Management consultants now selling neuroscience

The Financial Times published an interesting post today on how management consultants are looking at brain chemicals to help analyse leadership and workplace trust.

Deloitte is looking into brain chemistry – and how they can apply what they learnt in neuroscience to management. Some of the quotes from management consultants sound like they need a bit more time in the oven: “Neuroscience would be saying you need more neural pathways to make people think differently.”

management consulting psychology neuroscience

I think Thinking Fast and Slow should be read by every management consultant and leader. I wonder what these guys will have to add on top of this. Paul Zak, the neuroscientist that the FT quotes, talks about trust as an “economic lubricant”. Isn’t that Marketing 101? In fact, I doodled about it here. Ok, they mention a few chemicals that most management consulting folk and their clients probably haven’t heard of before like oxytocin. In management consulting, a new name usually means a new sales pitch, so I can see why they are excited. Another management consultant references the idea that we are more irrational when we are in fight or flight mode. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised that in some boardroom some CEO of a gargantuan business is signing off on a contract with a management consultancy that just presented this – but really, it does sound like plain common sense.

There is one very interesting idea in the article: predictive hiring.

Instead of relying upon CVs and interviews, they ask applicants to play 15 or 20 computer games designed with the aid of neuroscience — revealing a cognitive and emotional profile. The result is matched against the gaming profile of high-performers in the role to be filled. Combined with techniques such as machine-learning and trawling social media profiles, this approach opens the way to hiring based on capability. “Companies won’t worry where they went to school or what their grades are”…

I think that games that seeing how a person takes decisions is a great way to understand their personality. It is the basis of psychological tests. However, if, instead of trying to go into the reasons why a person is like this and what they can do about it, we could simply use this information for what it is, I think it would really help to match people with certain jobs. It’s like a decision making genome that you can then marry with a job description – of course only after you accumulate enough data.

using psychology neuroscience in management consulting

Trust and likeability

What is trust? I think it is a feeling. It’s not an objective measure of how reliable somebody is.

I have many friends who are incredibly unreliable, incompetent at times – yet I still trust them because I somehow know that they will be reliable when it will really matter.

I think it is about having coherent values.

Belonging to one tribe – however you chose to define it. The reason we have tribes is probably deeply rooted in our DNA. A long time ago we were conditioned to know that if we lose our tribe, our survival chances are lower. It is the very reason why public speaking is so difficult for so many people. They feel that getting up on stage with a high risk of embarrassing themselves would lead to their audience – their tribe – to alienate them. It is one of the many examples where our brains are scanning for survival situations when really they would do much better to chill out a bit. It is one of the things that mindfulness really helps with: instead of assuming things and following the same scripts, it allows to take a step back and perceive a situation from a different standpoint.

In this day and age we have learnt to pay less attention to the superficial: race and socioeconomic background. Values lead the conversation on trust and exposing authenticity and vulnerability strengthens it. Trust makes us feel remarkably good. It is one of the things people value most in life: the goodwill of other people.

psychology of trust

Trust emerges in the strangest situations. We seem to always restrict the group that we trust.

Having a common enemy automatically builds trust among complete strangers. Nostalgia is a phenomenal marketing strategy because it immediately builds references for values we all accept and love – hence it builds trust. This means trust is scalable.

You don’t need to know much about the person: just pick up on the relevant markers of trustworthiness – and there, you are best friends. Our brains sort of skip over the whole due diligence process required to build trust.

Celebrities always say that fans feel that they know them personally – that’s the power of the illusions that trust can create.

One of the key reasons why social media have changed the world is because it trades in trust. Social proof – knowing that our friends, whom we trust, trust ABC brand – that causes us to trust the brand too. It’s like human link juice.

Being transparent is hard.

It takes courage as we run the risk of being rejected – that’s what the survival brain thinks about first. “Always budget for the downside”.

A better strategy would be based on the realisation that by being transparent we will be able to find the people who share our values. They are out there.

The easier it is for them to find you – the better life will be. Haters will be there and they won’t accept you even if you try and deceive them into believing you.

In the words of Elbert Hubbard: To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing. Don’t stand for anything. Make unfalsifiable claims – like the multinationals that none of us have any time for. It seems that to get trust, you need to be directional.

After all, making a decision means, literally, cutting off other options. And we all know that being indecisive is worse.

I can think of an exception to that rule: when somebody takes a strong position in a conflict averse environment. Certain societies value a lack of extreme statements. When my friends started expressing their opinions on Brexit on social media, people were reluctant to engage either way. Sometimes having a strong opinion in and of itself is against the values of a given environment. It seems to be a mantra we now have in the West. What if being agreeable and non-directional has become a value? Or is it simply the easy way out? Is it just a special case of the Stanford Prison Experiment?

There is one situation where strong opinions should definitely be held back – and that is in anything you don’t know well. Most commonly, this appears to be geopolitics. People who know nothing about politics make black and white claims. Obviously, this will garner support and trust from some parts of society, but a low quality signal is just that. Over time it will become clear whether you know anything about the thing you are preaching about . Trust is a long game.