Using Brain Assessments to Improve Performance

A neuroscientist describes how brain imaging could reveal what makes employees tick—and revolutionize the field of behavior assessment.

By Dec 1, 2015



How well do you know yourself? What about your leaders? Is the person you have pegged for a promotion prepared for the job? If not, what kind of training would get him or her ready? Do your team members mesh, both interpersonally and in terms of skill set? Does the group have sufficient cognitive diversity—that is, several different styles of thinking and solving problems—to excel in its job?

The science of neuro-assessment can help answer these questions. Schools, companies, coaches, counselors and others are exploring the use of technology to assess how the brain truly works. Although there is still a lot to learn, some pioneers are forging ahead and integrating scientific discoveries about how the brain functions into behaviors and day-to-day work practices. I have spent the past seven years exploring the brain using imaging technology such as electroencephalogram (EEG) and am excited to report about the possibilities.

Cognitive Connections

For decades, pencil-and-paper assessments such as DiSC, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and emotional intelligence tools have done a decent job of providing a language for people to talk about individual similarities and differences. But these traditional instruments rely on self-reflection or opinion and can miss key facets of who we are. Some of the gaps relate to questions such as: What should you do with individuals who don’t fit neatly into a particular category? Are you getting all the relevant data about a person? How do you separate what’s situational from what’s lasting? How do you assess potential? What do you do when assessment results don’t match others’ perceptions of a person?

Brain-based assessments offer some objective and empowering answers. For several years, the Human Connectome Project—an open-source exploration of the brain by multiple institutions—has helped document how the brain functions. Recently, I worked with a group of fellow pioneers at Evolvat, a neuro-technology company that develops proprietary software, to lead five dozen Florida high school students through a brain-based assessment. It was rewarding to help these teens confirm what they already knew about themselves while also revealing new sides of their personalities. It’s even better when people can use the results of brain-based assessments to improve how they work together.

But before we get carried away with the possibilities, let’s get familiar with the science and consider some potential challenges, such as privacy and ethics issues.

Brain Basics

How do our brains work? Everyone’s brain is different but, overall, we all share the same toolbox. At a basic level, the brain contains numerous modules that work together in networks. Each one is like a computer circuit, a big cluster of neurons that aids us with a particular task such as hearing, visual recall or noticing physical sensations. These modules help us with many abstract tasks, too, such as evaluating ethics, interpreting someone’s intent or mentally rehearsing a future action. There are easily five dozen of them just in the neocortex, which is the brain’s thick outermost layer and a uniquely human element. It probably comes as no surprise that people differ in the modules they prefer to use.

Your Turn

We can explore the neocortex using an EEG, which measures the electrical activity on the surface of the brain. This technology shows the brain’s activity in real time. We can later analyze the data to uncover networks of cooperation within the brain, which are formed through years of the repeated firing of nerve cells. Every millisecond, just by thinking as you normally do, you are reinforcing your favorite neural pathways. Thus, an EEG reveals both contextual behavior and ingrained habits—ways we perceive, think, feel and act. While an EEG is hardly the final say in analytics technology, it lets us try many different tasks and interactions to easily learn how we operate individually and with other people.

For each of us, modules and networks activate with different degrees of stimulus, competence and motivation. Of course, people’s behaviors and experiences vary greatly, too, causing further diversity in how our brains are wired.

Taking an Assessment

So how does the brain-imaging process work? Let’s follow Maria, a fictional employee, to find out.

Maria arrives at a private room with a friendly technician, a beautiful view (that’s actually quite relevant!), some arts and crafts materials on a table, a laptop, and a sleek headset. Maria dons one of the EEG headset devices similar to ones that I’ve used in my research. (Note: I am not affiliated with these products or companies.)

The technician helps Maria put on the wireless headset, ensures the computer is recording data and offers her a variety of tasks to do, including simply gazing out the window. (Some people’s brains are more stimulated by nature’s beauty than desk tasks.) The whole process can be automated, with an avatar presenting the instructions, but I’ve found there is no substitute for real people to stimulate our brain’s social and emotional centers.

In under an hour, Maria has completed the assessment and resumes her day. The technician uploads the data to a cloud website, where proprietary software generates Maria’s personal report. Later, she can read it, maybe with an audio guide. Preferably, she also attends a facilitated debriefing session, either face-to-face or in the form of a webinar. Her report will offer suggestions, customized for her, that are aimed at helping her achieve greater productivity and engagement.

As with any assessment, privacy is a paramount concern. The American Psychological Association offers guidelines for the ethical and legal use of any assessments. The use of EEG assessments is not a regulated practice, and it is wise to treat EEG data with extra care due to its biological nature. Although privacy concerns are certainly valid—and may ultimately limit how businesses use these results—HR professionals are already accustomed to safeguarding confidential information and figuring out creative ways to use assessment results without sharing anything sensitive.

Brain-Savvy Solutions

There are many ways to interpret EEG data. Let’s explore a few highlights that might be meaningful in the workplace.

Employee engagement is a hot topic, and rightly so. It relates to many facets of work, in-cluding learning and focus. Conveniently, we can document an individual’s brain activity as he or she performs various tasks. The more the brain has to work during a task, the more engaged the person is. But that’s not all there is to know.

