Listen to Neuroscience to Build a Healthy Workplace

Mar 04, 2021 3 Min Read
It's all in your head, but as it turns out that's where it really counts.

An innovative, creative, financially thriving workplace that supports excellent teamwork and workforce wellbeing is critical and yet can be elusive. 

Recent advances in technology have changed our understanding of the brain, giving us practical insights into ways to elevate performance, productivity, workplace learning, culture and the wellbeing of employees, all necessary ingredients for building a thriving workplace.

Neuroscientists have proven that our brain is continually shaped by and adapting to our thoughts, interactions, experiences, and environment. The responsiveness of the brain, called 'neuroplasticity', can be intentionally optimised to support organisational success and a healthy workplace. 

Understanding a little about the brain can be game-changing in achieving organisational success. The executive brain, located behind our forehead, is the source of our best thinking and psychological functioning. It enables us to be proactive, strategic, reflective, creative, make our best decisions and be mentally and psychologically agile. The executive brain is more available to us when we feel physically and psychologically safe, valued, connected and fulfilled.

The more primitive, or reptilian, parts of our brain are vital for survival, continually scanning our environment to protect us from threats. When we feel unsafe, disconnected, devalued, or invalidated, the reptilian brain takes over, making it harder to access our best thinking. At these times we operate in self-protection mode, which can be through being reactive, aggressive, competitive or withdrawn.  We’re generally less considered in our actions and words.

How can neuroscience guide us to a healthy workplace?

If we want to build a healthy workplace, neuroscience clearly directs us to feed the executive brain, rather than the reptilian brain of employees. This is achieved through our daily workplace interactions and behaviours, which can have a profound impact on brain functioning. Behaviours that are positive and feed the executive brain are above the line, while negative behaviours feed the reptilian brain, and are below the line.

Above-the-line behaviours are acceptable, healthy and responsible from a human, psychological and interpersonal perspective. They feed the executive brain, are good for people, bringing out employees’ capacity to think, learn and relate effectively. Above-the-line behaviours generate positivity, kindness, appreciation, goodwill, respect, openness to learning, authenticity, trust and connection. 

Below-the-line behaviours are not acceptable, healthy or responsible from a psychological and human perspective. They feed the reptilian brain, are not in the best interests of people, diminish performance, productivity and employees’ mental health. Incivility, sarcasm, defensiveness, shaming, excluding, ignoring, bitching (editor: I’ll allow it), unnecessary criticism, bullying, harassment and discrimination are examples of below-the-line behaviours.

If we listen to the neuroscience and feed the executive brain and not the reptilian brain, we’re far more likely to achieve

1. Peak performance

You’ll significantly enhance the performance of your employees through enabling their capacity for strategic thinking, innovation, creativity, decision-making and using their best skills and strength

2. Psychological safety 

When employees are operating from the executive brain in a workplace, they feel safe to trust their leaders and colleagues, they are also open to learning – the most vital factors for high-performance in teamwork.

3. Effective learning

A workforce that has the ability to adapt, change and learn is critical in these extremely uncertain, challenging and complex times. When employees are functioning from their reptilian brain, they have lost the cognitive and psychological agility to adapt and learn, and become fixed and rigid in their thinking and behaviours.

4. Wellbeing and mental health

From a health perspective, we know that employees’ wellbeing and mental health will be optimised if they are functioning from their executive brain. It is exhausting trying to work cognitively while in self-protective mode, potential will be squandered, and their mental health and wellbeing will be diminished. 

5. Interpersonal relationships

The emerging area of interpersonal neurobiology highlights the profound correlation between the way we relate to each other and the brain. Executive brain functioning fuels our ability to deeply listen, absorb ideas and views that are different from our own and is critical for teamwork and healthy workplace culture. 

Recent advances in neuroscience challenge us to critically evaluate how interpersonal behaviours directly influence workplace functioning and on building a healthy workplace.

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Michelle Bihary is a people leadership and workplace resilience expert, author of 'Leading Above the Line' – applying neuroscience to build psychologically safe and thriving teams. She applies neuroscience in her work with leaders and teams to help them build thriving workplaces to achieve organisational success.

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