Category Archives: Neuroscience

Neuroscience research and insights relating to leaders groups and teams

business decision

Problem Solving and Business Decision Making

Ever have that feeling of a ‘full brain’ – your head hurts (you touch your forehead) and you can’t take in another thing? Trouble is in these changing and volatile times there is always a lot to think about and seemingly not quite enough time to think.

We have at last updated our Employment Today article on Problem solving and Business Decision making of which an extract is available here with a link to the full PDF you are free to download.

Contemporary neuroscience is revealing two important things about our problem solving and decision making. Firstly that we have a limited bandwidth for complex decision making and indeed our thinking is often rather more biased than we might like to admit.
One of the best ways to enhance our decision-making capability is to understand these limits and natural biases.

“The human understanding once it has adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it” Francis Bacon

Neuroscience informs is that we think in neural networks and for efficiency sake our brain tries to automate what thinking it can. We all develop a theory of how the world works and we need this to successfully navigate ourselves around in a changing world. This automation in thinking allows us to take many things for granted so we can focus our limited mental resources on the new and different and interesting. Trouble is that once we have formed an opinion we have adopted a “Bias” and it can be hard to change this belief.

Here is an example where our assumptions can mislead us: suppose your best friend up to now successful manager in another company is warned for poor performance.

That probably doesn’t fit your view of him so first information that doesn’t fit is discounted there must be some mistake it will get resolved. Secondly it is distorted so you may assume that there is another agenda here like a personality clash…
The bottom line is that we are not clinically evaluating all new information but what we see and perceive is so influenced by the filters of everything we have in our long term memories (values, beliefs, experiences etc.).

Here is another common source of problem solving bias: Jumping on What Springs to Mind
This is a kind of information retrieval theory; basically the first thing that comes to mind has a disproportionate effect on our reasoning and opinions. A classic experiment by Solomon Asch in the 1940’s asked people to form an opinion on someone who were described as “intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, and envious.” If the word were presented in that order the opinions were more positive than if the words were reversed. The adjective presented first created a favourable or unfavourable impression.

Another aspect of this retrieval is recency. Things that we have experienced more recently have disproportionate impact. Have we not experienced this in appraisals?) Lastly strongly emotional events are tagged by the brain for easy retrieval and are more likely to influence our thinking depending on if we are feeling good or feeling bad.

We all have our decision making biases but we can reduce there effect by being aware of them and through an act of will choosing to look for evidence that disproves our theory.

What gets in the way of good decision-making?

The limited capacity of our PFC for one. Then there are all sorts of biases that creep into our ‘rational’ thinking too. For example, if you love your own idea, you may dismiss evidence that contradicts your idea – confirmation bias; if you put too much emphasis in one area it is anchoring (bias); and loss aversion makes us too cautious.

A McKinsey study conducted in 2011, of over 1000 business investments, showed that when organizations tried to reduce the impact of bias, they increased their ROI by 7%.

Problem solving and making good decisions about complex issues where there isn’t necessarily one right answer, and to help check against biases requires good process. Judgement of even the best leaders can be flawed. Kahneman, Lovallo and Sibony from Harvard have created a 12-question checklist to support a good decision-making process; to check that alternatives have been explored and to consider influences such as self-interest, overconfidence, loss aversion or attachment.

So take your time for important decisions use a structured approach to weigh up pros and cons, check out your decisions with others using 2 minds is usually better than one for reducing biases

Back to that bandwidth issue, much of our complex decision-making requires the use of our pre-frontal cortex (PFC). This is the executive function of the brain, also used for problem solving, learning, planning, memorizing, recalling and inhibiting. The pre-frontal cortex is relatively slow, energy intensive and has small capacity with a narrow peak performance window.

We always imagine we can do complex tasks all day long. The truth is that most people can do a few hours of quality work in a day. Our rational conscious resources are very limited and we should respect those limitations”. “We may only have 6 – 10 hours of really productive work time each week.” Now that you appreciate that   your best thinking is a limited resource would you make different decisions on how and when you used it?

Read the article in full for some tips on how to use your brain to make better decisions.

Get a full copy of the article right here on our resources page

Back  to home

The Power Of Habit

Thought you might find this interesting folks Charles Duhigg has deconstructed the process of habit forming and the impact that has on organisational culture.  Interestingly Dughill started a recent study of students at Duke university that distinguishes decision making  from habit and found that the test subjects were using habits about 45% of the time during the day.

