CIPD Podcast 122 – Behavioural Science
Jonny Gifford: One thing that we’re saying at the moment at the CIPD is that HR needs to be principles led, needs to be evidence-based and outcomes driven.
Philippa Lamb: Jonny Gifford is research adviser at the CIPD.
JG: In terms of being outcomes driven it’s one of the areas that HR does quite well in historically but one of the missing links is often being evidence-based.
PL: Part of his remit is exploring what behavioural science can tell us about how our minds operate when we’re working. Those insights play directly into many of the big HR issues: recruitment, people management, learning and development, to name just three.
JG: What we need is for good people management practices to come out of a strong evidence base. So to do this we need to understand human behaviour in the workplace, we need to understand people’s reactions, people’s mind-sets, how we think in work environments and that’s where the behavioural science insights really kick in.
PL: Hilary Scarlett is a consultant and author. She designed and leads the neuroscience of leadership masterclass for senior civil servants and she's also worked with Lloyds Banking Group, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills and BAE Systems. We started with the basics. What is behavioural science?
Hilary Scarlett: What is behavioural science? Well behavioural science is the study of the brain, how it works, what it needs and applied neuroscience about how to apply it actually to the organisation in practical terms.
PL: Behavioural science draws on behavioural economics, cognitive psychology and social neuroscience and by using brain scans we now have visuals which can show us how different parts of the brain light up with different stimuli, or in other words we now have solid data on how we respond to situations. Now in the day to day rush to get things done it’s easy to fall into thinking of any given organisation as a group of teams, a series of systems or just a bunch of assets. But if you picture it as a collection of human brains things start to get way more interesting.
HS: What does the brain really need? What puts the brain into a good place where it can think, it can focus, it’s more willing to collaborate? And what we’ve discovered about the brain really is for the brain it’s all about survival, that's the key thing it wants to do. Our brains are not really designed to work in the 21st century workplace, they’re still really designed to deal with the savanna and to achieve that there are two key things, it wants to avoid threat, it wants to seek out reward. But we’re much more sensitive to threat because out in the savanna if the sabre-toothed tiger got us it was game over so we’re much more attuned to threat. And when we’re in a threat state we can't think straight, we can't think as well, we’re distracted, it impacts our memory, we see the world as a more threatening place. But when we are in the reward state in our brain that's when we’re really engaged, that's when we can focus, collaborate, think more positively. So just understanding the brain, what it needs in terms of what gets it into reward state means you’re then more likely to get an employee into a place where they can be more engaged.
PL: If you’re thinking yeah but some people really cannot learn new stuff, they're just too set in their ways well think again.
HS: Neuroscientists at University College London looked actually at the brains of black cab drivers and compared them with the brains of bus drivers in London and you’d think on the surface they were two very similar jobs but what they found with the black cab drivers the part of the brain, the hippocampus – that's to do with memory, especially spatial memory – had grown as a result of having learnt all that knowledge over the four or five years. And that was the first example of proving that adult’s brain can change and restructure if we choose to learn. And where I think that's really important in organisational terms, I think often in organisations people when we’re going through change struggle with can I learn new skills? Are quite daunted about can I learn to do things differently. That study absolutely proves that as adults if we want to we can learn and we can change.
PL: Samantha Rockey spent the last 20 years working in organisational strategy, performance and development. For much of that time she was global head of leadership development for SABMiller. Now though she's co-founded a new organisation, Thompson Harrison. It’s a leadership development consultancy designed to work with leaders and their organisations as the find their way through largescale transformation.
Samantha Rockey: We started thinking about behavioural science several decades ago actually. We’ve got a long history of using practices from psychology, from behavioural economics and more recently from neuroscience in our leadership development. So it’s been part of the way we’ve thought about leadership development for well over 15 years. Neuroscience has really only become the sort of massive force that it is today I guess over the last two or three years actually.
PL: Yes and still a lot of ignorance and scepticism about it. I think people understand about psychology, we’re kind of all on board with that, but the sense that neuroscience can play into learning, into development of all sorts isn’t embedded yet is it?
SR: Well what’s really interesting about that actually is that it feels so common sense when someone’s describing how people operate: it’s almost so obvious but what’s really exciting I think about neuroscience is that the common sense practice is now being backed up by scientific evidence. As an HR practitioner I think it’s almost starting to become a golden era – a nice place to be in I think.
PL: So in terms of leadership, when you’re working with leaders and potential leaders presumably how does this play into that?
