HR's New Challenge: Optimizing the Brain

Can something as complex as the human brain be managed? Global and organizational differences aside, managing the human brain is the ultimate HR challenge. The knowledge worker – not a machine – is a company’s biggest asset, and CEOs want to know how to make the most of their people.

“Now, more than 60 years into the digital revolution, the engine that drives our society and our businesses is not coal-fired, nor is it plugged into the electric grid; it is increasingly the human brain,” suggests a new report on HR best practices co-sponsored by HR Certification Institute (HRCI) and Top Employers Institute. “Optimizing the effectiveness of today’s human assets is a top concern for business leaders, but many organizations are unsure how to select or deploy talent practices that will drive business performance.”

Download Emerging Evidence: Business Performance and the Validation of HR Best Practices

In the knowledge world, innovation is at a premium, and that presents a unique set of challenges. Innovation is the place where “different ideas, perceptions and ways of processing and judging information collide,” writes Dorothy Leonard and Susan Straus in a Harvard Business Review article, Putting Your Company’s Whole Brain to Work. “That, in turn, often requires collaboration among various players who see the world in inherently different ways.”

So, what is HR’s role in mitigating this challenge?

Finding the Soulful Heart of HR

Patrick Willer, a workforce innovation consultant at SAP, writes in Forbes (What Does the Future Hold for Human Resources) that it is two things:

  • To administrate brains, send them letters and pay them.
  • To connect brains, drive innovation and delight customers.

It is the latter, Willer suggests, where human resource management can “embrace the possibilities of technology to make HR a profit center and to make HR the soulful heart that pulsates the organization forward.”

The move from human resource management to human capital management, he adds, means optimizing the brain. “We discovered that a company’s most valuable asset weighs 1.5 kilograms; the human brain. We began to focus on the right person on the right job on the right time. We were optimizing brains; Talent Management.”

Understanding Different Thinking Caps

Leonard, who is a William J. Abernathy professor of Business Administration Emerita at Harvard Business School and chief consultant at the Leonard-Barton Group, and Straus, an independent consultant, stress the important of “cognitive abrasion.” In short, this means understanding different thinking styles and deliberately designing “a full spectrum of approaches and perspectives” into the organization.

Neuroscience, believe it or not, is now part of the HR toolbox. “[Neuroscience] is a diverse field covering, to name a few areas, the study of brain development, learning and memory, the senses, sleep and stress. Now there are signs it is moving beyond the realm of science and psychology, having an impact in real-world applications, including that of business and HR,” according to the U.K.’s HR magazine (How Can HR Use Neuroscience?).

Neurology and Motivating the Brain

Motivation is key for the human brain and motivated employees are essential for organizations that seek competitive advantage. A key neurological model that HR professionals can use to improve organization-wide motivation – a combination of motivational theory and neuroscience – is Dave Rock’s SCARF model. Rock is the director of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work.

Through neuroscience, Rock demonstrates how the brain responds, through dopamine, to perceived threats and rewards. All human action or behavior, he says, is inspired by the brain. Social needs are treated by the brain just like other survival needs, and these social needs are hardwired, not social conventions as once thought.

Rock identifies five social needs (SCARF):

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

Read more about the SCARF model.

  • Implications for HR

    HR professionals need to pay attention to new brain research. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is no longer considered the most current model of motivation. A recent white paper, Motivation on the Brain ― Applying the Neuroscience of Motivation in the Workplace, by Kimberly Schaufenbuel, program director for UNC Executive Development, provides tips for HR professionals.

    “Rock’s model turns conventional thinking of what truly motivates employees on its head,” Schaufenbuel writes. Based on Rock’s findings, “a job should not be viewed as a business transaction ― do the work and get paid ― but rather as part of a social system in which the brain is rewarded (or punished) based on how well the business environment is meeting an employee’s need for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.”

    She adds that HR should design motivation strategies that appeal to the social aspects of the brain:

  • Make efforts to increase rewards and minimize threats.
  • Understand that the brain will move away from a perceived threat faster than it will move toward a perceived reward.
  • Develop a sense of affiliation (teamwork, belonging, camaraderie, and sharing of knowledge).
  • Provide positive feedback.
  • Find rewards other than money to appeal to the brain’s need for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

Tapping into New Motivations

HR can now tap into richer understanding of how the brain works through fields such as neuroscience, systems thinking, behavioral science and behavioral economics, according to Peter Cheese, the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and a contributing writer to the HR Certification® (HRCI®) e-book compilation, The Rise of HR (available for free download).

“We need a stronger base of science, not only to rethink some of HR’s processes to drive greater impact and value, but also to help business leaders and managers better understand how and why they need to change,” Cheese concludes.

Indeed, to motivate and inspire the workforce, HR must understand people and their behaviors. It’s something more than compensation and benefits. And with the exciting advances in the neuroscience field, HR professionals have new resources to consider for adopting HR best practices that move businesses forward.