I like the definition of a habit something you made a decision on in the past and still demonstrate the behaviour but no longer feel the need to think about. For those of you familiar with a little neuroscience we use the Pre-frontal cortex for decision making whilst we use the basal ganglia for more habitual thinking. So we may not be conscious or overly clear on our own habits unless we reflect upon them.
Every habit has 3 components a cue, a routine and a reward ( sounds a lot like ABC of behavioral analysis:  Antecedant, behaviour and consequence)  There is some useful concept and useful illustrative stories.

Video: Good Life Project: Charles Duhigg – Power of Habit

The cue and reward are the critical parts of an habit that can empower you to change your habits. We can manipulate the cues or the reward. A nice example if you are struggling to get into  exercising then trick your brain and give yourself a small piece of chocolate as a reward.  Apparently your desire for that reward will diminish after a week or 2 or be replaced by other rewards such as  dopamine.

I like the identification of the  different types of cues (other people, an emotion, certain time, certain place,)  to behavior and how to influence that process to create constructive habits.

It endorses the view that instead of trying to stop a habit ;building a new habit to replace an old one is the best way to go.

Anyway we hope you find the video interesting.

Back to leadership by design


Should Our First Impressions Count So Much?

Just as a slight aside Graham went to the Auckland Neuroleadership Institute Group meeting earlier this week where recent  neuroscientific findings where discussed. Being highly interested in how leaders influence others here is something that piqued our interest on what is actually going on in our brains when we meet strangers.

Neuroscientists have actually started to map the sequence of 5 events that occur in our brains when we meet someone for the first time.    All of these activities are happening in a fraction of a second but they also happen in  a repeatable sequence they are

1. Visual Cue (Is this a person?)

2. Threat (Is this a threat to me)

3. Categorise (What sort of person is this , gender, ethnicity etc..)

4. Characterise ( What are these sorts of people generally like?)

5. Matching ( What   do I currently think about these sorts of people?)

Note the prioritisation of the potential threat and the simplifying that is going on in the characterise and matching stages. Clearly this is where our existing hard wired biases can come in and influence our perception of the situation. This process appears to be built into our brain physiology and is beyond our conscious control. I wonder if that is in any way related to strongly decisive leaders making extrapolated judgements on their people based upon very limited contact?

However if we understand a little bit about how our brains operate we do have the power to  use our pre-frontal cortex part of our brain  and test and challenge any first impressions we might have. After all isn’t that what happens when we start to get to know someone and find out that some or all of our first impressions weren’t  that accurate?

Why not give  us a call to set a complimentary coffee and white board session with one of our Leadership consultants. You set the agenda (and supply the coffee) and we’ll bring some good collegial discussion and an idea or two why not contact us right now?

Back to leadership by design home


Newly Published Enhancing Productivity Article

enhancing productivityJust a quick heads up (sorry poor pun) on our latest article: Enhancing Productivity from our “What Science Knows and Business Does Series”  Where we discuss how we can work with our brain biology instead of against it and as a result be more productive happier and healthier.

Excerpt: You could probably fill Eden Park with leaders who had completed time management courses but still struggled to get things done. When you ask managers for time management and productivity tips, most people can reel off a list of handy strategies, many of them just common sense.  We like a definition of common sense from Harriet Beecher Stowe:

“Common sense is seeing things as they are; and doing things as they ought to be.”

Perhaps it isn’t so easy to do in today’s frenetic and somewhat volatile working environments where the challenge is to see the wood for the trees. When we say productivity we don’t mean just efficiency (work output/time). We mean the broader definition of being productive,which involves getting more of the right things done. Neuroscience is beginning to identify more effective ways we can be working. . We now have the possibility of not having to push, push, push to achieve outcomes at a cost to our health. We can work brain-smarter to get more done and remain mentally healthy at the same time.

In the full article we talk about the 2 memory systems in the brain and how they impact on our decision making, prioritisation and activity. We also outline some top tips to make your thinking and actions more productive and share the “Healthy Mind Platter”  a recipe for 7 different mental activities to develop an healthy mind.

A parting thought for you it could well be that we may have to start to think about about exercising and training our brains in the same way we do ourbodies if we want high levels of productivity. Being brain smarter means getting more done and remaining mentally fit and healthy and on top of your game.

You can read and download the whole Enhancing Productivity article here.  Why not check out some of our other articles at the same time as well?

Back to leadership design home