Can HR policies reshape employee’s brains?

July 14, 2014 1:46 pm

Most people are familiar with the latest neuroscientific research showing that our brains can and do change throughout our lives. You may have read in popular newspapers that:

• with the right experiences people with certain brain injuries can compensate for lost functions and
• the region of the brain associated with spatial memory is larger for London taxi drivers who have to navigate around the city compared with city bus drivers who follow the same route every day.

But did you know that the culture of the organisation also plays an important role in shaping how we think and perform?

Have you ever worked in an organisation where people are clearly not the priority; where treating people badly is okay as long as you get the sale; or winning at all costs is the norm for peers?

What is your thinking ability like in this type of environment? Most people find they are not at their best. A typical response in this type of workplace is to ‘keep your head down and fly below the radar’. Even when we want to make a strong effort there is always a bit of our attention diverted to the latest ‘blow up’ or political manoeuvring.

Research tells us that when people experience incivility, unfairness or, even worse, bullying, there is an increased activation in the part of the brain related to protection, i.e. the detection and avoidance or reduction of threat. When one part of the brain is more active the other parts tend to be less active. This means there is less brainpower for complex problem solving and even less for innovation.

I am reminded of a HR director (Dan) I worked with several years ago. Dan took it as his personal responsibility to ensure that employees had a safe place to work. It was not just about the company having a strong OH&S framework and not just about having an anti-bullying policy in place. They did have those policies and did enforce them. But Dan took it a lot further. He regularly addressed ‘up stream’ issues such as defining how employees needed to demonstrate respect for fellow team members. Dan also consistently partnered with other executives to tackle incivility such as gossiping, rudeness and even habitual lateness to meetings.

The result? – A healthier work environment, yes, but also a lot more. People who worked in this company consistently described themselves as highly engaged and committed to the success of the business. Organisational surveys and business results provided evidence for the success of these methods.

Research in brain science also supports this approach. We know from scientific studies that when people feel safe the parts of the brain related to ‘protection’ are calmed, thus facilitating activity in the brain regions associated with fluid and creative thinking as well as the type of thinking needed for dealing with complexity.

We are presented with more research every day that demonstrates how environment, including organisational culture, plays an important role in shaping our brains. HR policies and leadership practices that ensure a safe and respectful workplace also create the conditions for enhanced brain functioning and ultimately stronger performance and higher levels of wellbeing.

How safe is your workplace?

Create and enforce robust HR practices to ensure a safe and respectful environment. But don’t just leave it up to HR. Every leader plays an important role in shaping the organisational environment.

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