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Your Brain: The New Competitive Edge

Guest Blog

In this week’s blog, I interviewed Tony Pottle about the business implications of advances in neuroscience. Tony is the Chief Business Development Officer at The Academy of Brain-Based Leadership (ABL) and is an expert in the practical application of integrative neuroscience into business, leadership and education.

SS: I am reading more and more about the brain and neuroscience in the business context. What’s behind that?

TP: People in the corporate world are familiar with the revolving door of initiatives that are each touted as the “next big thing” to deliver on the promise of helping organizations achieve better, cheaper and faster. Just off the top of my head…7 Habits, The Speed of Trust, 5 Dysfunctions, Good to Great, among others. While many of these programs are very strong, far too often they just fade away.

The statistics confirm that. A 1995 McKinsey study showed that 70% of corporate change initiatives failed to meet their stated objectives. This was also the year that John Kotter released his 8-step process for change management. But in 2000, the McKinsey study once again showed a 70% failure rate. In 2005? Still 70%. As you might guess, the 2010 study had the exact same results.

The missing piece is neuroscience. The common factor in the successes and failures is our brains. By better understanding our brains, we can finally stand on something solid. By understanding that our brains operate on core principles, we can optimize that. And even better, by understanding that our brains can continually grow—a concept called neuroplasticity—we have something we can actually target to improve our business results.

SS: Tell me more about neuroplasticity and why is it important for businesses.

TP: For me, neuroplasticity is about hope. Historically, people believed that our brains stopped growing once we reached adulthood. That philosophy changed after scientists like Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz highlighted the brain’s ability to change and grow throughout our lives. Right now, as you are processing this information, you are literally growing new connections in your brain. Those become experiences, habits and behaviors over time. We all do that every day. So here is the great news: as business professionals, we can help to guide that growth in ways that are valuable and make a difference in our careers and in our companies. It all starts by understanding some of the foundational organizing principles of the brain.

SS: Can you share more details about those principles?

TP: At ABL, we work closely with a brilliant scientist, Dr. Evian Gordon, who owns the largest standardized international database of the human brain. After studying thousands of models about the brain, he distilled them into one simple model he calls the 1-2-4 model.


The one (1) is the basic organizing principle of the brain with the need to minimize dangers. We are continually monitoring the environment for threats, and we cannot move into a reward state until we feel safe. However, we have 5 times more brain networks for processing threats than rewards. In today’s world, our threats typically aren’t predators or life-threatening situations, but research shows the impact on our brains is still the same. This factor is critical in the workplace: if our brains feel like they are in a threat state, our ability to think is compromised. Since most of us are paid to think, that’s a big deal.

Things get even tougher for the brain when we add on the impact of cortisol and dopamine. When something happens that we feel good about, a chemical called dopamine is released in the brain. Depending on our metabolism, that can be absorbed in just 2 to 5 minutes. On the flip side, when something happens that upsets us, a chemical called cortisol is released. It takes between 20 and 30 minutes for that to get absorbed. And if we tend to ruminate on the negative event, cortisol will continue to be released, triggering a downward spiral that lasts an hour or two—or longer.


The two (2) means that we are driven by the combination of conscious and non-conscious thinking. However, it is hardly a fair contest. The conscious process involves our active problem solving, decision-making, self-control and planning. Non-conscious thinking operates in the background. David Brooks writes in his book, The Social Animal, that we get about 11 million bits of information per second from our bodies. Some is skin, some sight, some internal, and so on. Only about 40 bits of that total is processed consciously, and the rest is processed non-consciously.


The four (4) in the model stands for the four processes in the brain. 1) The emotions in response to cues in the environment. Fear. Happiness. Disappointment. 2) The thinking process triggered by those emotions. What do I think about that? 3) The feeling process that results. How do I feel about that? 4) The self-regulation process. What does that mean? Should I respond? How?

SS: Can you give an example of how that applies to the workplace?

TP: Sure. Here’s a true story. George (not his real name) was an executive at a large publicly held company, and his performance appeared to be stellar. He had crushed his growth goals. The delivery errors were the lowest ever, and the service excellence scores were in the top tiers. However, George received another poor performance review.

Apparently, George’s team members did not feel that he cared about them or their careers. This resulted in much higher turnover rates and low engagement scores. The CEO knew that George couldn’t continue to meet department goals if he didn’t show more empathy toward his co-workers and colleagues. In addition, he understood that George likely perceived the negative review as a threat to his employment, which would hinder his ability to think and strategize effectively. The CEO assigned a coach to begin working with George.

Using a direct, brain-based leadership assessment, the coach was able to analyze specific brain capacities and pinpoint exact areas for improvement. George’s assessment showed that his capacity to identify emotions in other people was extremely low. His brain was not even picking up the emotion cues, making an appropriate response virtually impossible. Fortunately, with the power of neuroplasticity, George (just like all of us) could grow new wiring to improve his brain capacity.

After working with his coach to develop and execute an action plan, George doubled his brain capacity score in just 3 months. And more importantly, George’s team now says that he notices and cares. Positive improvement didn’t involve a new initiative; the key was using neuroscience to create new connections in the brain.

Please share your thoughts.

For more information about The Academy of Brain-Based Leadership, you can visit

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