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brainblog2"You can't teach an old dog new tricks." A well-worn phrase that hints at a rather negative relationship between age and ability to learn. Some of the most interesting areas of our work in psychology relate to the way that people change their mindset, behaviour and learn to develop new habits. As a coach, for example, I am often struck that both the ability and motivation to learn are not actually age related, but instead linked to mindset and attitude.

Back in the 1970's many scientists argued that the brain stops developing around early adulthood and then starts to deteriorate in function. Indeed, the belief was so strong that my mother still, to this day, discourages me from playing football on the basis that every time I head the ball I will never be able to replace the lost brain cells.

Recent advances in neuroscience have challenged this perspective considerably. Of course the brain stops increasing in physical mass - otherwise space within the skull would be tight - but there appears to be some fairly strong and consistent evidence that the brain has a plasticity which enables structural changes through learning. The term neuroplasticity has been around for a few years, but only recently are studies beginning to illustrate the vital nature of the way that the brain continues to change. The use of magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), for example, now enables researchers to observe changes in the brain during and following a wide range of different activities, including sport, problem solving and music.

One area of focus in understanding such changes in the brain comes from studies of mindfulness or meditation. While there is a degree of scepticism levelled at the practice - often seen as somewhat too transcendental and intangible for the workplace - the reality is that a number of studies of the brain seem to have identified significant changes in activity in different regions of the brain following periods of 'mindful' activity. A frequently cited paper (Davidson, 2003) reports significant increases, following participation in an eight week course of mindfulness training, in left-sided anterior activation (the left frontal area of the brain) which is associated with positive emotion. Equally, there were corresponding decreases in right frontal lobe activation, associated with negative feelings such as anger and depression.

In a later paper, Holzel et al (2011) cited changes in grey and white matter concentration in the areas associated with self-regulation and perspective taking. A more recent study published in Nature by Zatorre et al (2012) further highlights the structural plasticity of both grey and white matter that specifically occurs with repeated learning.

As with many aspects of neuroscience, findings at this stage tend to be inconsistent and need further exploration, but if these changes are found to be replicable then the impact on activities such as coaching could be huge, not least because it provides us with a greater and more specific understanding of what is actually happening when we develop new skills and behaviours at work. Let's face it, as coaches we are fundamentally interested in working with individuals to achieve significant and lasting changes in motivation, behaviour and attitude. The use of cognitive-based activities, such as learning new habits, learning to manage stress or even learning to manage bias could become more 'conscious' coaching activities with very concrete - albeit unseen - changes taking place.

About ten years ago, in a previous job, I attended a conference in Harrogate. My role was to evaluate the quality of the research output and to write a report. The conference could be described as typical until the afternoon of day two, when the schedule was devoted to the question of devolution for Yorkshire. The culmination of the afternoon's activities was a vote amongst the conference attendees on the question of self-determination of England's largest county. Being a pragmatic realist I found that afternoon's fanciful programme to be a little frustrating, but at least I had time to start writing the assignment I had travelled to Harrogate for.

Scotland's referendum is very much a reality and a very important question for the Scottish people as well as those who live in the rest of the United Kingdom. However, I am beginning to feel that same sense of frustration I experienced in Harrogate. With just under 150 days before the vote, the seemingly ceaseless news coverage is reflecting the antipathy between the two camps. It is much like watching a couple in the throes of breaking-up arguing over who will keep the music collection and which friends they will be able to hang-out with. But in this case we are talking about oil, currency, the national debt, and the friends are Europe.

I don't know if I can take this level of bickering on a matter I can have no influence over for next 6 months. I thought that was what kids were for. But being pragmatic I realise that there is something to be done about this. The Implicit Association Test (IAT), devised by psychologists at Harvard University, is a tool that we at Pearn Kandola use to help people in organisations understand that they have unconscious bias and that these biases will impact on the quality and fairness of their decisions in a number of environments including selection, promotion and project allocation. It is a tool that has helped many organisations understand the unconscious factors that lead to low representation of people from minority groups and how individuals can take responsibility to manage their own biases.

