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Bob Hughes, Forton Group CEO & Creator of the Leadership Book Club

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Brain Savvy HR: Jan Hills (Head, Heart + Brain; 2014)

Brain Savvy HR A Neuroscience Evidence Base Jan Hills

This formidable book has a lot going for it: it rides the crest of a number of waves that are very much ‘of the moment’. Its essence is the application of knowledge about neuroscience to the HR discipline, and it follows hard on the heels of some recent literary successes in the field of the brain and the way we process our thoughts and actions (one thinks of Steve Peters’ “The Chimp Paradox” and Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” as examples). Anyone enthused by these and other recent publications cannot fail to be interested in Hills’ recent addition to the genre.


The book essentially seeks to make the connection between how the brain works and the way in which HR professionals can improve their contribution to organisational success. Jan Hills does this by challenging management theory, providing an evidence-based approach to HR and offering a convincing argument for persuading leaders to be more open to behaviour-change. Wow: quite a claim!

So, how does the author attempt to achieve this? – read on.

In the first section, Hills explains how neuroscience has been able to shine an insightful light on the way that our brains are used and deployed under a number of circumstances at work. Drawing from a wide range of empirical studies, the case is persuasively made with words and diagrams to describe how decision-making is carried out, and the author supports the now-generally-held view that the emotional element of our brain is our key decision-making faculty. Hills has developed a simple model for explaining how we respond to situations and this forms the core of the rest of the book: the model – CORE – consists of the four threat-reward responses of Certainty, Options, Reputation and Equity (this seems to have its roots in Naomi Eisenberger’s SCARF model).

The second section of the book deals with the relationship between neuroscience and HR and proposes that HR has become too process-focussed, to the detriment of problem-solving and decision-making. Many of the central themes of the book come from data collected from surveys and interviews with senior HR professionals by Hills and her team. And, the overriding premise of this is that HR needs to meet a fundamental challenge: how to reskill itself to arrive at solutions rather than simply to drive process; and how to enter into solutions-seeking discourse rather than provide band-aid palliatives. Helpfully, the author provides 8 case studies that demonstrate how these approaches have worked in practice.

The third section focusses on leadership and purpose. Purpose-led strategic thinking is another trend of current management philosophy; and Hills takes her lead from Simon Sinek’s popular TedTalk presentation to explain how purposeful thinking is a mirror of our brain activity patterns. Within this third part there is a strong theme of wholeness: the ability to appreciate our self, others and our context. The author also – for the first of several occasions – challenges some conventional wisdoms about the way we work and interact: in this section, she challenges some common views on empathy (and later takes on the topics of feedback, creativity, gut feelings and reward-strategies). Inevitably – because of its current popularity – Hills also tackles the subject of mindfulness, both here in this section and later on in the book.

The fourth section deals with how neuroscience supports the delivery of superior HR practice and behaviour. It takes all of the main elements of the HR role and applies the knowledge we’ve gleaned from neuroscience to offer more insightful approaches to HR delivery.

The fifth section is a powerful part of the book that deals with developing a more helpful corporate culture: it again challenges and reinforces in equal measure, dealing with engagement, learning and leadership style. There are also some useful listed tips here, including (p. 196-8) a five-point list on engaging our colleagues (although only four are actually listed).

A final section looks at personal skills and the insights offered from neuroscience, and it revisits a theme threaded through the book – that of mindset: building on the work of Carol Dweck, Hills uses mindset – fixed and growth-focussed – to show how we can develop a personal approach that equips us for corporate working. Topics range from self-esteem, to creativity and body-posture; and Hills even debunks the myth of multi-tasking. This is a useful section that challenges us to reflect on our own style and approach; it may make you feel slightly uncomfortable.

This is a book of some stature, with 287 pages and a significant section of references and index. I particularly like the way that Hills talks about intuition as the experience of pattern-recognition (in section 3): this really chimes for me and recalls some of the thinking of the soft-systems-process pioneers (like Checkland). I also think her emphasis on the way that the emotions-processing part of our brain is substantially involved in decision-making is – whilst not new – a key message of the book.

The style of this book is approachable and easy, even if the subject-matter is weighty: its journey through the main ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’ activities of people in organisations and particularly in HR is well-structured and informative. I personally found that section six ended a little abruptly: some form of simple and succinct summing-up would have been helpful, given that this was effectively the end of the whole book.

Coming from an author who has clearly ‘been there and done it’, it is well-grounded in the practical as well as the academic. And, it has a good blend of published and new data (from the work done by the author and her team) to support its main arguments. For those working in HR, this is book offers a great balance to the systems / process approach of authors like Boudreau that have been de rigeur in the last 4-5 years, and in my opinion it will facilitate individuals to personally reflect, decide and act to become even more effective in their HR role.

Reviewer's rating: 4 out of 5

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