The Role of Brain Science In Modern Talent Management

Instructions: A brief extension of the title that offers a bit more detail about the podcast’s focus. Provide a succinct overview of the episode, including key topics, guest names, and what listeners can expect to learn or hear about. Use bullet points for clarity if necessary. Link back to any previous blogs/podcasts if necessary.

Welcome to a journey into the forefront of modern talent management! Today, we delve deep into the captivating intersection of cognitive brain science and talent optimization, unlocking the secrets to fostering high-performing teams and nurturing employee success.

Cognitive brain science, the study of the brain and nervous system, offers a profound understanding of human behavior, learning processes, and decision-making mechanisms. From deciphering the intricacies of motivation to cultivating engagement and innovation, cognitive brain science serves as a guiding light for organizations seeking to harness the full potential of their workforce.

In this enlightening discussion, we are joined by Srinivas Anantanarayanan, Founder and Chief Scientist of Peopleverse, a groundbreaking venture leveraging cognitive science to revolutionize the landscape of people management. With over two decades of experience in organizational transformation and people strategy, Srinivas brings a wealth of knowledge to our conversation.

This blog highlights how cognitive brain science principles can reshape talent management strategies and propel organizations towards unprecedented growth and success. Stream the podcast episode here or read on for highlights from our conversation to discover actionable insights and strategies for optimizing your talent management approach. 

  • Motivation is intricately tied to the brain’s reward system and is best fostered from within. While many emphasize top-down or bottom-up approaches for change and inspiration, true transformation begins with understanding and activating the brain’s cognitive processes, often driven by purpose and internal motivations rather than external stimuli.
  • Motivation hinges on two key neural pathways in the brain: reward-centered and pain-related. In environments of high stress, the brain’s prefrontal cortex reacts similarly to physical tension, narrowing pathways for essential resources like glucose and oxygen. Recognizing these signals is vital for managers, as they indicate whether the brain perceives a threat or a potential reward, shaping employee motivation and engagement accordingly.
  • Unlocking the role of the NACC in reward processing and integrating it with cognitive brain science can revolutionize organizational motivational strategies, harnessing the power of understanding human behavior.
  • Introducing surprise elements into reward mechanisms can trigger heightened dopamine responses, fostering positive memories and enhancing employee engagement and motivation in the workplace.
  • Introducing a candidate joining prediction tool – The tool discussed addresses a crucial recruitment challenge by leveraging behavior analytics rooted in cognitive brain science, offering insights into candidate joining probabilities and aiding in effective talent acquisition strategies.  The tool developed meticulously analyzes candidate behaviors and factors like location preferences, minimizing the risk of candidate no-shows and optimizing recruitment outcomes, with a staggering 96% predictive accuracy rate, revolutionizing talent acquisition practices in India’s competitive market.
  • Understanding employee engagement and empathizing with their challenges across all organizational levels is crucial for HR professionals to leverage cognitive brain science effectively in talent management, ushering in a new era of employee-centric practices.

SatJ: Before we begin, Srini, we’re just curious to hear about the journey that led to the creation of your Cognitive Science Powered Venture, and how you believe it’s shaping the landscape of people and businesses today.

If you can tell us a little more about the origin of Peopleverse and the story behind it and what you do, I think our listeners will be intrigued. 

Srini: Peopleverse has been one of my dreams for the last 15 years and it came to fructification. In 2022 it came back as one of my recall in terms of how I wanted to kind of traverse my journey, contributing more to the country, contributing more to society in large.

One of the key outcome driven purposes was – situations and challenges that we face as an organization – most of the times repetitive when it comes to employee issues. And I was on a journey to find insights that would permanently remedy the situations or at least mitigate employee related problems that are challenging the dynamic business sphere. Having said that, Peopleverse came in at the right time during COVID, and this had kind of struck the right card among the organizations in India. For example, I saw a huge gap that exists between the research world where a lot is being researched or studied with the advanced imagery, especially FMRI and various invasive or non-invasive procedures on the brain.

I had the opportunity to even apply many of these concepts when I was heading HR for some of my previous employers and. That gave me confidence that we could propagate this particular concept across the world. And I started from India. 

SatJ: We are currently in the annual performance appraisal cycle that we’ve been through for decades now. At the center of this process lies the intrinsic motivation of employees. And that in turn serves as the driving force behind an organization’s success. Now, we all know that motivated employees are the backbone of any thriving workplace. And if they bring their passion, dedication, and a sense of purpose to their roles and to their work it is guaranteed that organizational success will follow. 

According to you, what exactly motivates people? And what do you think are the key factors that ignite motivation and individuals?