SR: So if we start right at the beginning very simple things, for example, people can only concentrate for a short period of time, for around 20 minutes after which fatigue sets in and people start to get distracted, what kind of snacks you would offer to the delegate during the course of the day.
PL: And what might they be?
SR: So we know that nuts and low GI food is much better for the brain. Keeping people hydrated, by ensuring that people drink regularly during the course of the day, water that is, you can already see an uplift in the retention of knowledge. I mean these are very simple, fundamental things. And then moving up onto the next stage is how do adults like to learn? Well most people unsurprisingly don't like to be told what to do, people like to figure it out for themselves, people like to be given challenges and the brain is wired to try and problem solve. People like to draw on their own experiences. People, we know, get enthusiastic and excited about a topic when they can relate it back to what their own experience is. So much of the leadership development that I put in place or I develop uses the learner as content. So there's so much wisdom in a room it’s almost impossible to get somebody to come in and tell an audience of 20 people enough information that wouldn’t have meaning rather how do you use those 20 people and the experiences that they’ve gone through and the shared wisdom of that group to kick start the learning.
PL: So it’s networking, it’s collaborative learning.
SR: It is very. I think collaborative learning is absolutely key. The content is important but the space between the content is even more important.
PL: Because there's a temptation isn’t there, particularly with senior people to pack out a schedule with content and you’re saying no, no, no step back.
SR: I think that is one of the greatest dangers and as soon as you build in space people have described it as the grey bits in between and that's really where you get the magic happening.
PL: So as an HR how do you help employees to get into this up for learning, ready to achieve state?
HS: Things like having a sense of control makes a big difference to the brain. Choice makes a big difference to the brain. Some control. So things like making sure people do feel that they are learning and growing because learning and growing puts people into a better place. Having a sense of purpose is very important to the brain as well. So feeling that what I'm doing is meaningful and useful is important. And I think one of the areas we’ve hugely underestimated is our need for social connection, for relationships.
HS: Belonging that I think we get it in our personal lives but somehow we expect people to walk in the office door and be terribly professional and not have quite that same need for relationships, for belonging as you say. But actually all the science shows it’s absolutely fundamental to us and that because we’re mammals that we wouldn’t make it through our first months and years of life if there weren't somebody there looking out for us, looking after us and that carries on through life and even in the workplace. Is somebody on my side? Is somebody interested in me? Because if they are my brain’s in a good place. If they’re not my brain’s in a threat state and can't focus.
PL: Being in that receive and learn and move forward mode the thing you've just described I mean that must play into the social and collaborative learning that we hear so much about now, this sense that you can learn because you’re feeling part of the group and you feel that you belong.
HS: Yes and indeed it’s really important to feel part of the group and there's some fantastic research done by a psychologist called Baumeister who looks at the impact on our ability to learn, to make decisions, to think if we don't feel we’re part of the group, if we feel we’re socially rejected and it has a quite traumatic effect on us and I think every leader, every manager in every organisation needs to understand how important this is to the brain if we don't feel we belong to the group then we can't collaborate and learn in the same way.
PL: I wonder how many meetings take place across the country every day? Too many probably but Hilary has a straightforward idea to get more out of all that time spent around a meeting room table.
HS: Just get people at the beginning of a meeting or a session to talk about something they feel good about, to talk about something they feel proud about because the very fact of talking about something I feel proud about activates the reward network in my brain which puts my brain into a better place.
PL: So it’s about how you’re framing conversations, how you’re framing meetings?
HS: Yes and there's also a lot about personal emotional regulation that emotions are contagious so if the leader is feeling stressed or anxious so that quickly the team will start to feel stressed and anxious as well. So for a lot of leaders I think some of the insights have been how they learn to manage their own emotions is important and one of the things that neuroscience teaches actually suppressing an emotion is not a good thing to do. If you’re feeling really angry and think, I'm going to go into a meeting and pretend I'm fine, actually people pick it up through behaviour and actually we sweat out stress hormones through our skin so people pick it up.
PL: Smell it almost in the room.
PL: All the macro political and economic uncertainty we’re experiencing right now is worth keeping in mind when you picture your co-workers under that imaginary brain scanner and that's because when we don't know what’s going to happen next in whatever area of our lives that uncertainty puts us in a threat state.