This is not the only application of the IAT. In recent years the IAT has been applied in the following areas:

· Mental Health - Including differentiating adolescents who were non-suicidal, suicide ideators and suicide attempters

· Medical - Including understanding the risk of adolescents developing serious drink and drug problems

· Forensics - The IAT approach successfully distinguished honest people from criminal liars such as drug users and murderers

· Relationships - Including predicting the resistance to breakup within long-term relationships.

But what has particularly piqued my interest in relation to Scotland's referendum is that the IAT has been shown to predict future voting behaviour of undecided voters, before they have consciously made a decision. Put simply, undecided voters do know who they are going to vote for, they just don't realise it! Maybe they like the attention, the endless debate or the ceaseless canvassing. The fact is I don't. If I get sufficient support for this idea I will construct an IAT that will help the undecided realise what their brains already know!

In the last couple of weeks it was reported that France was to ban work emails after 6pm. In fact, the law is intended as a general principal to allow workers to flick the off-switch on their communications devices and create protected non-work time. Few could argue against that. Communications technology, in the form of email, smart phones and video-conferencing can be a double-edged sword and it's easy to see it as a threat to the sanctity of family life. However, if we manage it to our own advantage then the flexibility it brings can also be the vehicle to greater work-life balance.

Technology increases the pace and efficiency at which we work. I'm old enough to remember those lazy days when we used to post a printed draft report to a client and wait for their posted response a few days later. Now we achieve in a few hours what would have previously taken a week. To compete, we all have to work smarter and faster, delivering much higher volumes of output for relatively little gain in pay. In addition, computers are no longer office based giants but can be slipped into a pocket. This creates pressure to work additional hours at home on top of the normal 8 hour day; particularly in jobs where availability to clients is critical or where leaner organisational structures leave managers overloaded with administrative tasks. In fact working 9-5 in a single location is, for many of us, a thing of the past as we are never fully "away" from the office. As a result, work ends up encroaching on our home life; and yes I have been guilty of taking my lap-top to the hotel pool and answering work emails from a windy campsite in Cornwall.

Rather than see this as a curse, we should remember to celebrate the flexibility that email and smart phones give us. If we make technology work for us, it can allow us to find a better inter-play between work and home commitments. We can be there for our son's rugby match whilst still being available to take an important call; we can use two hours travel time on the train as an effective part of our working day and still get home in time to go to the gym. Technology can create seamless transitions between these different spheres of our life. Rather than seeing our day as divided between 8 hour blocks of "work", "home" and "sleep" time; we can switch flexibly between spheres; working in a way that maximises our own effectiveness and well-being. Some people might work better at 2am; if that's the case then let them!

The right balance will be different for each individual. Some may prefer or need stronger boundaries where work is restricted between regular defined hours. However, given the rise of both men and women using flexible working it is clear that, for many of us, we welcome the blurring of boundaries between work and home life. It's up to us to have the courage to flick the off-switch when we've done our bit, and make sure we are not slaves to our smart phones. Where possible define the outputs for a job and not the specific hours in which it must be done.

Interesting article in the news today about fairness and racial bias in babies; a study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington shows that 15 month old babies show a strong preference for individuals who display fair behaviour, as measured by whether or not an experimenter equally distributes toys. That is unless the babies see that the experimenter unevenly distributed toys in a way that benefits a person of the same race as the infant. Where that was the case, they were more intolerant of the unfairness, suggesting an in-group bias from these babies.

We know that the in-group bias appears from an early age; research has demonstrated that three-to-five-year-old children systematically select same-race unfamiliar peers and adults as potential friends over those of another race (Katz and Kofkin, 1997; Kinzler and Spelke, 2011), however, this new research suggests that this bias appears even earlier.

