chimp paradox by Dr Steve Peters are a really good introduction and starting point.


    — Senior Employee Benefit and Reward Consultant

  6. Thank you

     Thank you for your comments. I agree threat is the key to understanding a lot of behaviour and understanding this is the way for HR and leaders to mitigate the impact.

  7. Bravo!

    This is probably the most interesting article I read all week so far.

    May I add that the threat response is the usual human response to any new experience (or anything new for that matter), and in order to shift our threat perception towards a reward response, we must reappraise the event or situation presented to us. Reappraisal is key.

    I also like how you point out that emotions matter; the brain isn’t entirely a logical processing machine.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Richard Lane, director at durhamlane, specialising in sales training London and sales training South East

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