Download our latest whitepaper Developing Emotional Capital: The advanced evolution of emotional intelligence for leaders

Neuroscience and how it applies to humans in the workplace has become something of a business phenomenon in the last five years. Despite the enthusiasm, some academics have been looking over the fence and voicing their disapproval. Why? In many cases, neuroscience has been so simplified for the benefit of quick consumption that the science has been lost or misrepresented. And often, outdated models of the brain are being used.

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking to Patricia Riddell, Professor of Applied Neuroscience (PR) to get her take on the situation and deliberate whether there is an opportunity for more academics to reach across the fence and get involved in the conversations the business world is having about neuroscience.

Why are we so in love with neuroscience?

PR believes that it stems from having exponentially more information about the brain now than we’ve ever had, and as information has filtered into the public sphere, leaders in the business world have begun to see that it may be relevant to what they are doing.

“Businesses have picked up ideas that come from psychology, they’ve picked up ideas that have come from social cognition, so it makes sense that they’re going to pick up ideas that come from neuroscience,” PR said.

PR explained that neuroscience went through a phase she termed ‘advanced phrenology’ when neuroscientists were just trying to work out where different functions could be found in the brain, and which parts of the brain ‘lit up’ when people did certain things. Something which was, in her words, “deadly dull”. More recent research is providing us with models of how the brain calculates different types of information, for instance how we make decisions, or how we work in teams. PR noted that: “It’s often those things where you think ‘Oh, we never expected it to work like that’ that can be really helpful. Because when you understand the idiosyncrasies of the brain, then this can often help us to better understand behaviour…since the brain drives our behaviour, understanding the brain supports understanding behaviour,” PR said.

And there is no denying that this information is useful – managers and employees alike can greatly benefit from understanding neuroscience, from improved relationships to greater creativity and productivity resulting in better, more rewarding places to work.

But I do wonder: do managers really need an abridged, overly simplified version of the research, or is it doing more harm than good?

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing: how neuroscience has been oversimplified

You see it in TED talks, YouTube videos, management training videos and blogs: neuroscience concepts presented as acronyms, metaphors, and simplistic diagrams. Unfortunately, reducing the concepts means that accuracy and detail can be pushed aside for the sake of speedy consumption.

PR believes that this has happened as presenters and educators have ‘cherry picked’ information from the literature that fits concepts that they already understand. But this means often missing important subtleties. “What’s really important is that people in business get information that’s real. And it’s very easy sometimes to simplify neuroscience concepts down to an acronym that’s easy to remember and then say ‘This is all you need to know.’ And sometimes that’s not completely wrong, it just misses a lot of subtleties so that a neuroscientist looking at it would say ‘Well, yes. But…’ PR explained.

PR offered the example of Simon Sinek, a well-known thought leader who uses a ‘bullseye’ cross-section of the brain which describes three levels of processing – basic survival mechanisms, emotional processing and cognitive processing. Unfortunately, this model of the brain doesn’t really reflect reality since different parts of each level interact as a system for any behaviour. His theory regarding how we can motivate people to buy products and ideas on the basis of beliefs has merit, and there is solid neuroscience to back it up. However, using an overly simplified model has left him open to criticism from the neuroscience community and could result in a loss of credibility for the whole idea.

It appears that some speakers, educators and top business thinkers are under the misconception that unless the information is reduced into bite-sized chunks, it won’t hold the attention of busy business leaders. However, there is no evidence that leaders will fail to understand neuroscience concepts without them being dumbed down, and there is certainly a difference between presenting information simply and presenting it incompletely.

“I think it’s Einstein that said ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler’ So, yes, simplicity is good. One of the things I’ve worked really hard to do is to make neuroscience accessible. But making it accessible doesn’t need to make it wrong. And it’s getting that balance between making sure that people can understand it easily so they can immediately get why it’s relevant to what they’re doing, and keep it honest,” PR said.

Her concern lies in the wrong people ‘hijacking’ neuroscience while it’s in a stage of heightened popularity and feeding inaccurate information to the consumer. There is a danger that this could lead to an erosion of the field of neuroscience as a helpful aspect of business.

What’s the solution?

PR offered this guidance: “If we want to keep that neuroscience aspect of business alive, then I think it’s better to be delivered by people who are experts in neuroscience in conjunction with people who are experts in business. I find it hugely satisfying to think about how the latest ideas in neuroscience can be translated into effective tools for leaders, but I know that this requires me to work with people who have expertise in business training.”

At The Oxford Group, we have been designing skills-based learning for several decades for some of the most successful organisations in the world. More recently I have found leaders are incredibly engaged on the subject of neuroscience and what it means to them as a leader and how to create engagement and creativity. Just imagine what could be achieved if the academic world didn’t just look over the fence to comment, but jumped right over and joined in?