How can we use neuroscience to better engage with managers?

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How can we use neuroscience to better engage with managers?

Why do leaders and managers still treat performance management as an afterthought? Neuroscience

Whilst running a workshop towards the end of 2015 aimed at showing managers how
they can motivate and inspire their teams, the discussions amongst those taking part brought back memories. (As featured in The HR Director Publication.) It was the time of year when managers spend extra hours working on end of year appraisals worrying about how they will justify the numerical score they give to underperforming employees. These ratings are entirely subjective and have the potential to undermine best practice in motivating teams.  So, what’s the secret to inspiring employees whilst ensuring engagement with the year-end appraisals? I would argue that it involves introducing a human element and taking on board research into neuroscience.

Carol Dweck of Stanford University has researched neuroscience at work and discovered two distinct mind-sets amongst managers and leaders: fixed and growth. A fixed mind-set is all too common in corporate life and limits the likelihood that managers will coach and develop their teams. Conversely, a growth mind-set leads to managers learning and professionally growing both themselves and their teams. This ties into what nearly all our clients aspire to be: a learning organisation that can adapt and react quickly to the constant change in today’s world of work.

I believe that sometimes even the word ‘neuroscience’ is enough to scare off people in most organisations. Why should managers have to know how the brain works at work? Well, a general awareness of neuroscience and the fight or flight response to common management systems could educate managers and HR departments alike and help them to come up with better processes based on scientific research that humanise performance management. David Rock, Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, researched the negative reaction people have to being scored in common performance ratings using his SCARF model and his findings support this. SCARF is based on the idea that our brains will minimise perceived threats and maximise potential rewards in the workplace. As a result of this, and other, research into neuroscience, organisations such as Cargill Inc. and Juniper Networks who have successfully restructured their performance management systems have seen a marked improvement in employee engagement.

After all, isn’t the overall goal of improving the way leaders and managers communicate with their teams aimed at building engagement with employees, growing businesses and ultimately increasing profits? According to the US organisational and people advisory firm Korn Ferry, the ‘ability to grow talent’ ranked last out of 67 competencies asked of managers. I would argue that the lowest rated competency is in fact the most important. Organisations are running into troubled waters if their managers are not developing individuals and teams or if the performance management system is devaluing and demotivating employees.

Is it not time to start humanising the way we evaluate employees’ performance? As a learning and development professional, I have always found the conditions in which people learn more important than the materials designed to rate how they perform. The learning brain must be considered, otherwise we are not affecting behaviour change for the better.

From my research into neuroscience, I know that an increasing number of HR departments are examining it as a means to develop improved processes for their strategies. Even a basic understanding of neuroscience and the way people react to being performance-managed can improve the way that organisations develop their people for the future. Wouldn’t this remove elements of subjectivity and humanise performance management at the same time?

Instead of groaning about year-end appraisals from managers and their teams alike, it would be great to imagine a future where the focus of performance management is on employees as people.


As featured in The HR Director Publication. 

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