CIPD Report: ‘Neuroscience In Action: Applying Insight To L&D Practice’

The CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) is an independent and not-for-profit body based in London, which describes itself as “the professional body for HR and people development.” It celebrated its centenary in 2013, and now has over 135,000 members across the globe who are “committed to championing better work and working lives.”


The diagram ‘Work, Workforce and Workplace’ is from the CIPD Neuroscience in action report. There are several links on our article page to the full CIPD Neuroscience in action: applying insight to L&D practice report. Or click here for a link to the article.

In November 2014, the CIPD published a report entitled ‘Neuroscience in Action: Applying Insight to L&D Practice.‘ This report forms part of the CIPD’s ongoing research programme exploring “how findings from behavioural science are influencing the HR and learning and development (L&D) profession.” It was written by Ruth Stuart, a research adviser at the CIPD.

To explore how neuroscience principles are being used by organisations to inform their L&D practice, the report incorporates case study research undertaken by the CIPD between June and August 2014. These case studies involved eight high-profile organisations, including BT, Fitness First and Volvo. In addition, the report provides an overview of neuroscience as a field, and advises L&D and HR practitioners on the most practical and economical ways to implement various neuroscience techniques.

The report is divided into five sections, which are bookended by an introduction and a conclusion. Section 1 explores various views on the relevance of neuroscience to L&D practitioners. It also examines the general level of awareness of and interest in neuroscience amongst the L&D profession. Section 2 discusses how the participants in the research first developed their interest in neuroscience, and also how they went about accumulating their knowledge in the field. Section 3 looks at how the research participants have incorporated neuroscience into L&D practice. In addition, it examines how various “L&D interventions” at the eight case study organisations have been informed by neuroscience findings.

Section 4 of the report outlines various “(b)enefits and challenges” of utilising neuroscience insights for L&D practice. Such benefits include “enhanced learner engagement, cost savings, reduction in turnover and improved customer perception.” A further benefit is said to be “enhanced credibility” for L&D practitioners, both individually and as a community. Section 5 follows up with “practical guidance” for L&D practitioners in implementing neuroscience insights.  In this respect, it addresses potential queries such as where to start, how much knowledge is required and which information to trust.

Following on from these five sections, Appendix 1 of the report is entitled “Five ‘no-brainers’ from neuroscience research.” It was written by Dr Paul Howard-Jones, a reader in neuroscience and education from the University of Bristol. Appendix 1 begins by talking about the plastic nature of our brains, or neuroplasticity, and how this means that learning can alter the “function, connectivity and even the structure” of our brains. It then goes on to list five ‘no-brainers’, or guidelines, for HR and L&D professionals when it comes to utilising research from the neuroscience field.

The first of these “no-brainers” is that challenging questions or problems should be addressed in teams. The second no-brainer is that “regular and sufficient sleep is essential for the brain to learn efficiently. The third no-brainer is that learning sessions should be spaced out over time. The fourth no-brainer is that we should be careful and judicious in our use of technology, as it can “enhance or diminish brain function.” The fifth and final no-brainer is that physical exercise can boost both our memory and our neural learning networks.

Unsurprisingly, all of these no-brainers are highly relevant to the work that PCA undertakes. We’ll be exploring each no-brainer in a little more depth, in a follow-up blog piece that will be appearing soon.

Five No-Brainers from CIPD Report: ‘Neuroscience in Action: Applying Insight to L&D Practice’

No BrainersIn our last blog piece, we provided a short summary of the CIPD report entitled ‘Neuroscience in Action: Applying Insight to L&D Practice.’ We also touched on Appendix 1 of the report, namely “Five ‘no-brainers’ from neuroscience research,” which was written by Dr Paul Howard-Jones of Bristol University.

Now we’ll be talking a bit more about each of these five “no-brainers,” which are essentially guidelines for HR and L&D professionals as regards utilising research from the neuroscience field. In this respect, the no-brainers also have a high degree of relevance for our work here at PCA.

