Beware the Silver Bullet

Thursday, May 22, 2014

To recap the other blog posts in this four-part series:

Brain-friendly workplaces are organizations where people are able to do their best thinking and produce great work in vibrant, healthy environments.

Brain-friendliness incorporates:

  • good management principles and practices
  • effective leadership
  • organization health and well-being
  • drive toward mission
  • humanity and respect 

You’ve determined that your organization culture has room for improvement. Along came the “brain-friendly workplace” concept, and you’re wondering if this might be the silver bullet—the answer to your cultural woes!
Organization improvement methods are never in short supply, and many of them offer some useful perspectives and tools. But as the developer of a new organization improvement method myself, I will boldly state that it is not a silver bullet. Examining organizations—their structures, systems, processes, and people—in terms of how the brain works is wise and research-based. And it is best done in a systematic way, addressing facets of organizations as wholes.

In my opinion, becoming aware of the messages sent (explicitly and implicitly) by the organization to its staff with the lens of how the brain takes in, processes, and responds to information is critical to ensure that any improvement effort makes an impact. How many thousands of dollars and people hours have been spent in your organization on any type of improvement effort in the past year? If an assessment does not complement the way the brain can and will interpret the activities involved in that effort, the effort itself—designed to make things better—could actually make things worse. Then, not only have you lost the time and money expended on the initiative, but you’ve also lost goodwill, morale, and potential support for the next well-intentioned improvement plan.

I would urge you to pause your activity on such improvement efforts (for example, leadership development programs, mentor programs, culture change efforts, process improvement teams, and recognition programs) until you have had a chance to bone up a bit on brain science as it applies to the work of learning and development. Then, find what I referred to in last week’s post as either the “vice grips” issues or the “low-hanging fruit.” Start with those activities that you believe will have the greatest danger of stimulating sarcasm or lowering morale, or those that have the best opportunity to help you send well-constructed messages to shape momentum.


For example, if your present recognition program typically spotlights employees who either make individual gains while trampling on relationships with teammates or whom everyone knows work through dinner several times per week and respond to work email or phone calls on the weekends, then what messages are being sent? A few possibilities:

  • We value hours put into work above results produced.
  • Work is more important than family or health.
  • Competition abounds, so watch your back!

Even if you haven’t yet read The Brain-Friendly Workplace or used the Performance SMARTS (PSI) assessments, I’ll bet you would venture to guess that the messages above are not conducive to a healthy, productive, and high-performing work environment. And you’d be right.

The intervention here, then, might be to begin a concerted, team effort to redesign the recognition program so that it truly recognizes those work behaviors that align with the individual and team behaviors you want to see and that support the kind of workplace you want to shape. After that, follow the tentacles of the recognition program to its connecting systems or process (such as performance management or training courses). Where you land could potentially be a great place to focus your brain-friendliness efforts next.

Brain-friendly workplaces attract and retain high-quality, high-achieving employees who can sustain their energy and focus over time because they do not burn themselves into the ground.

In The Brain-Friendly Workplace: Five Big Ideas From Neuroscience That Address Organizational Challenges (ASTD Press, 2014), I’ve given readers a condensed version of an assessment to evaluate the brain-friendliness of one’s work environment. If you do not have a copy of the book and would like a digital copy of the assessment, please email me your request (

Be sure to check out the newest ATD Community of Practice, Science of Learning, for more on brain-based learning, as well as future content from Erika Garms.

About the Author

Erika Garms works with leaders who need their teams to work, manage, and innovate smarter. As CEO of WorkingSmarts (, she uses her gift for translating powerful scientific theory to everyday workplace practice. Erika has played a number of consulting and leadership roles in her 26-year career, including serving as an internal consultant, an organization development unit manager, and an organization development/change/executive management consultant with two large, global management consulting firms. She also helped to establish start-up HR and IT consultancies. Erika has worked for and with public sector and private sector organizations across many industries – from food to finance, education to energy. She earned a BA and an MA from the University of Colorado, a PhD from the University of Minnesota, and completed a post-graduate program with distinction from the NeuroLeadership Institute/Sussex University.  Garms is the author of, “The Brain-Friendly Workplace: Five Big Ideas from Neuroscience That Address Organizational Challenges” (ATD Press, 2014) and is a regular speaker at conferences, company meetings, and management retreats across the U.S. and abroad.

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