Lessons from neuroscience for learning and performance

The better you’ve learnt, the better you perform: messages for the executive coach

‘The better you’ve learnt, the better you perform’.  For those of us in the business of enabling learning and development, hearing this from neuroscientist Dr Geoff Bird (of the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College, London, and the Institute of Cognitive Science, UCL) at the recent workshop I facilitated with Megan Evans was both self-evident and thought-provoking.  Executive coaching is about enabling greater effectiveness, so if I can understand how to optimise my clients’ learning (and my own), I’m going to be able to do a better job for them.


Why reflection works as a learning process

When neurons repeatedly get activated together, the strength of the connection (or synapse) between them – i.e. the learning – increases.  In other words, repetition is key for learning, which explains why reflection as part of the coaching process works so well. Reflection means mentally revisiting a scenario to explore the various perspectives of what happened, examine the outcomes, distil out the learning and how it came about, consider options for next steps, and make plans for how to use it or experiment with it.  Each time the brain revisits the scenario, the synapse is strengthened and the learning is reinforced. 

Combined with the three-hour rule, the case for reflection becomes even more compelling: learning is reinforced when that new piece of learning is followed by practice and refinement all within three hours.


Slowing down to reflect

I’m always aware of the power of reflection – and especially reflection in writing – and having its basis in neuroscience explained was in itself a powerful piece of learning for me.  I’m placing even more emphasis on it for clients now – and this both stretches clients who value coaching because the pace of their busy lives leaves them little time for thinking and challenges those who are so used to functioning fast that slowing down to reflect is far from easy.  If you’re interested in speed-leadership and the value of slowing down, see my article in ‘Coaching at Work’.


Why goal-based learning works

Another characteristic of successful learning is a feeling of reward, acceptance and rapport – which implies an absence of threat or stress, whether by failure, by punishment or by exclusion from a group that matters to you.  A sense of rapport means quicker results and more creativity, which we see in outstandingly productive teams and individuals. In neuroscience terms this means the neurotransmitter dopamine has been dumped in the brain (a neurotransmitter is a chemical signal that passes information from one neuron to the next across the synapses between them).  Fascinatingly, goal-based learning, where the goals are based on what really matters to individuals, is one of the causes of a dopamine dump. Dopamine is a highly complex neurotransmitter, related – amongst other things – to increases in motivation and attention, and strongly associated with the reward mechanisms in the brain.

So if you want higher levels of motivation and attention in yourself and/or others, and more effective learning, find a way to increase the dopamine – perhaps by fostering the kind of collaboration and sense of belonging that are high in trust and rapport.

This partly explains why executive coaching works: it invariably uncovers individuals’ and teams’ values (the non-negotiables that  really matter to them about work), it enables the clear articulation of their objectives, and – critically –  it’s free of judgment, and represents an affirming, safe space, where development needs can be identified and challenges can be faced.  The place of trust is central to a successful coaching relationship, which of itself enables awareness, learning and development – and hence changes in performance levels.



Mastery is anathema

The workshops that Geoff Bird contributes to for us  invariably include concepts that are confronting and provocative, and this workshop was no exception.  Consider this comment, for example: mastery is anathema.  We can all think of outstandingly successful Olympic athletes, businesspeople, artists and others who strive relentlessly for improvement – and who seem to succeed because of that very striving towards mastery. 

However Geoff tells us that actually achieving mastery means there’s less to learn – so there’s less opportunity for reward.  In other words, it’s all about the journey, not the destination.  Dan Pink’s work, which identifies three conditions for motivation as autonomy, mastery and purpose (see a video and more on the book ‘The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us’) comes to mind here – and I wonder now whether what he’s really getting at regarding mastery is the drive towards it rather than the achievement of it.

There are lessons here too for leaders: part of the leader’s role is to release their followers’ abilities in the interests of progressing their organisation’s agenda.  This means raising performance levels and finding new ways of addressing challenges.  It means maximising opportunities for learning and adapting on the basis of that learning.  So leaders who know how to optimise the conditions for their own and their people’s learning – who can create more opportunities for dopamine dumps – are going to maximise their chances of success for themselves and their organisations. 

Senior people – indeed anyone thinking about their career development – who build in the search for working environments and a career path that will maximise their learning opportunities are likely to also maximise their chances of fulfilment and therefore success.  And those working across cultures or in multicultural environments who know how to maximise harmony, minimise conflict, bring a curiosity for learning and an attitude of acceptance of ‘what is’ are also going to be those most likely to develop aligned, creative, productive teams and minimise wasted effort.


Photo by SalFalko via Compfight

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