Originally Published in HR daily on February 2nd, 2011.
Employers that want their staff to be creative, strategic and effective must understand the thinking processes that lead to success, and be careful not to stifle them, says neuroleadership expert Silvia Damiano.
The solution is to ask, “What can I learn from (science) that will give me new tools to operate more efficiently and (better engage) people in the business”?
Two key scientific findings that are “essential” knowledge for HR professionals relate to the “pre-frontal cortex” and multitasking, she says.
Keep the pre-frontal cortex “in shape”
The pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is the part of the brain responsible for planning, prioritizing, making decisions, aligning behaviours with goals, making judgments about right and wrong, and short term memory, says Damiano.
It is very sensitive to the chemicals running through it and needs glucose and oxygen to operate properly. It also has a finite capacity and can become “totally exhausted” after a few hours if it is not given a break.
We live in an era in which we depend on the good functioning of our pre-frontal cortex. We may not rely so heavily on our body muscles to do our work anymore, but we do rely on the PFC to come up with creative ideas, solve problems and make decisions.
"Information overload, conflict, continuous changes and restructures, back-to-back meetings and having to deal with excessive emails can all exhaust the PFC, making workers feel stressed and creating tension in their relationships. When business leaders (and others) are overly stressed and nobody notices it or does anything to address the stressors, their capacity to perform and deliver great results, handle difficult negotiations, pay attention to others or generate great ideas is significantly reduced”, she says.
“Therefore, keeping the PFC in check is of enormous benefit for those whose jobs required clarity of mind in order to address business issues and use their best interpersonal skills to engage and mobilize others into action.”
Debunk the multi-tasking myth
Damiano who will be speaking about “Neuroscience of HR professionals” at an upcoming Unconference in Sydney, says managing heavy workloads to achieve high quality outcomes often with limited resources –is a critical business skill. However, employers should not have unrealistic expectations of their managers.
“Historically, people have believed that we can do many things well, and all at once. However the latest neuroscientific research indicates that the human brain, can only deal with only four concepts at any one time,” she says.
Only one of these concepts can be new; the other three are learned and can be performed “habitually”. For example, a person cannot have an intelligent conversation with someone about a new complex problem while driving to a location they have never visited, at the same time. We would have to stop the conversation to find the place on the map”, she explains.
Quite often business professionals think they are multi-tasking but in reality they are jumping from one task to the next without getting to grips with any of the tasks in any depth, Damiano says. “To complete an activity with new ideas, concepts or strategies, staff will have to minimize any distractions around them and concentrate on the one task to produce their highest quality work.”
However, this can be “easier said than done”, especially in a busy office environment where the “bombardment” of questions and requests can be continuous. The solution for HR professionals revolves around training their staff in effective time management, prioritizing tasks and allocating times when an individual can be contacted and encouraging them to say “no” or “not now” to requests where appropriate, Damiano says.
“HR managers can help their staff understand that going deeply into a topic requires the elimination of all distractions. They should also empower team members with the confidence to declare themselves unavailable to the demands of others.”