Understanding how your brain works can transform the way you do business – whether it’s negotiating with a new supplier or recognising your inbuilt biases in the office
Dr Raymond Damadian was the guinea pig. After all, it was his invention and his assistants were anxious about what would happen when a human was subjected to a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan for the first time. They nervously slid Damadian into the tube, turned it on – and nothing happened. Theorising the problem was that he was, in his own words, “too fat”, they persuaded his skinny assistant to take his place. A few hours later, the first ever MRI scan was produced. That was 1977, and it kicked off a revolution. Today, we know infinitely more about the brain than ever before: which parts ‘fire’ into action when a person feels happy, sad, stressed or threatened, for example.
At the same time, a parallel revolution has taken place in behavioural science, pioneered by Nobel Prize-winning economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. From 1979, they researched how humans make decisions, moving way beyond the crude conventional economic model of ‘rational’ and ‘self-interested’ thinking. Their work has been characterised as injecting psychological realism into economics, and has discovered that rather than being robotic option-weighers, we are a tangled mess of biases, assumptions and guesses.
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The practical application of these findings can be revolutionary in changing the way we make decisions, present ourselves or interact with others in the workplace. Countless executives have used them to boost their self-awareness and they are hugely influential in marketing or in aspects of HR. And procurement leaders are increasingly benefiting from the ability to better understand why they make decisions, what their brain is doing during meetings with stakeholders and negotiations with suppliers, and are paying attention to brain health to sharpen performance.
Two fundamental facts underpin this burgeoning interest in neuroscience, which is in essence the study of the brain through the use of MRI. The first is that our brains have two systems – the deliberate and the instinctive. Caroline Webb, author of How To Have A Good Day, says the former is responsible for “reasoning, self-control and forward thinking”, which includes empathy, creativity and logic. This kind of thinking is slow and complex and mostly uses parts of the brain in the prefrontal cortex. It also takes a lot of energy: we only have enough glucose for two to three hours of deliberate thinking a day, which is why working longer days doesn’t mean working smarter.
The second, instinctive system or subconscious, is responsible for 80% of the brain’s work, which the psychologist Steve Peters famously christened the ‘chimp’ brain. It’s a kind of autopilot that helps us walk without thinking too hard about it, or undertake habitual tasks. It also works like a spam filter, says Webb: “It rapidly sifts through information and ideas, prioritises whatever seems relevant, and filters out the rest.” It does this in part by taking shortcuts, – what scientists call ‘heuristics’ – simplifying and making assumptions so the brain doesn’t get overwhelmed by complex, energy-sapping thinking, but uses automatic processes that mostly take place deeper in the brain.
Because deliberate thinking is so energy intensive, the brain tries to flip us onto the instinctive track as often as possible, to conserve vital calories. Sometimes this can be easily counteracted – many of the checks and balances inherent in procurement processes are designed to stop us defaulting to the same decisions again and again. But when we are under the merest stress, even the most professional among us can revert to a classic ‘fight or flight’ instinct, in which the amygdala – the brain’s regulator of emotions – becomes overwhelmed and simply ceases to function.
This nervy response was useful when humans lived in savannahs surrounded by lions and other mortal dangers. It is less helpful in the workplace: when threatened by someone else’s actions or an unexpected change, we might snap or refuse to engage rather than attempting to reach a compromise. “Flight might mean avoiding an email for three months,” says Webb. These behaviours are signs that the defensive system has been engaged, and we cannot expect high-quality thinking from someone in such a state.
A fight-or-flight response is engaged more often than you might think. “Unfortunately, for an awful lot of people, the world of work these days is constant low level stress, tension and anxiety,” says Nick Dowling, director of Think Change Consulting. “Particularly in times of change, the brain gets anxious and an anxious brain doesn’t do adaptable, flexible or creative thinking. It doesn’t really do cooperation and isn’t great on communication.”
This matters because so much of procurement, despite its intrinsic objectivity, can be subject to the vagaries of brain performance. Take the practice of meeting suppliers in a tender pitch, for example. The circumstances in which you get together can have a huge effect on the outcome of the process, says Dowling, and that starts with the time of day.
“If you want people to be able to bring their best brains to something, choose a Tuesday morning. On Friday afternoon, don’t expect any adaptive, flexible, innovative thinking,” he says. Later in the week, or later in an individual day, our brains will default to an easier option – doing what they have done before and going along with the path of least resistance so they can get home, refuel and rest. (This can have serious impacts: an Israeli study found that a parole board was more likely to grant parole to applications they saw earlier in the day.)
