Neuro-leadership: you must understand the brain to lead in the future workplace


The value of a workplace starts with its employees. It has been said many times – if you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of your business. There is no denying this is true and to get the best out of employees, it is important for leaders to understand the human brain and the value of good health and wellbeing.

Neuroscience is now being looked to as the ‘Holy Grail’ that shows us how the brain works, and how to get it to work more effectively. Imaging of the brain such as PET scans and MRI’s have helped us see the brain and better understand the art of neural networks, how they form, decay and how they can be enhanced. Neuroscience has shown that the human brain is not designed for the 21st century – Our brains have two goals; to survive by minimising threat, and to feel good by maximising reward. There are a number of circumstances and activities that occur in a workplace that can trigger both the threat and reward response in the brain, which will ultimately impact work performance, as well as health and wellbeing. To help employees reach their potential, leaders need to incorporate ‘Neuro-leadership and create brain friendly workplaces.

What is a brain friendly workplace?

Brain friendly workplaces aim to improve the performance of all the brains working within it, with the main goal of increasing business productivity, employee wellbeing, and employee engagement. To create a brain friendly workplace, organisations and their leaders need to first understand their own brains, and the brains of their employees. By learning how the brain works, what triggers people’s behaviour and the effect this has on others, leaders can lead with the brain and maximise performance and creativity. Therefore, learning how to create a workplace environment in which the brain can do its thinking, planning, and strategising in a relaxed state can be extremely beneficial for the productivity of employees and therefore the interest of your business. Unfortunately, many of today’s workplaces still reflect the organisational practices of the industrial and information eras.

A brain-friendly culture starts with rest. If we are not flourishing mentally and physically, we resort to survival thinking. Being “always on” can impact our approach to clear thinking and new ideas. We must build in time to look after our bodies so our minds can work effectively. We know now for example, that having a day full of back to back meetings or interviews, or staring at a computer screen for 8 hours doesn’t actually make the best use of your brain. Instead, it can lead to people becoming overly-stressed, and their brains functioning in a chaotic manner. 

Some ideas on how to create a brain-friendly workplace include:

1. Minimising threats and maximising rewards

First and foremost, workplaces must be free from perceived threats in order to drive performance and enhance creativity and wellness. Employees need to feel safe, calm and motivated to perform at their best, as well as be creative.

Employers can implement brain-friendly workplace rituals to minimise threats, including:

  • Rituals for welcoming and onboarding new staff.
  • Team building activities (These are great for producing oxytocin, the trust chemical – which bonds teams and counteracts stress chemicals).
  • Focussing on learning and accountability rather than blame culture.
  • Giving positive feedback and encouragement: catching people doing it right.
  • Positive story sharing.
  • Celebrating the ‘little wins’ and progress of individuals, teams and projects.
  • Regular team updates.
  • Check in with how the team are feeling.
  • Asking the right open, reflective questions.
  • Focussing on outcome/solutions rather than problems.

2. Mindfulness programs

These programs provide stress-relief strategies for employees in this demanding, always-on working environment we operate in. Activities in these programs may include meditation rooms, silent spaces, walking meetings, colouring books, yoga sessions, providing brain food, on-site massages, sleeping pods, and games rooms. Mindfulness programs are aimed at getting people to absorb the present moment and their physical surroundings, and increase employee awareness of brain and body function. When used consistently and in conjunction with other brain-friendly rituals, these strategies can have the effect of reshaping the brain.

However, mindfulness activities should never be used as a magical ‘silver bullet’ solution to long term performance and wellbeing, and should instead be used to support core efforts to improve workplace practices. Workplaces are environments of restructure, intense workloads, increasing pressure and demands, and information overload. To optimise the positive effects of mindfulness programs, leaders need to be able to constantly critique and adjust workplace practices, structures and leadership frameworks. 

3. Amplifying alpha waves:

Having a quiet brain and relaxed mind is crucial for creativity and productivity. Organisations can support brain relaxation by implementing the following strategies:

  • Turn off distractions: F-TIME (focus time) allocating a timeframe where people can switch onto focussing on a project or task, whilst switching off all distractions. Office design can even assist with this by having “technology free zones” or “F-Time” designated spaces.
  • Team Meditation Rituals: Before a meeting, introduce a few minutes of guided meditation as a team. Meditation devices such as MUSE can help track the effectiveness of the meditation. Even closing your eyes for a few minutes and breathing deeply can increase alpha waves and calm the mind, which is absolutely critical for effective brain functioning.
  • Introduce walking meetings: Walking stimulates serotonin, which is a necessary neurochemical for creativity, and is the chemical of calmness. Both are necessary for productive workplaces.
  • Encourage exercise at lunch with a friend: Google offices don’t offer ping pong tables, sleeping pods and other cool spaces just to be a “cool employer” – in fact, this is very strategic. It increases connection between staff, provides time for aerobic activity (which boosts creative potential), and promotes sleep as one of the most important activities to refresh our cognitive and creative abilities through rest.

Leaders and HR professionals can assist in the development of a brain friendly workplace by learning how our brain functions so they can then assist the business in applying this to their leadership practices and workplace rituals to maximise performance and wellbeing.

About Blythe Rowe

Blythe Rowe has spent the past 13 years in Senior HR roles for some of Australia’s largest businesses including McDonald’s Australia and the retail giant, Bunnings. Blythe’s obsession for people and performance led her to become the founder and director of the training organisation, Human Incite. Throughout May & June, Blyther will be speaking at business masterclasses ‘The Next Big Thing.’

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