Using Insights from Brain Science to Manage Projects and Influence Change

Ten years ago, you could be forgiven for labelling talk of invisible human and organisational dynamics ‘flaky’. Not so now. Neuroscience may be in its infancy but it’s already providing insights into how the human brain works which have profound implications for the corporate world.

Here we give you high-level understanding of how the human brain works and how invisible dynamics arise.

Visualise the brain as having three key parts, each with a distinct function

  • The Primitive brain ensures body processes such as breathing and heart function are maintained
  • The Feeling brain acts as our emotional command centre and is where impulsive actions begin
  • The Thinking brain where higher functions such as analysis, creativity, logical decision-making and empathy originate

The three parts are intimately connected and linked to the body. Together they operate as an integrated system. Acting in consort their primary concern is to ensure our survival through a structure which can be traced back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

We’re familiar with the human fight/flight/freeze response and we know it is driven by the need for physical survival.

We’re learning from recent advances in neuroscience that the human brain does not distinguish between physical and psychological survival. It uses the same wiring to deal with physical and social threats.

The amygdala which sits in the Feeling brain is constantly scanning the environment to identify things, people and situations to avoid and those it is safe to approach. It operates on autopilot and outside of conscious awareness. It continually assesses threat levels and makes judgements about what is safe and what is not. As soon as our amygdala assesses a threat level as too high, it kicks our survival response into action.

Our body processes change. Our heart rate increases and our breathing gets shallower. Energy is diverted away from our Thinking brain. Our field of vision narrows, we become distracted and we are less able to think clearly as without realizing it, we become preoccupied with survival. At the same time the amygdala triggers avoidance emotions such as fear, anger, or shame and these are accompanied by changes in our behavior.

We unwittingly adopt avoidance behaviours – we might become defensive, or if our amygdala judges the threat to be strong enough, we might go on to the attack or withdraw from the situation completely.

Crucially the brain’s definition of a threat is determined by prior experience and is very individual. Working at speed the amygdala doesn’t stop to test whether a threat is real. For example, seeing a client flinch momentarily as you present performance figures might spark a defensive reaction in you, but have no impact on a colleague at the same meeting. There’s no saying what impact you barking a response to your client’s questions will have. They might take it their stride, they might not.

However, not all situations provoke avoidance behaviours. When the amygdala assesses the situation as familiar and safe the opposite happens. Our reflex is to approach and seek reward.

The associated emotions are trust, love, excitement and joy. Emotions we tend to associate with the relationship between a mother/father and baby rather than adults in the corporate world.

When these emotions are coursing through the body we are highly motivated and at ease, our Thinking brain can operate at its best. We are creative, collaborative and able to learn together.


The implications for organisations and those working on change and transformation programmes are profound.

Whether you like it or not, everything you say or do by way of communication by every verbal and non-verbal means is transmitted into the feelings systems of others … and, has an impact on delivery1

Project success relies on our ability to evoke attachment/approach behaviours such as creativity and collaboration and to reduce our tendency to provoke avoidance behaviours.

Neuroscience give us:

  • Insight into relationship dynamics that were previously invisible
  • New understanding of how we unwittingly create these dynamics
  • Clarity about their impact on ourselves and others.

If so much is going on beneath the surface of interactions between two people, just imagine what happens on a project which involves ten, hundreds or even thousands of people.

Developing an understanding of subtle human and organisational dynamics is essential if we want to improve project success rates.

The evidence is there, the challenge is to act on it.


1. Neuroscience for Leadership: harnessing the brain gain advantage

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