Environments can also influence thinking. Noisy, new places overwhelm the brain but familiar surroundings, where the brain doesn’t have to process too much novelty, help stimulate deliberative thinking. The best decisions are made while walking in quiet, natural places. Outdoor meetings might sound eccentric, but they have their advantages.
The sort of tricky questions we face all the time can on occasion cause the brain to become overwhelmed, switch to automatic mode and come up with spectacularly daft responses. “Your brain will reach for the easiest answer,” says Webb. “And it’s usually to look at what’s happened recently, what’s right in front of you now – what comes to mind easily. Is Italy a good market for you? You’ve got no idea really but you’ve just had a really great Italian meal and your brain will go for a really easy, subconsciously coherent but actually intellectually dumb response.”
Where instinctive thinking kicks in most obviously is in our use of biases. We use the term bias to describe an easy stereotype we reach for when we can’t be bothered thinking in a more deliberative way about a person, place or object, but in fact, it has a more complex neuroscientific basis. Every time we make an association between two things, neural pathways in the relevant parts of the brain become coated with a substance called myelin, which helps the same neurons fire together more easily in future. The easier the association, the easier it will be to travel the same mental route again rather than challenging our thinking.
Scientists have categorised hundreds of types of bias but Webb says there are five that commonly affect decision making at work. The first, and best known, is confirmation bias, where we twist the facts to fit what we expected. A Yale experiment found that self-identified conservatives made more mistakes when analysing data about gun control than liberals.
Anchoring, meanwhile, is when we latch onto data we’ve recently come across. Ask people to write down their front-door number, then get them to bid for items. Those with higher door-numbers tend to bid higher. Recency bias is a related idea which means we are disproportionately influenced by things that have just happened. This is why on hot days, more people buy convertible cars.
Simplicity bias leads us to plump for simple ideas over complex ones. And finally, groupthink dictates that if everyone around you has an opinion, you will tend to adopt it too – in primitive times, this was a safe option because being seen as an ‘outsider’ could be fatal, but it is no less useful in some organisations today.
Biases also affect how we interact with individuals. It is now understood that we all hold ‘unconscious’ biases loosely related to the concept of ‘in groups’ and ‘out groups’ – we gravitate towards people who are demographically similar to us because, at a primordial level, it makes us feel safer.
And because people who are different – in terms of gender, race, sexuality or any other demographic characteristic – are less known to us, we are more prone to create stereotypical associations about them, where the brain defaults to lazy, negative ideas.
The good news is that we are not slaves to these concepts. Many individuals have taken unconscious bias tests and training which help them understand their preconceived ideas and take action to remedy them – though this is not a ‘fix’ in itself. In fact, much of the best way in combating bias takes place on a ‘soft’ basis: the Los Angeles Police Department, for example, has worked hard to counter its historic racism by deliberately emphasising that its officers are members of the police force first and foremost rather than a member of a demographic. And research has shown that continued exposure to images of people from different backgrounds – the sort of ‘diverse’ groups that often appear on recruitment websites, for example – does begin to challenge our assumptions, even if we think it seems embarrassing or expeditious at first.
In fact, much of the way our brain works can be changed through conscious effort. For more than two decades, we have understood the concept of ‘neuroplasticity’ – that new neural pathways can be opened up and new mental associations created even as we get older, challenging the assumption that we cannot learn anything new beyond a certain age.
Unlikely as it may seem, one of the key testbeds for this concept is the humble taxi driver. MRI scans have shown that cabbies in London have more active neural pathways than the average member of the population: neuroscientists believe their fastidious study of the capital’s streets required to pass ‘the knowledge’ and earn a licence, creates expanded and more capable brains.
We are all capable of learning, says Tara Swart, a neuroscientist, leadership adviser and author of The Source. “You can induce neuroplasticity in your brain by learning a new language, learning a musical instrument or just doing things differently. Even if you’re not conscious of neuroplasticity, it is happening to you. Everything you experience is moulding and shaping your brain in real time.”
Becoming conscious of all these systems can lead to ‘whole-brain thinking’, and create new connections between neural pathways, adds Swart. She describes the different modes of thinking as being like languages we speak at differing levels of competence. You might be great at logical thinking and empathy, but need to work on your creativity. When people do practise it, their brains change and they get better, she says.
Of course, brain science is still in its infancy, and the danger is that findings can be reported in half-digested and misleading ways. It is important not to take reports or headlines at face value, but to delve beneath the surface and read up on the latest research before you act on it. Many psychology experiments sound exciting, but a surprising number are never replicated. And many people who say they are incorporating neuroscience into their work or their consultancy are not qualified to truly understand the science.
That said, anything that helps in the hunt for an edge at work surely has to be welcomed. Because even if you’re not aware of exactly how your brain operates, there’s every chance the person sitting across the table from you is...
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