From Psychology to Biology – rethinking engagement & performance

Despite the huge investment in employee training, increasing salaries and bonuses, increasing investment in qualifications and technical abilities; surveys still show that over 70% of your average workforce are dis-engaged, with a number of people “actively dis-engaged” growing rapidly. When you consider the fact that someone who is actively dis-engaged is not only wasting the resources spent on motivating them, but actively sabotaging your business, isn’t it about time we considered an alternative approach? We may have been getting it all wrong. 


To have happy and engaged employees, we need to rethink what motivates people beyond behaviour. We need to start looking at our own internal wiring and chemical composition. We need to understand the underlying biology and neurology and influence it at the basic level before we can adapt cognitively and behaviourally. Simply put, if our biology is ‘off track’, there is no way we can manage our emotional intelligence, learn information and engage with others. Now suppose if we could go beyond this ‘fix’. What if by enhancing our biology beyond the normal levels by ‘hacking’ our mind and body, we can enhance learning, EQ, decision-making and leadership as a result.


In a recent presentation at World Business & Executive Coaches Summit I attended (virtually), Jamie Wheal and Steve Kotter, leading experts in human performance, highlighted the fact that in today’s business, 80% of our efforts to engage our teams are spent on the traditional psychological approaches such as cognitive and behavioural training, education, reward & recognition and skills ‘upgrades’, with little to show for the investment. Some companies invest a little bit of time and money in other aspects of wellbeing, such as corporate wellness programmes, social engagement activities, individual ‘life’ coaching, CSR programmes and work-life balance initiatives.


Please allow my cynical supposition that many don’t do this because they truly believe they will add to the business bottom line directly, but because they want to compete with the Jones’s or because they believe these initiatives might help them attract talent. In essence, not much of this approach is generating a return.


Now if we look at the top elite performing teams that live on the edge, where your performance can literally save your life, we start to notice that skills and technical ability start to lose their priority as a precursor to performance; the importance of social triggers, neuroscience, endocrinology become more relevant. Navy SEALS, DARPA, the Red Bull Extreme Sports Team, top executives in elite companies think differently. Where stakes are extreme; from losing your life-savings, your credibility or even your life, there is far less investment in pure technical ability than in the holistic approach to developing mind and body. Members of these elite groups have been analysed by top scientists over the past years and have realised something very interesting; it is BIOLOGY and NEUROLOGY that is giving these people the edge over the rest of us, not their technical ability.


Surely they must have astounding skills, but these are enhanced by their ability to perform at a sustained high level, generating a ‘return on investment’ of those learnt skills at 1000% over others with the same technical background or university degree. What is happening?!


It is becoming clear that we need to start investing far more in biology and neurology if we want to raise the game of ultimate performance in individuals and teams in our business. We need to enhance performance through people that can think fast through mental complexity, thrive under pressure, lead by transforming people, use emotional intelligence to motivate and inspire others, rapidly deploy creative and intuitive decision-making, and create social “Flow” in their teams. This is where the return on investment starts to justify the huge cost of attracting top talent and retaining it. This is not rocket science, however.


We just need a different approach. Training and development programmes need to shift their focus on stimulating flow triggers, enhancing brain activity, providing neuro and bio feedback to know when performance is happening inside our brains, and learn to replicate it at will. A focus on maximising sleep-return through sleep-hacking or stabilising blood insulin makes a huge difference to performance through increase energy levels, avoiding mid-afternoon dips (see Dave Asprey). Removing ‘amygdala hijacking’ in group work and team decision-making vastly improves team performance and social coherence. If we remove simple blocks in working groups, the old cliche of ‘the total equals more than the sum of it’s parts’ becomes true. This is all stuff that can be learnt.


The main issue is the paradigm shift necessary in the board rooms when it comes to laying out the talent strategy of the organisation. This science is new and relatively secret. Navy Seals and top 1% businesses don’t want to share their secret elixir with potential competitors. Most are still experimenting with Flow State and may be somewhat sceptical. HR departments want to see ‘work specific’ learning to justify the expense in training, however every CEO I speak to about what they deem makes an excellent performer refers to the above performance indicators over technical competence time and again. Those few CEOs I have worked with on ‘flow’ have personally seen their performance improve, along with that of their team. There is also a direct correlation on their personal lives, outlook, mood and general wellbeing that is perpetuating the wish to continue to invest and develop these skills across their whole organisation. I’ve also seen that leaders who practice this approach are more conscious of environment, society, family and self-awareness; i.e. they are more ‘well-rounded’ individuals compared to CEOs purely driven by technical USPs. I wouldn’t be surprised if their business results and long-term success also mirrored this!


The evidence is there. A recent study on using biometrics to enhance learning showed that with the right investment in sensory ‘hacking’ a group of students learnt a new language in 6 weeks, instead of the usual 6 months – simply by manipulating their brains to be more absorbent through endocrine, neurological and biological adaptations. The same science is being used to teach hypersensitive autistic children and helping people with mental health problems cope with their emotions.


There is no reason why we can’t use techniques like mindfulness, insulin hacking, sleep hacking, social & environment triggers to enhance flow states in ‘regular’ minds to stimulate rapid learning, emotional intelligence, decision-making; raising our game in both business and life. Check out our Performance Lab for more information on how we can help you achieve ultimate performance through our workshops and coaching.

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