Nature or nurture in performance and the brain

That age old question is addressed by looking at the neuroscience element of how to promote performance in the workplace.

Recently TJ shared insights and reflections linked to a new study. There are many other studies that have previously been done in the space of how we reward people that are in alignment with the findings that Prof. Dr Frank Hartmann, Professor of Management Accounting and Management Control at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University.

Hartmaan shared: “If basic biology limits our ability to improve at certain types of work, we need to think more imaginatively about the way we measure and reward work performance.”

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It has been shown before that monetary incentives and social pressure do not seem to improve performance for work that requires vigilance and attention.

The comments

Dr Ian Selby, Director of Research and Development at CIMA, noted that “Modern companies have a large set of incentives available to them, yet many keep reaching for two in particular: exerting pressure from above, or incentivising through bonuses sometimes these are simply the wrong tools for the job.”

The question

This often leads to disengaged employees. So one question to ask is: Why is your organisation damaging people’s productivity and happiness?

The answer

The answer could be as simple as ‘it’s easiest’. Today most leader’s brains are full to capacity. In a board meeting where it is decided you need:

  • More innovation
  • Increased productivity
  • Reduced costs

The quickest perceived solution is to tell the team manager to reward performance in these areas. That is normally based on what has historically been the case.

The best way to get more innovation, increased productivity and to reduce costs is rarely to financially incentivise or put pressure from above. To learn the complexities of human behaviour though takes a time investment. However, the carrot and the stick are so old school and there is so much evidence against their widespread use an investment in updating knowledge in this area is well worth it.

The hidden reality

As is often the case – a headline doesn’t tell the full story. Without seeing the results of this particular study we will not jump to conclusions. However, we do know that ‘biology’ changes. The brain you had yesterday is not exactly the same as the one you have today.

Yes, the wiring in your brain, the synaptic connections you have and don’t have are hugely influential in your performance. It is crazy to consider otherwise. However, according to Hebbs Law, which I talk about in all three of my books about the brain, it is equally crazy to think that those connections don’t change.

The opportunity

Do you ever hear any comments like this in your workplace?

  • “We just need to deliver on this KPI, quickly”
  • “Let’s turn up the pressure on them to deliver ASAP”
  • “There is no time to lose”

Then you are at risk of missing the opportunity. Normally you can’t rewire a brain overnight. Performance is complex. It depends on a very long list of variables. By investing in shaping the environment (internal brain environment and external work environments) you can influence behaviours.

Many organisations are too busy to look at the factors that influence behaviours that lead to desirable or undesirable performance. They reach for the hammer and take a swipe and are then surprised when it doesn’t result in the shelf leaping from the box onto the wall and being securely attached.

An executive board realising that a dramatic overhaul to a repeatedly used tactic – that sometimes seems to get some effect – is a key moment. The change needs to happen. The next stage is to dedicate the time and resources to getting to know how to better achieve the results, without all the negative fallout.

The takeaways

  • Performance is absolutely linked to the brain
  • Performance can be improved
  • There are many more effective ways to influence performance outside of pressure and financial incentives
  • Learning about the brain from reliable sources equips you to improve performance
  • Time is precious – invest it wisely


About the author

Amy Brann is a Coach at her company Synaptic Potential and author of books about using the brain. She can be contacted at or on Twitter @Amy_brann

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