AB Thinks  →  12th December 2019

Brain training – five tips on neuroscience and IC from Hilary Scarlett

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Katie’s guest for Episode 7 of The IC Podcast is neuroscientist Hilary Scarlett, who offers a fascinating insight into her evidence-based approach to comms as well as a new take on IC’s perennial issues.

Hilary’s book Neuroscience for Organizational Change – explains what happens inside our brains when change is announced, and the change process begins. Her insight explains why people think and behave the way they do, enabling internal communicators to design change programmes that work with our brains rather than against them.

Here are five key learnings from their conversation.

#1 – The language of science
“The very first session I did was after the banking crisis. The head of communications and the head of HR brought me in and said ‘could you work with the leaders? They’re all going to be out of a job in 18 months’ time, and they know that, but we need to keep people performing despite that’. But they said, ‘don’t talk about employee engagement, don’t talk about communication, they’re bankers that’s not their language’. So, I said okay, I’ll come in and talk about the brain and what helps it perform, what helps it focus, what helps it to have a good day or bad day and that’s what I did. And the bankers absolutely loved it.

“Because it had the evidence, because it had the brain scans, because it wasn’t a matter of opinion … they sat up and paid attention in a way that I hadn’t seen before. So that’s when I thought, yeah, this is useful, not just the knowledge, but also just the language of science is really useful, I think, to all of us who work in communications.”

#2 – Help people make meaning
“Our brains have not changed that much since we were out on the savannah…Our brains want to predict, they want to know what’s coming up subconsciously, always trying to make sense of things, make meaning. And I think it’s a really useful thing to be aware of in the organisation, not least when we’re going through change, because what does change mean for most people? ‘I don’t know what’s coming up. I can’t predict.’ Our brains, on the whole, do not like that. They crave certainty, because they feel if they’ve got that they can protect us. So, it’s one of those areas where if we know that and if people are finding change hard, I think we have to be empathetic because our brains don’t like uncertainty. They want to be able to predict; they want to make meaning.”

#3 – The importance of choice
“Choice is hugely important to the human brain. And if I feel I’ve chosen it, so to speak, I’m likely to be much more committed to it than if I’ve been told by a leader.

“And I think it’s possibly also why things like coaching are coming much more to the fore in many organisations, because coaching is all about enabling people to reach their own insights, set their own goals, reach their own conclusions. And that makes a big difference to our brains. To the extent that we actually process goals that we have chosen. We process in a different part of the brain from goals that we have been given by other people…It’s kind of ‘my goal is mine, I’ve chosen it, I’ll do it. I’m committed to it’. So, it feels very different to the brain as opposed to something I’m told to go away and do.”

#4 – Be kind to yourself and others
“The problem for all of us in the 21st century workplace is, we’ve all constantly got these high levels of stress hormones, and we’re not designed, physically or mentally, to deal with that. When we’re in this stress place, this threat state, it’s almost like we are looking at the world of work through a filter of threat. So we tend to see threats that are there as being bigger than they really are, or we tend to see threats where they don’t even exist…It might be you walk into the office in the morning and you see some people in a meeting, but you’ve not been invited. Suddenly this becomes much more significant to us.

“We need to be really aware of that in ourselves. ‘Am I doing that? Am I slightly overreacting to things?’ But also, be very aware of it and people in the organisation. Be kind to them and be kind to ourselves. And in particular, I think what’s very important, especially as so many of us work in geographically dispersed organisations, we tend to be much more forgiving and kinder to ourselves and to the people we see frequently.”

#5 – Own your mistakes
“If you make a mistake or something’s challenging, a fixed mindset says ‘yes, that’s a threat to me’ and it’s a stressful response and that brain goes into a negative place. If you have a growth mindset: ‘it’s a challenge, how can I learn? What can I do differently?’ And I think, again, in organisations it’s so important.

“I think that’s one of the big challenges: how do we create a culture where it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as we’re learning and improve? Because you need to do that now. You need leaders and managers who are prepared to talk about the mistakes they’ve made, and what they’ve learned from it. I know it’s hard. It’s tough, especially if you’re a leader, to talk about a mistake that you’ve made. But I think we need to create cultures where we can do that.”

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