Business Coaching and Neuroscience

 Coaching, Coaching and Neuroscience, Learning Research  Comments Off on Business Coaching and Neuroscience
May 092012

Business Coaching and Neuroscience

Business Coaching: Posted on March 5, 2012 by debbie

Coaching is the second-fastest growing profession in the world, rivalled only by information technology.  At the most basic level, coaches provide leaders with the objective feedback they need to nourish their growth. Coaching requires executives to slow down, gain awareness, and notice the effects of their words and actions. On a larger scale, the best coaching fosters cultural change for the benefit of the entire organization. It provides a disciplined way for businesses to deepen relationships with their most valued employees while also increasing their effectiveness.  Executive coaching is an increasingly popular method that organisations use to build the professional capabilities and leadership skills of their employees.

In the past, there was some scepticism about coaching, because people assumed that it was remedial in nature.  Also, when executives and professionals, with predominantly analytical training, look at coaching from an investment perspective, they often want theory-based, evidential criteria. It is now argued that a brain-based approach to coaching may provide more legitimacy to the coaching profession, which would require coaches to have deeper understanding of brain functions and behaviour.

The language of coaching, which concentrates on setting goals, making connections, and seeking breakthroughs, perfectly parallels what neuroscientists tell us about how the brain operates.  By understanding the physiology of personal growth, coaches can more effectively tailor their coaching language, strategies, and goals to be in alignment with their clients’ brain preferences. Bearing in mind that all behaviour is created by the brain and that all brains are >wired= differently, shouldn’t we professional coaches know something about how the brain works and how it creates and affects behaviour?

The human brain is the best organized, most flexible, and highest functioning dynamic organism in the known universe. Prior to the new brain imaging technologies that have been developed during the past two decades, the human brain was considered to be a mysterious >black box= which was extremely reluctant to give up its secrets. We now can gather more information in 20 minutes about an individual by analysing neural firing patterns that are monitored during specific tasks, than we could in 20 years previously.

Brain science research in the past decade has significant implications for coaching practices. The focus of coaching is often individual change and transformation, including dealing with fear, motivation, successful performance, relationships and a host of other behavioural and attitudinal issues. Brain science research has now provided key findings that should inform coaches regarding the focus of coaching and their methodologies. So too, are the implications for coaches in organizations, such as executive coaches, who work with leaders.

Brain science shows that our brains are built to detect changes in our environment and are more sensitive to negative change. Any change that constitutes a threat can trigger fear causing the brain’s amygdala (fear centre) to stimulate a defensive emotional or impulsive response. Altering our reactions to change is very difficult for the brain, even though logically we may want to. The lesson for coaches and leaders here is the harder you push people to change, the harder they will push back. So, how can coaching work effectively with the brain? First, brain research reveals that focusing on problems or negative behaviour just reinforces those problems and behaviours. Therefore, the best coaching strategies focus on the present and future solutions. This requires the development of new neural pathways in the brain and learning new thinking patterns.  When new learning occurs, it literally changes the very architecture of the human brain. (Reading this information is changing your brain as you mentally process these words).

It had long been accepted that early childhood was the only time when the brain was malleable enough to be significantly influenced by external stimuli. However, in the last two decades, new technology such as PET (positron emission tomography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) have revealed that adult brains are constantly changing in response to stimuli. More importantly, we now know that brains can be significantly restructured under the right learning conditions.

The discovery of the on-going ‘re-wiring’ or malleability of the brain has caused us to question traditional learning methods. Through guided coaching a person is now able to change their brain’s physical structure, alter their mind’s perceptual experiences and effect changes in behaviour, expectations and choices etc.

Our mind is our cognitive reasoning, and the brain is the biological entity which allows the mind to exist. To execute a task, our brain first breaks it down into its component parts with each part then stored away. The parts are associated with each other by our brain stringing together a line of neurons to form a neural pathway (Conscious Incompetence). When we practice or further learn something related to this area this neural pathway grows larger as nearby neurons are recruited to learn how to perform the task (Conscious Competence).

As we repeat and practice the task the connections through the central core get stronger and the nearby neurons return to their previous state. And as we physically perform the activity the movements required then begin to become encoded in the brain’s motor cortex. Sports coaches refer to this process as “muscle memory”. For example; the ability to perform a specific movement such as catching a ball, without conscious thought. We now know that the movements are actually encoded in the brain’s motor cortex.

The more you practice the task, the stronger the neural pathway becomes and the greater your ability to perform these motions using the non-conscious parts of your brain (Unconscious Competence).

The above process where the brain physically reconfigures itself in response to repetitive actions or stimuli is called Hebbian Learning.  We now know that our brains are not ‘hard wired’ from birth. New connections between previously unconnected brain cells are formed each time we learn a new skill or form a new association. As we learn new skills, we really are physically ‘sculpting’ our minds. This brain transformation occurs because “cells that fire together, wire together.”

With the new navigational tools for brain mapping, neuroscientists are opening up that ‘black box’ more and more to public scrutiny. Twenty years ago, our conclusions were mostly speculative. Today, neuroscientists are regularly discovering specific areas in the brain that seem to be devoted to singular functions.

Most people understand the value of coaching and how it can help them to develop skills and progress in their careers. However, just as people of different behaviour preferences accomplish work and communicate in different ways, they also have specific preferences on how to be coached. By understanding these preferences, you can impact people’s reactions to your coaching. By understanding how the brain works, coaching professionals can better tailor their language, strategies, and goals to be in alignment with an individual’s behavioural preferences or preferred ways of working.

Building on the existing foundation of coaching by adding neuroscience as an evidence base for the profession, neuroscience shows that it is possible to become a better professional coach by understanding how the brain works. An understanding of neuroscience research, however new and speculative, can help coaches and leaders fulfil their potential as change agents in the lives of others.

Neuroscience alone is, of course, not the elusive “silver bullet” we’ve all searched for over the past century and a half. However, infusing the findings from brain-based research into coaching practices will be significantly more fruitful than anything we’ve done to date.  Coaching has evolved into a much more sophisticated profession based on knowledge from many other disciplines. Now, brain science research has the potential to have an even greater impact on coaching individuals and leaders in organisations.

Colin Wallace PhD –


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