The most popular company course among employees at Google is not what you’d expect. It has a six month waiting list and has been going strong since 2007. Called ‘Search Inside Yourself’, it involves no technology.
Instead, participants learn mindfulness and meditation. Microsoft and Nike have also invested in mindfulness training for their staffs, and the trend is even bigger in other countries.
“The Japanese government is putting millions of dollars into neuroscience,” says Linda Terry, owner of Linda Terry Brain Training in Olympia. “Canada also does a lot more corporate brain training than the U.S. does.”
As science continues to discover more about how our brains work, that knowledge can be applied in the workplace, says Terry, to the benefit of both individuals and organizations as a whole. With so many distractions and the ubiquity of technology, staying focused can be a challenge. Understanding basic neuroscience can also make communication and collaboration more effective.
A key player is the amygdala, says Terry Taylor, owner of Versoria, an Olympia business consulting firm specializing in executive coaching and leadership management. This almond-shaped cluster of neurons determines how we process memory, make decisions, and react emotionally. It is also where the fight-or-flight response is born.
“Often, conversations at work can inadvertently cause the stress response that triggers the amygdala to go into fight-or-flight,” says Taylor. “Once cortisol has been released, we’re functioning from the reptilian brain, which is about survival. We become defensive, inhibited and fearful.”
At that point, no work is getting done and communication falls apart, she says. “When people are triggered and in survival, they can only see things from their own perspective. They can hardly hear the other person’s.”
Once one person has gone into fight-or-flight, it’s common for others to react in a similar fashion. However, a good leader can recognize when the conversation has been ‘hijacked’ by the amygdala, she says.
“It takes a person who is aware, accountable and responsible to skillfully navigate the executive brain in that moment and respond from that brain, rather than simply reacting.”
Chris Lee of Sandler Training in Olympia also works with groups to recognize those moments.
“When I’m training a company, I’m really teaching individuals that they have a choice,” he says. “They don’t have to respond just because someone pushes their buttons. The amygdala gets hijacked all the time.”
Another way companies can apply neuroscience at work is improving memory, a crucial skill for anyone in sales.
“Most of my business clients want to remember clients’ or customers’ names,” says Terry. “We’ll go through a whole lesson in paying attention and repeating the name. I give them a bunch of tools. Then, we’ll do a reflection so they can understand how they did it. Reflection is a huge key to memory.”
One of those tools is writing the name down. In fact, says Lee, writing anything down by hand helps you to remember it.
“The physical act of writing tells your brain that this is important. It puts us in a more creative mindset.”
In her courses, Terry walks clients through 10 ways to boost their brain health, including breathing techniques and walking.
“So often, the only people that get to get away from their desks are smokers,” she says. “Giving people time to walk away and reset themselves can be a great tool for upsets in the workplace. Brain awareness can actually help the health of the whole and make it more productive.”
Participants also learn about ways to stay focused.
“It’s tough in a cubicle,” she sympathizes. “You’ve got split attention with so many people milling around. People have to have that boundary to say, ‘I need to finish what I’m doing.’ If they can manage their focus and problem solving at work, it will result in less illness and stress.”
Taylor points out that poor communication and lack of self-awareness at work can also cost employers substantially.
“If you’re dealing with a lot of fear and defensiveness, you’re losing creativity, honest conversation, and problem solving,” she says. “When people feel like they can’t contribute their talent, it drags the whole organization down.”
Negative culture can lead to high turnover.
“It costs about $55,000 to hire an onboard employee over time, “she continues. “When you’re constantly having to train new employees, that’s about a problem in the culture. You can do something about that.”
Companies are increasingly using neuroscience in their hiring practices, says Terry.
“In Hong Kong, HR departments are considering more about how people think,” she says. “It’s about being able to place the person into the right job based on their strengths.”
According to Taylor, learning about how our brains work is ultimately empowering.
“The realization dawns on people that they have control over the way they react and respond when their amygdala gets triggered. It’s not only about locus of control, it’s also about accountability,” she says.
“When my clients realize that’s happening, that’s a moment of self-awareness that they can get a hold of and change.”
Terry would like to see more businesses provide brain training for their employees.
“I see a lot of companies investing in physical health but not brain training,” she says. “Our brains are the source of everything we do. There’s a huge need to recognize the importance of that piece as well.”