Is Neuroscience being over simplified for businesses?
Strategies for maximising employee engagement, motivation and achievement are popular with business leaders as they try to decipher the underlying factors that contribute towards better business performance. It is no surprise therefore, that the topic of neuroscience, and its application in the business world, has attracted the interest of leaders and HR professionals across many sectors, who are keen to explore how this scientific approach could help them gain a deeper understanding of their employees.
The latest models of neuroscience explain how the brain reacts to certain situations, allowing businesses to understand how we act when working as part of a team, making decisions or when asked to do something, and most importantly, whywe react the way we do.
However, given the complexity of this discipline, there is often a propensity for those in the business world to ‘dumb down’ or simplify the concepts associated with neuroscience in order to improve accessibility and understanding by non-academics. The difficulty this causes is that fundamental aspects of the theory and subsequent interpretation are being lost in translation, leaving many academics and neuroscience experts concerned about how this subject is being [KW1] used by businesses.
So, how can we preserve the integrity of the principles of neuroscience, whilst also ensuring that employers[KW2] are able to understand them? I recently spoke to Patricia Riddell, Professor of Applied Neuroscience, and we discussed how both sides can work together to truly understand what makes us tick.
The relevance of neuroscience for managing people
In society, we are becoming increasingly curious about the intricate workings of both our brain and our bodies, as more information becomes available and widely accessible. Patricia sees many businesses already embracing aspects of psychology and cognition therapies within their people management strategies, and neuroscience is a natural progression for forward-thinking organisations that want to take their understanding of human behaviour in the workplace to the next level.
The appeal for businesses is clear. Once they understand how our brains works, they can then analyse how people react to certain situations in the workplace and take steps to influence, change or promote the behaviours they want. Neuroscience has the ability to open new and exciting doors for both managers and employees, by allowing employees to be more innovative and creative at work, whilst educating managers on how to provide a more engaging, rewarding and productive working environment.
The trouble with over-simplification
There is a common assumption that anything scientific needs simplification before exposing it to the mainstream. Whilst in principle this approach is logical, there is no evidence to say that it works any better than if the material had been untouched.
Patricia suggested that misinterpretation is a common result of the ‘cherry-picking’ of data to fit in with simplistic models of neuroscience which don’t reflect reality. [KW3]
One example Patricia uses to explain the pitfalls with summarising and over-simplifying concepts is that of Simon Sinek , a thought-leader who developed the ‘bulls-eye’ model of the brain. His bulls-eye approach has three levels of processing in the brain, but fails to detail how the different levels interact with each other, and therefore affect behaviour. His theory about how to influence purchasing behaviour has merit and is actually backed up by sound neuroscience but the oversimplification of the model undermines its credibility.
Patricia firmly believes that ensuring information is accessible for businesses is very different to (and no excuse for) providing inaccurate models.
It is therefore, critical that the right people are providing these theories to business professionals directly, presenting concepts in a way that is true to the science but also immediately relevant to business leaders and the workplace.
In summary, when used correctly, neuroscience has the ability to radically transform the way organisations understand, engage with and motivate their employees. But in order to maximise the impact, academics (who thoroughly understand both the science and practical applications behind it) need to ensure they are armed with the most up-to-date models and theories and how they can be used to help the business world. Likewise, organisations need to be mindful of only working with specialists in neuroscience who have the credentials, expertise and practical know-how to ensure its authenticity is preserved, so that the organisation receives the maximum return on investment.
About Stephen Fortune
Stephen joined the Oxford Group in 2016 as a Principal Consultant. His experience extends across a range of high profile projects and clients including The Children’s Trust, ED&F Man, Gilead, Novartis, Legal & General, Rabobank, Johnston Press, Sainsbury’s and William Hill.
The Oxford Group is a people-focused business driven by a passion for helping organisations get the best from their people, unleash hidden talent and successfully manage their business through times of change. The Oxford Group is part of The City & Guilds Group, a global leader in skills development, which enables people and organisations develop their skills for personal and economic growth. For more information, visit Oxford Group.
[KW1] This isn’t about what is being taught, it is about how business people are applying it to their world.
[KW2] Neuroscience is being used by employers rather than employees.
[KW3] Patricia doesn’t actually say this in the original article and I wouldn’t want to put words in her mouth.