How Brain-Friendly Is Your Workplace?

Friday, May 16, 2014

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 

Do you wonder how your own workplaces rates against these criteria? While you may have a gut-level sense of how brain-friendly or not brain-friendly your workplace is, perhaps you’re interested in using a solid method to make such an assessment. You can do this, starting with a look at your individual work environment, your work group environment, or your entire organization’s culture. In The Brain-Friendly Workplace: Five Big Ideas From Neuroscience That Address Organizational Challenges (ASTD Press, 2014), I’ve included a condensed version of an assessment to evaluate the brain-friendliness of one’s work environment. (If you’d like a digital copy of this assessment, please email me your request at

There are a few primary ways to evaluate the brain-friendliness of a group or entire organization. One is the “head in vice grips” approach. This means there is either an enormous pain point evident to you or to leaders in your organization. It may be the elephant in the room, or it could be what all employees understand as the top (or among the top few) challenges for the organization. For example, in a bank setting, teller turnover rates are sky high, beyond the industry average. New tellers are quitting even before their onboarding is complete. Morale in both frontline and supervisor ranks is suffering, and high performers are demonstrating atypical apathy.

Another approach is to pick the “low-hanging fruit.” Advantages of this approach are that you gain quick wins and visible momentum. This results in valuable energy and is often a good place to start when support for in-depth organization analysis is not yet widespread. For example, many common positions do not have documented job descriptions. Unclear expectations on the job cause significant anxiety and self-doubt, not to mention the misuse of effort and resources. Managers have a difficult job structuring performance reviews and giving ongoing feedback with no standard of performance against which to gauge individuals.


Third, an organization could work through the brain-friendliness effort methodically using a known organization systems model. I like Galbraith’s STAR Model, but there are many that will get you to the same result—a whole systems, exhaustive audit of what works and what doesn’t and what aspects of the organization are holding it back from greater success. My recommendation if using this approach is to form work groups tasked with analyzing one facet of the organization each (for example, processes, strategy, structure, and rewards). Begin with each group gathering multi-sourced data on what is working well and what may be worth exploring as an improvement area.


With any approach and any starting point, take a small handful of powerful “big ideas” from neuroscience to use as a lens through which to view the workplace. For example, let’s look at the big idea that people need space and time to develop real insights at work. Commonly, we are rushing from one meeting to the next, interrupted on the way with new mail or text alerts sounding all the while. At an individual scope, what could be changed about your work environment to allow you more of the kind of space and time you need to do your best thinking? At a group level, what practices does the team follow (or should they institute) to better support good thinking? And then, at an organization level, what cultural norms or specific systems reinforce the “rushing culture?” How might these practices be intentionally shifted over time, to reshape the culture so that more insight is generated?

Start small, start with your own environment, but start somewhere. Improved workplace culture happens one small shift at a time.

Learn more from The Brain-Friendly Workplaceavailable now.

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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