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Neuroplasticity

neuroplasticity 400x265Easier to spell than you might think!

Whilst this one’s not too difficult to say, it does involve a fair bit of science, so thinking caps on everyone!  In summary, neuroplasticity is a general term that is applied to changes in neural pathways, synaptic plasticity and non-synaptic plasticity.  Or for a more practically applied summary – this is about learning, change and our ability to flex.

Various parts of our brains such as synapses (the minute gaps between our brain cells, where information is communicated), respond to changes in the environment, thinking, behaviour and emotions.  So why is this relevant to businesses?

Well imagine a large organisation that once made desktop PC’s, who boldly declared to the world that the tablet was a passing phase.  They’ve now had to significantly change their business model and thus behaviour and thinking to accommodate the new environment they find themselves in.  That change required a fair amount plasticity, adaptability and flex.

Jelly Bean Diversity

From the shop floor right to the boardroom, an understanding of neuroplasticity can give us some valuable insights in supporting organisations with many kinds of change.

But back to the brain.  The brain works the same way as other muscles; to strengthen it, it requires exercise and regular work outs.  Unfortunately the brain has a ‘use it or lose it’ approach; by adulthood we have already lost approximately 50% of our synapses due to inactivity.  However, this doesn’t mean we can’t learn new skills as an adult.

An adult brain is still capable of making new connections from learning new skills.  In fact the more it is used, the more connections are made in the brain.

So what does this mean for learning new skills or behaviours in the workplace?

We can work with our existing capabilities but importantly, those skills and strengths can also be increased.  The brain works best when it is building on existing connections rather than starting from scratch, so it makes sense to build on what you already know or are already good at.

In Development Centres or learning programmes for example, people need to be able to identify relationships in the material or make it relevant to something they already know.

Totem Lollipops

This will strengthen the existing neural pathways which makes learning much more likely.  Similarly, repetition will reinforce the neural connections so delegates should repeat the skills or actions until these synaptic connections are solidly reinforced.

Employers can take note of these principles of plasticity, but taking advantage of these in the workplace remains a slightly grey area.  We can take a broad brush and apply some of the learning from neuroplasticity to everyone – that’s fine.  But what if employers could somehow identify employees who already had a large number of connections, in theory these people could be taught new skills – and quickly.

Could we one day look at measuring learning agility and potential through brain scans?  Then what about those employees who don’t already have high plasticity levels?  Isn’t that a form a discrimination?  That might be a debate for a future generation.

Whilst the area of neuroplasticity in employment is still an emerging field, there are some far reaching implications not just on the horizon, but in the here and now.  And we can’t put it any better than this article by not one, but three super smart people, Jeffrey Schwartz, Pablo Gaito, and Doug Lennick:

“When corporate leaders talk about change, they usually have a desired result in mind . . .. They know that if they are to achieve this result, people throughout the company need to change their behavior and practices, and that can’t happen by simple decree. How, then, does it happen? In the last few years, insights from neuroscience have begun to answer that question.

New behaviors can be put in place, but only by reframing attitudes that are so entrenched that they are almost literally embedded in the physical pathways of employees’ neurons.”

And so in the here and now, we can consider the implications of neuroplasticity for our hopes of behavioural change.  If we want managers, leaders, customer service colleagues and all to do something differently – we’ll need to build on what they know, use their strengths and challenge the attitudes and ways of doing things that are deep set in the organisational culture.