wired brain


The brain is organised around a set of ‘natural rules’  or governing principles is something about which all neuroscientists agree. By utilising these rules in directed and focused ways, a leader can build a brain-friendly workplace and inspire motivation, engagement, and greater productivity.


The brain’s ‘natural rules’ may be summarised as follows:

          1. The brain seeks safety and flees danger
          2. The brain is reward dependent
          3. The brain seeks meaning
          4. The brain likes novelty and relies on trial and error
          5. Environments impacts on how the brain performs
          6. The brain is a social organ
          7. The brain is plastic in the right circumstances
          8. No two- brains are alike


Safety v Danger

Because we have evolved to survive, the human brain is highly tuned to any kind of threat. This is commonly manifested by the fight-or-flight response, something all of us have both personally experienced and observed in others.

The fight-or-flight response was first described in the early 20th century by Walter Bradford Cannon, who saw that  animals — including humans — react to threats with a flood of hormones by the sympathetic nervous system, priming the animal for fighting or fleeing. The brain-friendly leader understands that creating a workplace that is stimulating but not threatening will see the best from employees. Cultivating a space open to ideas and suggestions will enhance the sense of safety.


Feeling safe is one thing, but the human brain is also reward dependent. The brain-friendly leader looks for what motivates each person, finds ways to show appreciation, and celebrates small wins.


The brain is constantly searching for meaning. What this means for the brain-friendly leader is that open and frequent communication is crucial. Without it, employees may apply their own interpretation to key messages, change plans, and organisational strategy. Even off-hand comments or jokes can be fraught with possible misinterpretation, with employees scratching their heads, wondering what the boss meant, and coming up with their own — perhaps quite wrong — views of what was intended.


The brain is essentially lazy. It’s constantly on the lookout for ways to get things done without having to work too hard, in order to preserve its resources for more important things later on (like fighting or fleeing when necessary or enjoying the rewards of praise or celebration). What this means for the brain-friendly leader is the opportunity to create desirable habits in the areas that are tried and tested. For example, we want some things to become automatic — creating an incident-free workplace, for example, or being calm and polite to customers in stressful situations. Because the brain is naturally economical, it’s possible to cultivate such habitual responses.


Managers often focus on ‘getting things right’ without recognising the benefits of mistakes. But brains like novelty and often seek distractions. As much as we hear how bad it is to be distracted, it turns out that this is where innovation happens.  The right amount and the right kind of  stimulation can lead to some unexpected solutions. The fact that the brain relies on trial and error when solving problems should not be viewed with impatience, but should be embraced as an opportunity for creative thinking. The brain-friendly leader needs to balance the brain’s natural preference for economy of effort with the way it seeks novelty. The fact that the brain is economical means that the trial and error process involved in getting things right could, in fact, lead to more efficiency later.

Environmental Impact

Companies with clean desk policies engender a certain kind of workforce: meticulous, organised, safety-focused, detail-oriented, and conservative. On the other hand, research has found that organisations that allow employees to personalise their workspaces to suit individual preferences are often more innovative. In fact, a recent study by Kathleen Vohs reveals that messy desks belong to creative minds. The point is that the environment impacts on how we think and how we perform. If you are producing life-saving medicines, you will likely want a pristine lab, devoid of distractions and potential risks. On the other hand, if you work in an industry that requires innovative thinking, the answers you’re looking for might just be among the detritus of a messy desk.

A Social Organ

At it’s core, the brain is a social organ. It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with introverts or extraverts, people seek connection with others. The brain-friendly leader understands this and makes an effort to engage with employees on a warm personal level. Eye contact, a smile, asking questions about the weekend, and acknowledgement of good work all go a long way to develop the cohesive social bonds necessary to create a committed, engaged work force. It’s also important to announce news — both good and bad — in person. The brain is designed to understand non-verbal cues, so be transparent and trustworthy.


One of the greatest insights of the last 25 years has been that the brain is plastic. We are not as chained to the forces of nature and nurture as we once thought. We know that it’s possible to replace bad habits with more desirable habits. We can change our attitudes by priming ourselves for more positive experiences. We can reappraise an unpleasant situation as a learning experience or an opportunity. This is extremely powerful. Because brains can change, people can change. This means that, led by brain-friendly managers, organisations can evolve too.

Individual Mind Maps

No two brains are alike, so each of the above governing principles will operate in greater or lesser degrees for each individual. Memories, past experience, personality, and learning styles all play a role. The brain-friendly leader gets to know what makes each member of his staff ‘tick’, what each one views as a threat, a challenge, and a reward, how each responds to communication styles, the working environment, interactions with others.