Behind your forehead are the brain’s executive centers. Basically, your “brain company” has two very important CEOs: The one on the left is goal-focused and gets active when we make decisions, give explanations, set goals and filter out distractions, while the executive on the right lacks filters and gets active when we brainstorm, self-reflect and navigate our way through an open-ended process. As you might imagine, these two CEOs need to coordinate effectively in order to manage the rest of your brain. And most of us have a preference for one over the other. This bias impacts everything we do, especially when we act as leaders.

On top of this, if we consider extroversion versus introversion, the result is four executive styles that look a lot like the four social styles offered by behavioral assessment tools such as DiSC. But what’s different about brain results is that they are based on a machine measurement, not subjective interpretation. In fact, when I compare people’s self-assessments to their brain scans, there are often key differences; the faculty that people are most likely to misjudge about themselves is whether they favor the left or right brain region (that is, which CEO is top dog at their company).

What about skills assessment? That can also be done through an EEG by examining brain networks. Specific networks point to various skills, including the capacity for outside-the-box thinking, social rapport-building, goal-focused planning and many other areas, down to very specific variations such as whether a person prefers to communicate by talking or writing an e-mail. The results can be broad or detailed depending on client needs and how many biosensors an EEG headset offers.

Another topic we can delve into is “flow”—in other words, how people can achieve the elusive state of high performance that is also known as “the zone.” What is this near-mystical mode, anyway? In the brain, flow shows when we use our entire neocortex, at maximum capacity, while feeling very relaxed. Sounds nice, right? Two criteria seem necessary: expertise in the task and the need to improvise.

For example, a professional musician likely shows flow when composing a new song on the fly, drawing on all of the brain and his own mastery of music. Five years ago a student came to my EEG lab for career advice. His parents wanted him to go to dental school. But he loved music, and the EEG monitor showed the presence of that rare mode of flow when he delivered an impromptu rap. Having this profound knowledge allowed him to make a more informed decision after graduation.

What does an EEG not reveal? Is it a lie detector? No. Can it tell us about a person’s values or character? Yes and no. Often, people hold expectations about others and the world that mirror their own cognitive preferences. For example, if you are adept at the abstract use of language, you may assume that others are similarly competent and get frustrated when they don’t share your brain wiring in that regard. Looking at the brain tells us how people process their experiences. However, it can’t tell us (yet) the private thoughts or the content of a person’s mind.

The Team Brain

What about teams? Can brain science help organizations better understand and actualize a team’s potential? Yes, with a team EEG, it actually can. I call this process your “team brain.” It’s a composite of each team member’s results. When my colleagues and I at Evolvat held our first executive retreat, most of the people in the group did brain imaging to gain insights into ourselves. Here are some things a team EEG can show:

Team strengths and weaknesses. The assessment can indicate the areas in which the team works well together and where there are redundancies. For example, our team had a bias toward the “open-ended” right brain, with lots of potential for out-of-the-box thinking but perhaps not enough focus on fulfilling goals. Fortunately, two absent team members had strengths in areas that helped complement the rest of the group, with more goal-focused brain wiring preference.

Blind spots. What are the areas the team tends to neglect? Our team needed to ask: What important role was left unaddressed or was not handled thoroughly enough? Should we bring someone else onto the team who is strong in these areas? Often, as we find with the Myers-Briggs types, the blind spots are the mirror image of the group’s strengths.

Cognitive diversity. This is the fun part—when a team is split down the middle in terms of the areas of their brains they favor. This showed up very clearly with my team. Two members who skewed more to the creative side needed a break every 90 minutes for vigorous and verbally challenging games of ping-pong, preferably using the windows and ceiling along with the official table. Under other circumstances, those of us who didn’t need these wild breaks might have rolled our eyes. However, with brain scans in hand, we took them in stride. That is what honoring cognitive diversity is all about. In fact, the breaks often led to vigorous work afterward.

HR professionals and business leaders could adopt a similar “team brain” approach, taking care to keep people’s individual data private and guide everyone’s focus to the group—its shared goals, needs and values. Paying too much attention to individuals may lead to rivalries, finger-pointing, the splintering of the group into factions and other negative dynamics.

Using Your Brain

To meet our needs, the brain’s elements work in concert. As an analogy, if a brain module is a musical instrument, then the whole brain is an orchestra that can perform complex compositions. Sometimes, a few musicians are asleep, off-key or absent. We have favorite instruments and favorite songs. And, like the mobile app Shazam, which can rapidly identify just about any song, brain imaging is coming to the fore to deliver similar magic for identifying our skills and personality traits. Its growing use in work and educational institutions will be facilitated by sophisticated wireless, consumer-friendly technologies.

While it’s not likely that employees or job candidates will undergo routine brain scans anytime soon, it’s still helpful to grasp the possibilities. Indeed, just understanding more about this fascinating organ can make a positive difference in how organizations optimize leadership, management, development and learning.

Dario Nardi, Ph. D., is an author, speaker and expert in the fields of neuroscience research and personality. He is a senior lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of Neuroscience of Personality and 8 Keys to Self-Leadership (Radiance House, 2011), among other titles.

©2015. International Association for Human Resource Information Management. Used with permission.

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