Neuroscience 101: All managers need to know about the power of their brain

13 November 2015 -


Find out how to harness the power of your brain and boost your management decision-making prowess: the second in a series leading up to the announcement of the Management Book of the Year 2016 winners

By 2016 CMI Management Book of the Year shortlist author Tara Swart

There are a number of factors that need to be in place for a brain to change so that it enables new patterns of mental or physical behaviours. The first is focused attention.

Although adult brains continue to be plastic, and we have some 86 billion neurons capable of roughly one million billion connections, we do not have infinite capacity. Our brain is a competitive environment in which different parts compete for resources.

These resources can be chemical, such as the oxygen and glucose that are required for energy, and hormones which trigger particular effects, and physical, such as the limited capacity of our working memory which can hold only some five to nine items at one time, and the speed at which a signal can pass across a number of neural connections.

Some people might say that the brain is inherently lazy. That is memorable shorthand for saying that the brain is so resource intensive that, wherever possible, it will choose the most energy efficient path.

All of what we know as the higher order executive brain functions, anything complex involving working memory and the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), such as conscious processing of inputs, conscious decision-making, complex problem-solving, memorizing complex concepts, planning, strategizing, self-reflection, regulating our emotions and channeling energy from them, exercising self-control and willpower, are very energy intensive.

Attention appears to be the mechanism by which these limited resources are focused on a particular stimulus, physical activity or mental task (and by extension, taken away from other areas), and hence allow for new neuronal connections to be forged and progressively strengthened and old unused ones to be gradually pruned.

The pruning of neuronal connections happens throughout life, but there are two periods when it is most intensive and causes massive changes: around the age of two (the terrible twos) and adolescence. It is the reason teenagers need so much sleep and fuel, and underlies changes in their personalities and moods.

It would appear that the presence of top down, focused attention is necessary for significant changes in the brain. But for leaders, focusing attention is not enough. Attention needs to be focused on what is most important and relevant, and that means the capacity to rapidly switch the focus of attention when necessary – to be flexible as well as focused.

These new connections are sustained and embedded through the second factor, deliberate practice or repetition. Forming a new network or pathway of multiple connections (or mental map as many people call it), is not enough, as a new connection is fragile. For it to remain usable it needs to be used again and again until it is well established.

“Use it or lose it” is indeed a critical principle.

Re-using a set of connections, such as those created as a result of learning a new skill like driving a car, not only improves that skill but gradually changes the location of that map in the brain so that it needs less conscious attention and hence fewer resources and effort to accomplish.

The difference between being an experienced driver on a well-known route and a novice on a new one is one we all recognize. Studies have shown that London black cab drivers’ mid-posterior hippocampus starts reducing in size in retirement after a relatively short time. Use it or lose it indeed.

Underlying focused attention and practice is the need for the motivation, will power or self-control to change. Without this, focusing attention and practicing will not be sustained enough to deliver the long-term robustness of the new connections that are required for long-term change.

Finally, the environment has to be conducive to focusing attention.

In situations of danger and uncertainty the brain’s resources are driven by the overwhelming need for survival. This need focuses attention on the sources of danger and on trying to predict where the next threat will appear, on escape or full frontal battle rather than on an innovative or creative solution, on avoiding risk rather than managing it towards a new suite of products, market or way of doing business.

And of course, the most important part of our environment is other people and our relationships with them.

This is an edited extract from Neuroscience for Leadership – Harnessing the Brain Gain Advantage, by Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm and Paul Brown, which is shortlisted in the Practical Manager category of the 2016 CMI Management Book of the Year, in association with the British Library and sponsored by Henley Business School

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