As we discussed in our last blog piece, Appendix 1 begins by talking about how the plastic nature of our brains, or neuroplasticity. This means that learning can alter the “function, connectivity and even the structure” of our brains. As a result, “each of us has an important role to play in constructing our own brain,” and the five no-brainers are essentially “tools to get constructing with.”

The first of the five no-brainers is that challenging questions or problems should be addressed in teams. This is because it is easier to shut down “automated thought” and draw on our creative powers to find solutions when we are collaborating and sharing ideas with others. In addition, our creativity increases when we are “challenged by tasks that force us to make unusual mental connections.”

The second no-brainer is that “regular and sufficient sleep is essential for the brain to learn efficiently.” The reason for this is that the reproduction of daytime activities in the brain during sleep helps to establish these activities in our memories. In addition, caffeine consumption can be disruptive to any sleep that follows, and also “tends to suppress cognitive thought when used habitually.”

The third no-brainer is that learning sessions should be spaced out over time. It has long been understood that we are able to put into practice more of what we learn when our learning is acquired gradually, although exactly why this is so has been a scientific mystery. However, a recent study involving brain imaging demonstrated “extra activity in a part of the brain we use for verbal rehearsal.” This suggests that we do more “unconscious practising” of any learning we do when it is spaced out over time.

The fourth no-brainer is that we should be careful and judicious in our use of technology, as it can “enhance or diminish brain function.” For example, working on a computer just prior to bedtime can be detrimental to sleep quality, as staring closely at bright screens can diminish production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. On the other hand, playing “off-the-shelf action video games” can actually heighten cognitive abilities – provided that they are played significantly before bedtime.

The fifth and final no-brainer is that physical exercise can boost both our memory and our neural learning networks. Aerobic exercise on a regular basis can improve the efficiency of the learning networks in our brain , including the parts of our brain that “help guide our attention.” As for our memory, physical exercise can increase the flow of blood and the neural connectivity in the hippocampus part of our brain, which is “an important region for memory.” Furthermore, studies have demonstrated that physical exercise can even increase the size of the hippocampus, with “corresponding improvements in memory.”

As we mentioned at the beginning of this piece, each of these five no-brainers are highly relevant to the work we do here at PCA, and for the L&D profession as a whole. However, you will undoubtedly have noticed that the no-brainers are also applicable as guidelines for the wider community as a whole, which people can follow in their everyday lives. In this respect, we hope that this blog piece has been both informative and helpful for our readers, and we look forward to sharing further blog pieces with you soon.

The Mehrabian Myth and The Real Secret to Effective Communication, part 2

In the first part of this two-part series, we discussed how the studies of Professor Albert Mehrabian at UCLA in 1967 have been misinterpreted and misquoted by communications trainers ever since. In particular, we talked about the so-called 55/38/7 rule, under which our non-verbals supposedly constitute 55% of our understanding of a message, our tone of voice 38% and our words only 7%.

We then discussed how this 55/38/7 rule doesn’t seem to hold true in many or even most communications, due to the huge impact of three crucial factors on these percentages. We mentioned that the first of these crucial factors is the context of the communication, and that the second is the communicator’s relationship to the other person.

Communication - Head

However, before we reveal what the third factor is, let’s just quickly consider why it is that communication trainers have been misquoting and misrepresenting Mehrabian with such gusto and conviction, for over 47 years. What is it that perhaps they don’t know about the studies, or didn’t feel they wanted to tell you about, that has led to such confusion? Here are five caveats to the studies that should be taken into account:

1] Mehrabian’s 55/38/7 model was created by combining two separate studies of his, which is something that is often viewed as being scientifically unreliable;

2] The studies were specifically conducted where there were feelings or attitudes (in other words, likes or dislikes) being communicated;

3] The studies considered only the communication of single words at a time (and, in one of the studies, tape-recorded words at that);

4] Other types of non-verbal communication such as body posture and gesticulation were not even considered in the studies. Indeed, in the study that used videos of people communicating, the camera was only focused on them from their necks up;

5] One of the studies was exclusively focused on women.

