What every HR professional needs to know about the latest findings in neuroscience

With any task which requires learning, we can benefit from a deeper understanding of how the learning process actually works. What you may not know about though is how the latest discoveries in neuroscience can help people perform better at any task they undertake.

If you are a judicious entrepreneur, you will not need any convincing about the importance of a talent management approach as a part of your business strategy. Over the past 15+ years, cognitive science research (and specifically neuroscience) has given us some valuable insights into the ways learning and development take place.

These discoveries are not just of value to business leaders however. They are also invaluable for HR leaders interested in understanding how they can improve the learning capabilities (and overall performance) of their organisation’s people. More generally, they are also valuable for anyone who wants to understand how they can improve their own learning capabilities.

Some of the breakthrough discoveries are:

  • Learning is a process that allows new neural networks to be continuously built and re-built 
  • Teachers cannot transmit knowledge to learners! (interesting) 
  • Our personal performance is entirely dependent on context (work, personal, history)  
  • Learning skills are dependent on the coordination of basic skills rather than complex skills. 
  • We must support our own learning by creating personal contexts (otherwise we will not learn!)  
  • Essential to learning is regression (so if we make an error it is part of the learning process!!!)
  • Skills are all interrelated rather than isolated

"Up until the 1980’s, scientists thought the structure of the brain developed during childhood and that once developed, there was very little room for change. Scientists now know that the brain possesses enormous capacity to change: People’s ability to process widely varied information and complex new experiences with relative ease can often be surprising. The brain’s ability to act and react in ever-changing ways is known as neuroplasticity" Understanding What Makes People Tick, 2009.

For example, employees may be able to memorise that HR exists for the purpose of people management. However to fully develop a meaningful understanding, for example one that enables HR professionals to use creative concepts, requires a person to constantly build upon new and old concepts, including understanding.

Cognitive development builds up connections between ideas and skills; this is a skill theory process of coordination of very complex (mental) units. So let's take an HR topic like 'Talent Strategy' and see where neuroscience comes in the picture.

With different explanations of talent strategy, I would broadly position it around these keywords: succession planning, effective training and development programs, and empowering your talent.

Now talent strategy cannot do wonders in isolation, instead you should have 4 key elements firmly positioned in place:

  • Motivational factors that enable people to deliver business strategy 
  • Elements that create the right talent culture  
  • Making sure that managers feed motivation to the talent 
  • Managing change by running business strategy and talent strategy in parallel with each other

If you have a vision to intersect neuroscience with HR, you will soon realise that the above 4 elements are already knitted into your culture. So what basically neuroscience suggests is that you, as an HR professional should understand how a human brain works.

Every employee performs and understands their work tasks differently, especially when they receive different levels of support.

First identify your talent through answering this question: Who is performing rather out-performing your expectations and has a track record of efficiently delivering the business goals? I will call these people ‘super performers’.

Recognise the attributes (found in a distributed form) of super performers such as having very clear purpose of what drives their behaviour.

Such people are very sure of how to execute their role and often appear as persistent self-improvers. You would observe their healthy disappointment with under-performance and not settling for anything less than perfect. One of the most admired attributes of super performers is that they are ‘thrill, feedback and new role’ seekers.

Without understanding what neuroscience tells us, as an HR professional, you would identify super performers as nothing but ‘trouble and pain’.

The million-dollar question is how to make most out of super performers through applying neuroscience.

I have created a model for ‘change management’ where you can effectively plant super performers and achieve business objectives. But first let's understand what neuroscience has to say about ‘resistance to change’, a very common HR challenge.

To our brains, change is detected as a fault/error/mistake!

This clearly means that our brain sees change as a slip-up. The reason for this is that our brain has been constantly working to create certain patterns and ways of doing things, these patterns are basically our ‘short-cuts’ for carrying out our everyday activities. As an example, you do not have to think how to walk every time you need to walk. However when our brain sees a change in walking, it realises that it has to work harder and hence, prompts a response of 'error/fault/mistake' and I would say sometimes even irrational reaction to change, as it is viewed as an error and this is directly followed by resistance.

Not trying to be a neuroscientist here, but as an HR professional, I have personally experienced the benefits of applying neuroscience. My approach to facilitate change for change-resisters especially those rated as ‘super performers’ would be:

  • Encouraging them to create their own way of managing things, though staying within the scope of the change strategy
  • Enhancing flexibility through ‘feeding’ them (in my words), otherwise known as training and development
  • Developing people to generate solutions and not problems

So remember, “Those who are nurtured best, survive best” Cozolino

(c) 2013 Human Resources Global Ltd.

Written by Nicole Le Maire, Founder of Human Resources Global Ltd. a HR Consultancy targeting individuals and SME's within the emerging market regions. Nicole focuses on supporting clients in non-traditional HR ways and she can be contacted via Nicole@humanresourcesglobal.com or via twitter @NicoleLeMaire

1 comment:

  1. Nice piece!! Saw alignments with my own experiences ... currently studying my masters and I'm 46 - and certainly gaining many insights because of the context and my previous experiences.