Srini: That’s a fantastic and a very interesting question. I’m sure many of your listeners would appreciate this question given that you hit the right card. Many of them are either basking their success probably after a promotion, or are heartbroken because they didn’t receive one in terms of their merit or salary increases.

So motivation is a very strong subject when it comes to the brain reward system. Let me narrate this with stories, so that your listeners can better understand… What is the concept behind motivation and is it sufficient? When we do our transformation programs with startups, scale ups, multinationals and large conglomerates, many of the times the industry talks about change or inspiration, it has to be either.

Top down or bottom up, but where cognitive brain sense truly differentiates the approaches, it has to start from within. Okay, as you rightly said, it has to be purpose driven, but when you look at a scan of a brain, you’re not going to find words. You’re not going to find pictures. You’re not going to find anything that we’re talking or writing about. For example, organizations spend a lot of time and effort reinforcing their vision, mission, core values, but that could be through external parameters, through placards, through billboards or through booklets. But what actually motivates an employee is that it’s a very complex system of the brain. And that’s what actually intrigues me into this field as well. 

When you look at the motivational reward system – I’m not going to get into too many concepts. I don’t want to complicate it with jargon, so let me make it simple – when it comes to motivation we are kind of looking at  two interesting systems that work in our brain:

  • One is stimulating reward centered neural paths or stimulating pain related neural paths. For example, when you have an environment where, you know, employees are feeling very stressed, what actually happens within the brain is this: There is something called a prefrontal cortex that sits behind your forehead. So, when you are tense or when you are lacking motivation, you clench your fist. The same thing happens in your brain. The prefrontal cortex kind of narrows and reduces the path of glucose and oxygen that gets circulated within your brain. So what happens is. When an employee is feeling stressed, or when an employee is not at their optimal level, the HR or the people manager should understand that the reward mechanism is kind of being underplayed. Why? It’s because there is something in the environment which is causing the threat atmosphere in the brain. So the brain can only read two things, whether I’m in a perceived threat, or I’m in a situation which is going to reward me. So these are the only two parameters the brain can understand.
  • Second, when it comes to the reward system, I’m going to talk a little bit about science – basically how the brain computes rewards. There are two major things that sit inside all of all the human brains. the ventral tegmental area (VTA), and nucleus accumbens. It’s called NACC. What it means is all of us at this point know about this neurotransmitter called dopamine, because many of the Instagrammers and social media influences talk about it, but, these two things, the VTA and NACC is the exact place where dopamine gets secreted and it gets absorbed. So when I say secreted, it’s a neurotransmitter – what it means in terms of motivating an employee is – this particular dopamine reward system has to be functional, through external rewards like salary, like incentives, or like any of the programs or a good office workspace or a good manager, or it could be someone who is intrinsically driven with a purpose and passion.

SatJ: This is an interesting takeaway – that the NACC is one of the key regions associated with reward and pleasure and the surprise factor. Can you just elaborate its role? Armed with knowledge of this, along with the knowledge of cognitive brain science principles, how do you think organizations can use this to define or lay out their motivational strategies? 

Srini: Fantastic question, Satish. Not everyone would understand or appreciate cognitive brain science because sometimes it’s used medically to understand any kind of underlying issues related to a person. But let me walk two steps backward to explain this – There’s something called the sympathetic nervous system. It is a mechanism that nature has given to us to protect us from predators. It could be a predator like a lion or tiger, or it could be a predator like a manager or a bad boss or your peer who’s competing with you, or it could be a competition in the market. Now, what is happening in the industry as per our study, as per our own understanding of how Indian work spaces function – there are three zones when it comes to the sympathetic nervous system, the green, orange, and the red. What we find predominantly happening in the industry is when you work, you are in the orange zone. That means your brain is constantly getting the input of a threat – it could be a project deadline, it could be you’re getting delayed for a meeting. As simple as a trigger which your five senses picks up. Or it could even be a smell if you’re working in a factory. As simple as that. Now, your brain is constantly trying to scan around you for a threat. 

The reward mechanism takes a backseat. The first and most important thing for a dopamine neurotransmitter to get activated and, being the NACC and BPA areas, the body and the brain has to sense that this is a very safe environment for me. That’s the primary number one reason for example, innovation does not happen when your brain perceives threat or a creative idea does not come when your brain perceives threat, your prefrontal cortex.

In some countries, they call it the neocortex. If you are under threat perception, this does not work. So if this does not work naturally, the organizations will not see an employee to be reward worthy. Now coming back to the subject of what we’re trying to address, you know, dopamine is a reward. It kind of reinforces reward related memories. And your question is very to the point because today many of the organizations look for policies, established pros policies, standard practices. What happens in the brain is your brain has already understood that this, these rewards are already for me.

