How to Boost Brain Performance at Work

Written by Kate Lanz Wednesday 27 March 2019
Four tips from a neuropsychologist on how to manage a team

The demands of the workplace mean that many of our brains are shutting down – without us even realising it. The brain is arguably the most powerful organ in the body. It uses a quarter of our energy and, under optimal conditions, most of this energy goes to our pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for clever thinking. In this state, human beings can achieve incredible things. But when we are threatened or fearful, this energy is diverted to saving ourselves rather than thinking.

My research shows that nearly a third of people spend most of their time in survive rather than thrive mode at work. This represents an enormous waste of brainpower. Neuroscience proves that a happy relaxed brain performs at its best, so it makes sense that a working environment that is free of fear will get the most from all of the brains in it.

It is possible to create an environment where our brain is able to engage in creative and innovative connections. And it’s good for business, as well as individual health:

How to boost brain performance at work

1. Show recognition

It’s important to communicate from the bottom of the brain up. As a manager, start any interaction by soothing the other person’s limbic system – the part of the brain that controls our fight or flight response. Start a conversation by recognising a specific contribution that a team member has recently made to a project or the business, to show that you appreciate them as an individual.

2. Communicate intention

If your team member understands the intention behind your words their limbic system will be further soothed. Communicate clearly and honestly about where the conversation is heading and the limbic brain will stand down, knowing that there is no intention to attack. Recognition and intention go a long way to soothing and settling the limbic response – as long as the genuine aim is coming from a basis of trust. For example, if you need to have a meeting about performance be very clear that this is your intention. Highlight that you need to work on solutions together, so that your team member doesn’t feel hijacked by the conversation.

3. Introduce challenge

Now it’s time to engage the powerful pre-frontal cortex. The cortex loves to solve problems and it’s what makes us both brilliant and dangerous as a species. Introduce the issue that you need to solve and leave space for others to offer solutions. Tone matters here – any hint of ‘I know best’ simply won’t cut it. Always remember that if the limbic system is triggered the cortex will shut down and the conversation is likely to take a down turn.

Your role is to keep conversations open. Ask your team member to contribute solutions, listen carefully and give them airtime. Only offer up your own solutions when they have had their say. This will engage your team member in genuine exploration.

4. Bring hope

Finally, we use hope to paint a visual and emotional picture of a future where the positive change has already happened. Hope releases dopamine, one of the happiness hormones, and fires up the reward centres in the brain. If you give your team member hope, they will start to feel the change that you are discussing. At times of change, describe what a resolution will look like. What will a new behaviour feel like to your team member? How will it enable their contribution to be fully recognised and valued?

These simple steps work in line with the way that our brains work. It’s a framework that quickly accesses a person’s emotions and brings them to a place where they can contribute constructively. Use this approach in one-to-ones, coaching conversations and meetings to stimulate creativity, increase cooperation and access your team’s differences in a very positive way.

Kate Lanz is a neuropsychologist and author of All the brains in the business: the engendered brain in the 21st Century organisation, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in Autumn 2019