Brain science fires up the neurons of managers; Neuroscientists are in demand for their insights into business

May 12, 2014 3:42 pm

Brain science fires up the neurons of managers

By Alicia Clegg

Neuroscientists are in demand for their insights into business

Every day David Amodio comes face to face with prejudice − not in the form of insults and put-downs – but as hotspots and squiggles on PC screens depicting the brain behaviour of people shown pictures of strangers from other racial groups.

Professor Amodio, who teaches at New York University, is a pioneer of social neuroscience, an interdisciplinary field that explores the neural reactions underlying phenomena such as motivation, prejudice and co-operation. “The science tells us what humans can do and also what their limitations are,” he says.

Some management experts believe such scientific exploration of the brain is helpful to businesses. Last month the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development hosted seminars on what neuroscience has to teach leaders and trainers. Meanwhile employers from banks to IT companies have been calling in academics and coaches to talk about its implications for the world of work.

By probing the neural roots of behaviour that psychologists have puzzled over, neuroscience may help to solve conundrums such as why many companies still struggle to create socially and ethnically diverse workplaces even though they profess equal opportunity.

At Prof Amodio’s NYU, volunteers wearing scalp sensors took part in experiments assessing their susceptibility to stereotyping others. Those who turned out to be fairly unprejudiced showed greater electrical activity in brain regions associated with self-control, suggesting they were working hard to stay focused on the task and respond impartially.

This suggests that the brain can apply a conscious override to knee-jerk bias. Other experiments measuring threat responses in the brain agree with the idea that while we may instinctively mistrust “difference”, the brain’s neocortex – which evolved as primate social networks became more complex – has mechanisms to keep prejudice at bay. “Though we may have unconscious prejudices, we can be adept at regulating our behaviour,” says Prof Amodio.

Such research could provide pointers for employers. For example, if prejudice is partly innate, encouraging managers to spot their prejudices and work around them may be more effective than repeating the mantra that prejudice is wrong.

Such an approach might have helped Zillah Byng-Maddick, chief financial officer at Future Publishing. At a past employer, she confronted a personal prejudice in the shape of a well-qualified but obese interviewee. Try as she might, she could not silence the thought that overweight people are lazy. “I kept saying to myself, listen to what they have to say . . . .but I couldn’t get past their weight.”

Neuroscience may help to solve conundrums such as why many companies still struggle to create diverse workplaces

Her response was probably doomed to fail. “Trying to suppress a bias usually backfires, because it keeps you thinking about the bias all the more,” says Prof Amodio. However, her current approach − to talk first by phone, so that her first impressions are unaffected by looks − he says, is spot on.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, Matthew Lieberman has been exploring the part of the brain that deals with social relationships through “functional magnetic resonance imaging”. In his book, Social, Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Prof Lieberman writes that brains feel a social form of hurt – such as exclusion and unfairness – much as they experience the physical pain of, say, breaking a leg.

Yet most organisations, he writes, miss this vulnerability. Employers appoint task-focused managers who lack human understanding, and trust that money will motivate employees, overlooking social rewards such as praise and opportunities to help others flourish which, he argues, the brain registers just as powerfully.

When it comes to holding an audience, neuroscientists have an advantage over many presenters – a picture of neurons firing is more compelling than talking theory and data points.

Tips for avoiding ‘neuro-bunk’

●Do not be overly impressed by pictures of brains lighting up – a popular sales device, according to Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and leadership coach. Dig into the detail and beware of generalisations.
● Be aware that neuro-imaging techniques are still broad-brush in spite of big advances, advises Molly Crockett, a neuroscientist at University College London.

● Ask if findings have been peer-reviewed and replicated and be cautious about small experiment samples.

● Consider Dr Crockett’s rule of thumb: “The more wonderful a thing sounds, and the more you’d like to believe it, the less likely it is to be true.”

Steven Rice, who leads human resources at IT company Juniper Networks, was won over by the explanatory power of neuroscience. He had already sensed that many Juniper employees regarded the ranking system used to evaluate them as unfair. But it was reading about how the brain reacts to threat and unfairness, in Your Brain at Work, by the consultant David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, he says, that motivated him to redesign Juniper’s performance management process from scratch. “It was one of those ‘Aha!’ moments, when two things came together.”

Faith that neuroimaging can supply management insights is not universal. First, say sceptics, most brain regions perform multiple functions, making the interpretation of brain activity difficult.

“I don’t think there’s any area we can say is [such and such] an area, and be really confident that’s a correct statement,” says Russ Poldrack, a psychology and neurobiology professor at the University of Texas.

There are also limits to what neuro­imaging can observe, while preliminary findings from small-scale studies are often regurgitated as facts. Managers need to be aware that there is neuro-myth alongside the neuroscience.

“Anyone can call themselves a coach and many people quote neuroscience with no right,” says Michael Brooke, UK head of learning and development at BNP Paribas, the French bank. To talk about unconscious bias and the psychology of trading, he hired a coach with a neuro­science PhD who had also trained as a doctor. Her credentials, he says, reassured him.

Molly Crockett, a neuroscientist at University College London, has a rule of thumb for spotting “neuro-bunk”: “The more wonderful a thing sounds, and the more you’d like to believe it, the less likely it is to be true.”

Likewise, people are often readier to believe that commercial “brain-training” programmes will make them smarter, than act on evidence that exercise improves learning and cognition – possibly because exercise is hard work.

“While we have quite clear evidence of the effects of exercise, very few brain-training programmes on the market have been scientifically validated,” says Paul Howard-Jones, a reader in neuroscience and education at the University of Bristol.

Prof Lieberman conjectures that, in coming decades, neuro­imaging will progress from stationary scanners to wearable headbands affordable to businesses and even schools.

This raises the possibility – or the spectre, depending on your perspective – of employers adding brain-response diagnostics to the panoply of psychometrics already deployed in leadership selection and development.

For now, however, the focus is on teaching executives brain awareness rather than probing into their brains. Ms Byng-Maddick has a personal story. Raised on the adage: “show me the boy at seven and I’ll show you the man”, she believed individuals either have what it takes or do not.

However, learning about neuro­plasticity – the idea that the adult brain reorganises itself and forges new connections − persuaded her that people can develop.

Faced with the dilemma of how to handle an unhappy deputy whom she had beaten to a coveted post, she decided to mentor him. When she got promoted, he got her job. “Had I not learnt about the brain, I’d have handled the situation differently,” she says.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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