Dopamine is not going to get activated by the regular rewards that are already in play because you know it’s either given at the offer or during the incentive rollout that you know this is what you’re going to get. So the dopamine neurotransmitter does not get dropped into these 2 zones.

When the brain sees a surprise, for example it is not the reward itself, which actually makes the dopamine neurotransmitter kick in, but the expectation of a reward. That most powerful influences the reaction. It’s not only the neurotransmitter, it also transcends your emotional reaction of being happy, being joyful after you get the reward. Now one of the important things when it comes to the actual reward is if anything that can be predicted, for example, if your brain can predict the reward, and if the prediction is greater than what, the reality is greater than what you predicted, then the dopamine secretion will be very, very high. I’m just using the word secretion, but honestly, it doesn’t secrete, the neurotransmitter kicks in and it goes back to its original place. 

Now, if in the prediction, if the reality is less than what you’re predicting, for example, you give only a thousand rupee cheque, but when the employee was expecting a 10, 000 rupee cheque, then the dopamine secretion will be very, very low. That’s why we are suggesting not to formalize many of your reward mechanisms like spawned awards or written centers or any kind of other variable pay. Always keep a sense of surprise to your employees because it really keeps them and it really forms a memory in your brain. And whenever an employee goes through a negative cycle, their brain will automatically recall a positive story. And at that point of time, these surprises would help them to orient to their job. 

SatJ: Brilliant stuff. I’ve been reading a lot about the brain breakthroughs, the brain science breakthroughs, and how it’s being applied to modern day talent management and top talent development.

I know that you consult with various companies and you’re working with leading organizations. I just want you to share with our listeners …

Any innovative approaches or case studies or use cases that you have come across that utilizes cognitive brain science to improve candidate engagement, improve employee engagement as such. Any live examples that you have recently implemented come across will be useful for our listeners.

Srini: That’s a very, very valid question. I’m smiling because when we started people verse in 2022 and when I was going around India to talk about cognitive brain science, many didn’t believe that this would even kind of inch their grass in terms of the impact.

But, luckily many of the organizations who we work with today had a lot of foresight in terms of understanding how the traditional methods are failing now, especially after covid. I’m sure you would have read research that says that genetically there is a change in all of us after covid, in terms of how you look at the workplace. We wareere seeing a common issue recurring from the people with whom we work is the typical salary, the typical compensation mechanism is failing to cause the impact and the primary reason was COVID had threatened at a genetic level across the world. When I say threatened, it means it left a trauma in many of the people because they had lost their loved ones.

And you were under a constant period of threat that it might catch you at some point of time. So what had happened was your life became closer to you than monetary rewards. In fact, we have data to tell that until 2023 end, you know employees still opted to have a good work-life balance. They wanted a flexible job, you know, that would give them more time at home. But now we are seeing a reverse trend wherein employees are now looking at salary as a primary driver. That means the world is coming out of that forward. In fact, they’re coming towards the  rewards mechanism again.

One classic case that we dealt with, was – Mid managers and executive level, those reporting to a CEO or a board wherein any kind of motivation or any kind of mechanism to compensate or any kind of intervention to do was not reaching them. And they had a big vision before them. And they were in a very competitive industry. It’s not only competitive in India. They have a global competition. So they wanted to look at so many hundreds of their mid to top leaders and kind of tune them to the future of what the world is going to be. So typically what would happen is, you would do a lot of, soul searching sessions offsite, or talk about your high priority tasks, list it down, it’s top down, and then you cascade. But our approach is very, very different because we start only from the brain. What we did was – a transformation program – why am I calling it that? Because many of the HR leaders would be listening to your podcast including many CEOs.

What I’ve seen is, if you’re going to just keep rolling out programs after programs, year after year, or quarter after quarter, you’re only kind of trying to whitewash, or you’re trying to just kind of scale the wall in terms of the structure. But what our program really does is it gets the data. beneath the hood, and it kind of declogs them. It declogs them to an effect that we work on credible business outcomes. So what I’m trying to say is our customers have seen a jump from 20 to 25 percent data. It’s a significant jump in terms of productivity. And their dynamics, the conflicts, the team dynamics or the kind of developmental issues, the frictions that happen within a medium to a large organization. I drastically come down number two and number three important factors, our participants have reported a drastic improvement in their health.