HS: Absolutely, absolutely and uncertainty is a very difficult thing for the brain to deal with. Our brains, it goes back to survival, they want information, they want certainty because if they’ve got information and certainty they can predict, they can better protect us they feel. So our brains don't like uncertainty. And I've seen that in organisations. There was one bank I was working with that I was asked to work with the leaders in one part of a bank which was going to be closed down within 18 months. But interesting in that part of the bank when I was working with those leaders in terms of engagement surveys it did it better than the main bank and in terms of performance they did better than the main bank. It’s because they said, okay because we know in 18 months’ time we’ll be out of a job, we’ll be out of here so we can get on and make a plan. The people back in the main bank they think they’ve got a job but everybody knows banking is precarious right now so they might or they might not.
PL: So it’s still uncertain.
HS: Still uncertain.
PL: And they were engaged.
HS: And they were engaged absolutely and they had 18 months, they knew what they were doing, they had a timeline.
PL: It used to be muscular skeletal problems that kept people off work, these days, as we all know, it’s mostly stress but stress isn’t a well-defined term and nor are its effects. So when it comes to our working lives a degree of stress can be very useful. Here’s Samantha again.
SR: You’re only ever going to get the pearl if people feel anxious, stressed, nervous. Those are good.
SR: You want people to feel in that state.
PL: Do you because I would have thought that would have put them in a kind of fight or flight mode where they’re not taking in data they’re just thinking about, what do I need to do now?
SR: Well that's why the learning container is so important. So you have to create the safety but then you have to put the edge in.
PL: So how would you apply that? I'm thinking if people listen to this thinking how do I do this to my people without transgressing legally.
SR: So you don't want to make them so stressed out. I mean it’s quite a narrow band.
PL: Yeah. What would you do, I mean just in an ordinary organisation, thinking about this I understand the logic of it, so it’s what taking people out of their comfort zone a little bit?
SR: Yes exactly I think that's well put. I think that one of the ways we do it for senior leaders and I have done with our managing director’s programme is to put in provocation. So getting really interesting people to come and ask them very scary questions. An example I would use is we used a very well-known philosopher from Oxford who sat in a circle with them and then just asked the most astonishingly provocative questions.
PL: What sort of thing?
SR: Well it was a lot about ethics actually and what was happening with the Volkswagen emission scandal. So she was asking them challenging questions like…
PL: If you’d been CEO of VW would you have done it if you thought you could have got away with it?
SR: Yes exactly. That was exactly the right kind of question she would have asked yeah.
PL: So they’re all slightly on the edge of their seat.
PL: Even though it’s a training session.
SR: Yeah. So I think this idea that learning and development needs to be in a kind of safe and comfortable place in which people sit around in groups, no I think that it needs to be edgy. It needs to be something which really engages peoples’ minds.
PL: Is that for everyone or is that just at the top end leadership training end? I mean if we’re talking about more junior, younger people?
SR: We ran a graduate programme and actually our graduates were thoroughly enjoying the challenge.
PL: You made them uncomfortable too?
SR: Yeah of course. I mean it’s more just…
PL: On their mettle.
PL: So feeling a little bit uncomfortable in a learning situation can be good but strung out and running on empty not so good when it comes to taking in new information or new ideas.
HS: I've been doing a lot of work with various government departments and I think one of the challenges for public and private sector is how do you, when there's been so much cost-cutting going on and redundancies and fewer people and I hear this phrase both in the private and public sector getting more from less, so fewer people but how do we keep on pushing them to perform? But there's a limit to how much you can do that because what the behavioural science shows is yes we all need to be stretched, we need to be challenged but there is a tipping point. There's a sweet spot at which we’re challenged but if we’re challenged too much, if we have too many deadlines, too many pressures, actually the fact is the pre-frontal cortex, the bit of the brain where we do our thinking and planning actually starts to close down.
PL: And how do you see that if you’re a line manager or an HR, how do you identify that tipping point?
SR: I think, yes you’re absolutely right, I think it needs managers absolutely who know their teams well to see when somebody is getting to that point where they’re no longer thinking at their best or thinking straight. And only recently I had a really busy day and my colleague turned to me and said, “And what do you want for lunch?” and it was like the final straw I couldn’t even decide what…
PL: I don't know.
SR: …not another decision I've got to make.
PL: For more on behavioural science and work go to the CIPD website there is carefully curated information there with reports, blogs and podcasts to shed light and get you thinking.
Next month we’re digging into social learning. How can you build it into your L&D strategy and what might it mean for the L&D profession. Join me then the first Tuesday of the month as always. Thanks for listening.