So, apart from these five caveats, the studies were flawless!

But, just to clarify, this isn’t a Mehrabian-bashing article – we think he was (and, in fact, still is) great. And it’s hardly his fault if various communication ‘experts’ continue to earn a very good living while misquoting him left, right and centre. In addition, Mehrabian has been extremely annoyed by all the constant misinterpretations of his work over the years. In this respect, he now has a disclaimer pertaining to these misinterpretations on his website, and he’s given countless interviews stressing his exasperation at how his model has been misapplied. If you want to hear his exasperation for yourself, just Google his BBC Radio 4 interview, which he gave in 2009.

Furthermore, it’s our view that amidst all of the Mehrabian misinformation that has been kicking around for nearly half a century, the real gem from his studies has been overlooked. And that gem is the critical importance of this word:

When we mention congruence in this context, we’re talking about the three elements of our communication matching up with each other. What Mehrabian’s studies actually show is that if we can make our tone match our non-verbals and, in turn, match our words, then people are more likely to perceive the intended meaning of our message from the words we’ve used. This can be contrasted with the situation where there is an incongruence somewhere in the communication – where we, as the audience, don’t feel that the words being used actually match up with the tone or the body language of the person saying them. In this situation of incongruence, the reptilian (and oldest) part of our brain takes over, and we’re more likely to focus on the non-verbals that we’re detecting.

For example, consider the following hypothetical situation. You’re walking home from the train station one night, and you spot a group of guys standing on a street corner. They’re dressed in what is the fashion for some people, namely tracksuits and trainers, and maybe one or two of them are even swigging from a can of something that you can’t quite identify. As you approach them, one of them says to you in a slightly aggressive tone: “Have you got the time?” You then notice that his eyes are firmly fixed on your laptop case, and he’s standing a little closer to you than you might expect, with one of his hands ever so slightly clenched.

What you’re really doing in this situation is sensing a massive incongruence. The guy’s words are harmless enough, in and of themselves. However, it’s his tone and non-verbals, mixed with the context of the situation and your relationship to him, which have put your reptilian brain on high alert. As a result, your reptilian brain will now be frantically whispering to your pre-frontal cortex: “Look, I know this guy says he’s asking for the time, but trust me, he isn’t actually interested in the fact it’s a quarter to ten!”

In other words, you’ve just made a very quick judgment about this guy’s actual motivation and the real meaning of his communication – and you’ve based this judgment on his tone and his non-verbals that you’ve detected, not his words. Essentially, this is incongruence in action: the guy’s tone and non-verbals were not matched up with the words he used, and you were immediately suspicious of him and his intentions as a result.

So, what does all of this mean for you and the way you communicate with others?

Well, do you want people to focus on your words when you communicate? Do you want them to feel that what you’re saying is authentic and genuine? And do you want them to judge or assess your communication based primarily on what you’re actually saying, rather than your tone or your non-verbals? If you do (and of course you do), then you have to be sure that your tone and non-verbal communication are in line with your words, or more specifically, with the message that your words are trying to convey. To put it another way, if you want to persuade and influence, and be understood with clarity and precision when you communicate, then you need to make sure that you’re congruent from head to toe.

In summary, it is congruence, and the way you use and control it, that will help you to become an expert communicator. It is congruence that is the real secret to effective communication. And it’s congruence that we should be focusing on from Mehrabian’s studies, not the much misinterpreted 55/38/7 rule, which has become the Mehrabian myth.

So, the next time somebody misquotes poor old Albert, perhaps you can direct them to the nearest flip chart, using only your hands and some carefully chosen vowel sounds to communicate. After you’ve done that, you can see how long it takes for them to start backing away slowly, before they then make a swift exit!