Why do they see a big change in their health? In fact, many of the participants have self reported that they come out of their BP issues, thyroid issues. In fact some of them have even come back to a good harmony when it comes to their personal life, because, in India, we have to understand that home and office are not two different entities. It is only one brain, which is dealing with it. It could be a bad neighbor at your home, or it could be a bad boss at your office. But the brain has the same sense and the mechanism to respond. Now, when it comes to advisory, when it comes to our advisory vertical, what we have also done is we have helped our customers to pivot their innovation. Because innovation quotient is the core DNA for you to kind of have in terms of a pipeline to succeed in the future. In fact, today we have associations with primary institutes that would kind of catapult our customers into a good set of innovation pipeline quotients. How do we do it? We do it through, core of our cognitive based interventions.

For example we said, suppose it’s an R&D team. They sit with them. We understand the threats that they perceive at their workplace. And slowly we try to mitigate them. When we say threats it could be even as simple as a lighting. It could be as simple as a sound or it could be a timeline or the way in which the entire product or a project management happens within an organization.

So we dwell on those aspects of how an organization functions, and we try to mitigate it slowly. And once you kind of remove the pain factors of the brain. Naturally, the reward system kicks in. So you need to either reduce this or increase this. But increasing the reward alone will not solve the problem because your brain is going to continuously see threats. So you have to reduce the threat perception and increase the reward mechanism. 

SatJ: So Peopleverse is actually doing some and it’s good to know that you’re also taking away business from doctors by helping people reduce their blood pressure, sugar and all of that. Interesting. 

Srini: Some of our participants are also professors from premier institutes and also some doctors have also attended our programs. 

SatJ: Nice to know that. So let’s quickly shift the spotlight to this very unique tool that you have been talking about Srini and we have had this conversation in the past.

Now, one of the biggest challenges in my world and all recruiters will agree with me is predicting whether the candidate will walk through the door on the date of joining. And, you know all recruiters today look forward to the candidates joining date, much more than they look forward to their birth date or their marriage date. That’s the scenario today. So. You know, when you told me that there is a tool that can actually predict whether a candidate will join or not, it’s obviously something that we’re all very interested to know. 

Tell us about this unique candidate joining predictability tool. How do you use cognitive brain science? How did you put together this tool? And, Can you share some examples of whether you put that in practice? Have you started seeing early results? 

Srini: I think this is one of the number one problem statements when it comes to talent acquisition in any organization. And we took this problem statement right at the start of our business because we wanted to remedy this situation. How our behavior analytics works is, it’s doesn’t talk about the future because when a candidate does not turn up on the promised date, what it means is they have set up experiences in their brain that does not either help them to selective or certain better set of experiences that has helped him to select a competitor over you.

Okay, now, typically what happens is you look at the success ratio, what worked and you know, what didn’t work rather. So we go by the fact, we go by the model of a survival bias. For example if, if there is an airplane that takes off from point A to point B, and out of 100 times, it only succeeds to reach point B 60 times of its journey, during a year, most of the times what you would find is people will do a root cause analysis of the failure. But where our behavior analytics takes a different route as we look at, we don’t look at the survivor bias. We look, in fact, what has made a candidate join?

What are the kinds of experiences your organization has created for the candidate to come and join you? And the second important thing that we work on, our behavior analytics target and not the future data. Our method is not to look at the future. Because when you ask any questions related to the future, what happens is, Your brain can create scenarios of things being very favorable to you.

So instead, what we ask is about their past behavior that has already happened. For example we take just to be more precise to your question. One of the key reasons for a candidate to turn up or not to turn up is location. In India, we always first focus on whether the candidate is attending an interview in his or her home location, or far away from his or her home location. And that is a data input for us. And the other point is we constantly look for patterns in terms of their exhibited behaviors on how they have been selective in their decision making, because it’s not only your, the first interview, the screening interview that you have with the candidate.

The brain keeps changing the decision at different points of the interview process. For example, in India, what we understood from a study is there is anywhere between 3-12 steps and the average cost per candidate is anywhere between 25000 to 5 Lakhs depending on the level. So if they don’t turn up, it’s a huge cost lost for the organization. So today we have a confidence rate of 96 percent in terms of a predictive probability. Okay, we have very successful customers. In fact, today our tool is kind of eaten from our hand. That’s the kind of demand we are having today because we have been very successful and we have solved the biggest problem that is facing the industry.

Number two is when it comes to our product, what it also gives you is a probability of how their engagement will be after they join you. And we don’t stop there – suppose a candidate has got a very low confidence rate of joining you our behavior analytics based on smart insights would give you smart insights to tell you how to move them to a higher confidence of joining you and some of our customers have taken it to a very you know, exponential distance, wherein they have integrated our input to the pre onboarding and onboarding plan of a new employee and it has worked wonders. They have the new employees who have become anchored to the job and also their engagement levels are drastically increased. So this is one of the success stories that I could give you when you kind of curate personally about each of the candidates and your hiring team knows what to water, how much to water for each of the candidates. They don’t need to spend the same time and energy for everyone. 