This study has made news sites across the world, but even more interesting than the findings are the comments that accompany the articles. The majority opinion on one website I looked at was that this finding simply cannot be true. Some example comments I came across were:

“I found this whole thing disturbing and disgusting! Who the hell thinks up a study to show babies are racist and biased? Babies are innocent angels until taught by those around them. Babies are not born racist they are influenced by their parents, family and those around them.”

“People are not BORN racists/racially prejudiced, it's taught to them and to suggest that white people have some innate bias in them is just wrong (I am not white by the way).”

Of course, there are environmental influences that shape our thinking as we grow up, but the fundamental point is that actually yes, we are all biased, and the research suggests that in-group biases are there from very early on in our lives. Most importantly though, it’s what we do about them which matters. To suggest they don’t exist is more than just a fruitless exercise in denial, it is dangerous self-delusion – we know that bias has an impact on our behaviours and decisions, and if we don’t recognise this, how can we ever change it?

In an increasingly competitive world we have been accustomed to pushing ourselves further and harder to achieve our sense of worth. Accepting "OK" in ourselves just isn't good enough. There is a danger, however, in adopting an overly hard and self-critical attitude. What becomes more useful in the long run is the ability to be kind to oneself; "self-compassion". Rather than being a sign of complacency, being kind to yourself is actually the route to greater long term achievement and well-being, and a more stable self-esteem.

Within a work context, people who are hard on themselves can find it particularly difficult to accept and absorb performance feedback. To protect their self-esteem they may avoid seeking feedback, or reject the feedback they hear. Alternatively if the feedback becomes impossible to ignore they can experience a significant knock to their self-esteem and become demotivated. As a leadership development coach, these are patterns we often need to manage people through. Developing a leader's "self-compassion" could be key to achieving this.

The Buddhist construct of "Self-Compassion" is growing in recognition within therapeutic and business settings. Kristen Neff has done much to define and validate this quality, breaking it down into three elements:

  • Self Kindness: taking an understanding and non-judgmental attitude towards one's inadequacies and failures
  • Mindfulness: developing an objective awareness of negative thoughts and feelings and not being fully absorbed by them
  • Common Humanity: accepting that, like everyone else, we are not perfect and we are not struggling or suffering any more or less than anyone else. This avoids self-pity.

Going beyond the philosophy, Neff and others have provided empirical evidence of the strength of self-compassion. Self-compassionate individuals experience less depression and anxiety and significantly more positive moods. It is associated with better coping strategies when experiencing personal difficulties or failure. Most critically for performance improvement, rather than breeding complacency, self-compassion is associated with a higher intrinsic interest in learning and more objective and honest self-evaluations. People high in self-compassion are more likely to take a balanced responsibility for their role in negative events rather than blame failure on others. As a result they are more likely to take positive action to address their own development.

So be kind to yourself. It's not self-indulgent. It's healthy, honest and will help you learn and grow.

Last month, Professor Binna Kandola and I presented our third seminar on cognitive neuropsychology and its impact in the workplace. This area of psychology looks at the structure and function of the brain and how this influences our behaviour, decisions and reactions.

It is a rapidly growing area of science, so much so that the US Government last year pledged over $3 billion to a project to ‘map’ the brain’s critical functions. In making the announcement, Barack Obama said "as humans we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than the atom, but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the 3lb of matter that sits between our ears."

What is driving such a huge interest and investment in exploring the brain’s capabilities? The most straightforward answer is that there have been huge advances in recent years in the technologies that allow us to observe and record specific activity in the brain. Not too long ago, most of our understanding of brain activity was down to observing patients with brain injuries. Patients would perform a variety of different tasks and then any deficit in their performance would point to a link between the damaged region of the brain and its function. Now, the use of fMRI scans and advances in nanotechnologies is rapidly accelerating our understanding of the brain. Each week, headlines are made by new studies observing previously unknown aspects of the brain’s performance. At a glance, this week’s science publications are telling us that we now understand more about speech, reasoning skills and learning ability.