The Mehrabian Myth and The Real Secret to Effective Communication, part 1

What would you say if we told you that academic studies have proved 93% of human communication to be non-verbal in nature? In other words, what if we told you that only 7% of our understanding of any communication comes from what the other person actually says? Communication BoxInstinctively, you might reply that this statistic is absolute rubbish. And at PCA Law, we would agree with you.

Where did this statistic come from? Well, it comes from now-infamous studies conducted by Professor Albert Mehrabian at UCLA in 1967. Ever since then, communication ‘experts’ have been standing at the front of training rooms all around the world, teaching the Mehrabian communication model as if it was the holy grail itself.

In this two-part series, we’re going to tell you why you’d be right in calling this statistic absolute rubbish – why it is, in fact, the Mehrabian myth. It has been erroneously established as a communication model, and even a rule, after over 47 years (and counting) of remarkable misinterpretation and significant misrepresentation of Mehrabian’s studies. However, we’re also going to show you how we can still learn a great deal from Mehrabian’s studies, and we’ll reveal the real secret to effective communication.

The theory goes something like this. When we communicate, we use three critical tools to deliver the message from person A to person B:

1] Our words  – what we say;

2] Our tone – how we say it; and

3] Our non-verbals – or, in lay terms, everything else, namely body language, gesticulations, eye contact and facial expressions.

Well, so far, so good, and you probably don’t have too many complaints about the analysis at this point.

But now it gets tricky, as according to the Mehrabian myth, we can actually put percentages on these critical tools – and pretty exact ones, at that.

Under the Mehrabian myth, our non-verbals constitute a whopping 55% of our understanding of a message. Next, our tone of voice comes in at an impressive 38%. This leaves our words, the things that we like to believe are going to change the world, down at a pretty insignificant 7%. To repeat, under the Mehrabian myth, our words only make up 7% of how person A understands what person B is trying to communicate.

In countless management training sessions undertaken since Mehrabian’s studies, this 55/38/7 percentage breakdown has been adopted and taught as a rule. This rule supposedly proves that communication is fundamentally not about what you say, but instead is far more about the way that you say it.

Now at this point, you’re likely to be thinking that there is an element of truth to this rule. Intuitively, we know that the way messages are packaged does of course have an impact on how we receive them. However, you may well also be thinking that the so-called 55/38/7 rule just doesn’t seem to add up – certainly not all (or even most) of the time.

And this is because we know that there are two other critical and external factors that massively impact these percentages in day to day life. These factors are firstly the context of the communication, and secondly, your relationship to the other person:

The Context – for example, if you’re looking for a pencil, I might tell you that the pencil is in the desk in the upstairs study, second drawer down, in a small blue box. In this scenario, it’s the words that you’re going to be focused on, in order to understand where the pencil is located. As a result, the percentage for your words in this scenario is going to be a lot higher than 7% – in fact, it’s going to go through the roof.
Your Relationship – you might come home and tell your partner that you’ve got great news about a really big networking opportunity you’ve been offered at work. However, you might then go on to say that this means you’re going have to cancel that trip to Paris you’d been planning together. In this scenario, before your partner even opens his or her mouth, you’ll almost certainly have a good idea of exactly how they’re feeling about your news. This is because you know each other so well, and you’re so in tune with each other, that their non-verbal cues can do the job of a thousand words, and often in a fraction of second. So in this scenario, the percentage for your partner’s non-verbal cues is going to be extremely high.
But the good news is that there is a third critical factor, which you can use and control to have a massive impact on the percentages allocated to the words, tone and non-verbals in understanding a particular communication. Furthermore, when used consciously and skilfully, this factor can help you to communicate with greater precision, and with a greater chance of being understood exactly as you had hoped. And, as luck would have it, it’s also the factor that Mehrabian’s studies actually identified, all those years ago.

In the second and concluding article of this series we’ll reveal what this third factor is, and we’ll discuss how it can be used and controlled, as the real secret to effective communication. We’ll also be mentioning five caveats to Mehrabian’s studies that should be taken into account when considering the 55/38/7 percentage breakdown.


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