SatJ: Thank you for that. Before we conclude, I just want to ask you, especially for our listeners who are new to the cognitive brain science space, and its impact, positive impact on talent management can you direct them to some research papers, some research insights, or how do they stay updated with what is happening in that space. 

Srini: Sure. In fact, I always admire the hiring team of any organization because they always go through a lot of it’s more important than a sales or marketing team to me because they have to go and sell the organization. To an aspiring employee I would like to give them some nuggets. What do you need to do? First of all, is, you know, most of the hiring is led by matrices. And unfortunately, most of the matrices are lag Indicators. You’re trying to do a postmortem and it comes to see whether they’re going to join you or the speed of hiring or the dates to fill a position. Now one of the primary things that connects you, the umbilical cord between the candidate and the organization with the job description. And this is where the hiring team has to focus. And even the hiring manager has to focus. And this is blissfully ignored in many of the organizations.They only talk about job description at the start of the interview, and it is conveniently forgotten. What we are seeing is it’s conveniently forgotten, but you have to bring that back to steel in terms of the practices.

While we’re talking about it, the candidate will only be centered when you kind of refer to the job description and also talk about the career aspiration. In fact, we would even suggest to the hiring team that soon after a candidate joins or two or three weeks before the candidate joins, Please have a conversation with them about the job description and career aspiration. And as soon as they join, again, repeat the conversation. And within three months, you should have had at least three conversations on their goal setting, job description, and their career aspirations. It is very, very important because the brain keeps altering the decision. Based on the experiences, until it feels comfortable in the new workplace. So you need to ensure that you keep reducing the threat atmosphere for the candidate. Now, when it comes to interviewing, I would always suggest a CEO or an experienced HR person interviews. If it’s a startup, I always recommend that the founder or CEO should interview every candidate until they hit 500. Because most of the organizations today only paint a very perfect image about their culture and that actually causes a lot of threat perception and the candidate and most of the good candidates because of fear, they don’t show the real potential during the interview.

So what we suggest is. You know, always talk about the vulnerability, the failures that the organizations have faced during the interview because that could bring them to a level and have conversations that would assure their potential to you. Now, coming to your question in terms of what they need to rate.

What I found is that the awareness of cognitive brain science is far less than what is needed and how an engineer reads knows about the missions. The HR team should also know about how people work. Okay, and we should slowly come out of the jargon. You know, we should get into the simplest aspects of how the human brain and body are connected.

And it’s very, very easy to crack the code. Now, I would not be recommending any books because I’ve stopped reading books. What I read these days are only research papers. For almost the last seven years, I’ve been reading only research papers. There are amazing research papers that come out every day across the world. One of the destinations for me is ResearchGate. ResearchGate is a beautiful website that will give you a lot of new outcomes in terms research papers, because why I’m suggesting a research paper is a PhD or a postdoc or someone who is a researcher who’s conducting a research is spending their full entire life on that particular subject, you know, it’s not only a book, so they would have covered a lot of aspects of things.

Of course, it could be technical. You know, the pages are anywhere between 80 to 150 or even 200. But I would, I would only suggest at least reading one research paper in six months and your perspective will change drastically. In fact, I read at least three research papers a month.

SatJ: Great. Thank you very much. Those are very, very useful titbits that you provided . Thanks for that. I know we are out of time, but you know, before we conclude, we usually run a rapid fire session. 

In which area of talent management do you believe cognitive brain science has possibly the most potential for success?

Srini: Employee engagement. 

SatJ: And one piece of advice that you will provide to HR professionals about leveraging , cognitive brain science and talent management. 

Srini: I’m going to compare, India, among other companies, especially the the west and well, you know, the North America’s and the Europe, definitely our centering on science and technology, especially when I say technology, I’m not talking about systems or automation or ERP, I’m talking about, have you understood your employee, do you know their names? Do you know what the challenges your employees are facing? If the answer is yes to these three questions, then that means you are good. Today you need to know your employee, not only the pulse, but the kind of issues your employees are facing right from the operator, the mid to the senior levels. And most of the time what is happening in the industry today, I know, unfortunately is HR is not spending the quality time. With the employees because of their own pressure, you know, I’m not making anyone the villain. What I’m trying to say is 60 percent of the time should be with employees and the rest of it could be distributed across meetings and other priorities.

An interesting discussion with insights on the neural pathways of motivation and the application of Cognitive Brain Science to achieving employee success and organizational growth.

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