There are a few risks in interpreting these studies, however, simply because the brain is so vastly complex in its structure. It contains over 100 billion neurones, each connected to around 10,000 synapses (electrical transmitters), resulting in a number of possible pathways that any pocket calculator would struggle to cope with. New neural pathways are constantly formed throughout life, created through new experiences, dispelling the myth that the brain starts deteriorating in mid-life, but increasing the complexity of what we are trying to understand. In a world where we often look for big simple answers to complex questions, it can sometimes be too easy, and misleading, to over-generalise from one study of a specific area of brain activity to our behaviour.

Over the coming months, this blog will share what we consider to be the most informative and relevant research in neuropsychology. We will look at what the best journals are telling us about important workplace behaviours such as leadership, influence, communication, judgement and decision making. We will share thoughts on how learning and development specialists might use this information to develop new ways of developing managers, coaching leaders and growing potential.

So, if you’re interested in a regular update on what’s happening in the world of neuropsychology, watch this space. I’m tempted to say it’s a no-brainer, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The New Year brings the promise of a new start. The bad memories of last year's failings can be pushed away now that we feel more rested and calm: of course we will eat more healthily; of course we will be more sociable; of course we will exercise more! Unfortunately, as most of us will admit, it really isn't that simple.

Good goals should be specific and have an achievable and measurable outcome and it helps to make a public commitment. We are encouraged to identify something challenging but at the same time we are reminded that it is better to break goals down and focus on the actions needed to achieve it.

In focusing on our new exciting goals, it's easy to forget, however, the danger of lapsing into old bad habits. In two or three weeks' time life will be back to normal with the usual pressures and demands. Under pressure we default back to our old habits, eating whatever is at hand, working too late, and relaxing with an oversized glass of wine. To avoid this we must put the right ingredients in place:

Habits are "context-dependent" and are often triggered by a situation or cue. Such as when we find we have taken the wrong turn in the car following the route we would normally follow. With this in mind we have to train ourselves to respond differently to the same cues or put in place new cues and reminders. We might set up phone alerts to remind us that it's time to get up from the desk and stretch a little (don't laugh..... I can actually forget to move for several hours if uninterrupted!).

We need new simple easy-to-achieve routines. So when we walk in the door, we don't go straight to the fridge, but drink a glass of water and do ten minutes on the exercise bike. After supper, we don't go back on our emails, but sit down on the sofa with the kids and chat about the day. The overall goal might be challenging but the easier the new day to day routines, the more chance there is of you making them happen.

Finally, there needs to be a reward attached. Ideally, the new routine should bring its own rewards; a feeling of renewed energy, a freshness of mind, a closer bond with family. These rewards need to be brought to mind and visualised compared to the alternative feelings of sluggishness, boredom and isolation. And if you reach your ultimate goal, a personal treat or celebration will be deserved.

The more often you repeat these new behaviours the more they become your normal routines and habits. Aim to do a little and often rather than scare yourself off with a single 10 mile jog that there is always a reason to avoid.

Over the last few years, I have helped hundreds of individuals to better understand and tackle their ingrained, unconscious biases in the workplace and, nine times out of ten, someone will ask "If these biases are unconscious, can I change them?".

Unfortunately, this is not an easy question to answer. If it were, it would be unlikely that I would be providing the services I do. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are all biased. We are both products of 'nature' and 'nurture' and the research clearly shows that our interpretations of others are significantly impacted by both conscious and unconscious bias.

However, recent research by a team led by Professor Mel Slater at the University of Barcelona has given us the hint of a high-tech solution with undertones of the movie Avatar.

Participants were asked to complete the implicit association test to determine the degree of unconscious racial bias before and after being immersed in a virtual reality simulation in which they were given the body of a different race. Only those who had spent time in the simulation showed a drop in unconscious racial bias.

This research goes a step further in highlighting the importance of empathy and perspective taking in tackling bias and enhancing inclusivity in organisations. The simple fact is that our biases preclude us from considering the world through someone else’s eyes, particularly if that person happens to be different from us. However, we also know that by ‘training’ our brains to be more empathetic (e.g. by suspending judgement and actively exploring the other person’s view on the world), we can circumvent existing biases and begin to erode the associations (positive or negative) that stem from them.

So, while it is unlikely that we will live our lives through virtual reality simulations any time soon, we do know that taking simple steps to enhance our skills in empathy is critical for creating inclusive working environments in which people are treated fairly and with dignity and respect.

In the course of our work, we get to visit a wide range of client offices and see first-hand the prevalence of open-plan work spaces. In fact around 70% of employees work in an open-plan environment. The benefits for organisations in terms of lower overall space requirements and flexibility of use are obvious. Furthermore, we are encouraged to value the opportunity of higher employee interaction with the potential knock-on benefits of improved decision-making and creative exchange. As communication is central to any organisation's success, there has been a huge appetite in our own and our client's businesses to literally break down the walls that impede team collaboration.

In doing so, however, it is becoming clear that many companies have forgotten the importance of quiet reflection and concentration to business success. Open-plan arrangements can make it harder to focus and cause increased stress resulting in lower productivity, higher sickness rates and increased staff turnover. The negative effects can be more profound for those staff with introverted personalities who can suffer sensory overload as a result of increased noise levels and visual distractions. For routine or simple tasks, the impact is less significant. However, work that demands complex verbal processing is particularly vulnerable to interference from background conversation.

Without quiet spaces where people can focus, employees simply put up their own "virtual walls" by wearing earphones to regain control over their mental space; or, in my case, sticking my fingers in my ears. I rejoice in the invention of the "Quiet Carriage" on the train where I can buy back invaluable working time between meetings.

Rather than improving communication, there is in fact a danger that open-plan offices stifle it. Like train travellers, unable to take a call, employees worry about disturbing other people or the risk of colleagues eavesdropping on confidential conversations. In my work it is common to hear managers complaining that their ability to give regular feedback to staff is hampered by the lack of privacy in an open plan environment. Further whilst desk partitions may give visual privacy they can exacerbate fears that someone out there may be listening in.

Pearn Kandola's offices here in Oxford strike a good balance. Rather than one large open-plan space, clusters of desks share glass-walled areas to encourage team camaraderie, but avoid excessive noise levels. Private meeting rooms, a quiet library and an open social area provide plenty of scope; whether it is to call a client; brainstorm, share a friendly coffee; or last but certainly not least to quietly think. Failing that, like many people we can always remove ourselves completely from the distractions of the office by working from home and hope that the children, postman, cold-callers and dog give us at least a few hours peace.

For further reading on this subject see:
  • "Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that won't stop talking" by Susan Cain, January 2013
  • "Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices". Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear, Journal of Environmental Psychology, June 2013.

Sad news this weekend, with the sudden death of Sir David Frost, the journalist, broadcaster and entertainer.

There have, of course, been many eulogies highlighting what it was that made Frost stand above his contemporaries in his ability to get to the heart of issues, but one struck me more than others. Andy Murray, Wimbledon champion, described a recent exchange in which he asked Frost how he had achieved so much success and respect as an interviewer. Frost’s reply was disarmingly simple: “I try hard to listen to people”.

Rather than prepare his list of questions and run through each question one-at-a-time with the person in the other chair, Frost would prepare meticulously but then listen intensely to the response, probing constructively and building his understanding of the other person, their character and achievements. He would always strive to be ‘present’ in the interview, a quality that many leaders crave. And yes, he would cover each of his prepared questions, but not necessarily in the order he had anticipated.

It’s a great reminder, for all of us who interview for selection, to stop and reflect on how hard we try to listen. How often do we put time into preparing relevant competence-based questions, only to allow the interview structure to determine the depth and quality of responses that we get from the interview? There are many factors that are difficult to control but will reduce the quality of an interview – our biases about that person, our own work pressures elsewhere, a lack of understanding of what we hear – but the skill of genuine listening is something we can all focus on, practice and improve in time.

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