Neuroscience Might Be New “It-Strategy” to Boost Employee Creativity

The foundation of neuroscience is fast becoming the new “it strategy” toward better employee engagement and creativity. In an “always-on” connected marketplace, big business is looking toward innovation as the competitive driver for profit. And that means creativity is high of the list of CEOs, as I wrote in a recent Forbes post: Ten Reasons the Human Capital Zeitgeist is Emerging.

This push for innovation means having solid, skilled leadership in place. Influencers, who can bend with tumultuous workplace winds which bring turnover, burnout and battles for the best talent. But just as imperative, is the mind-set of the work force. The way we work changes exponentially, due to connectivity, technology, an uncertain economy and the resulting stress in the work-life merge.

When does stress spark creativity and productivity, and when does it transform into unwanted noise for the brain, which thwarts innovation?

I recently spoke with David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work and the co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, about the intricate mechanics of the brain, creativity and stress. Rock works with organizations using brain science to help leaders perform and manage more effectively.

How significant is the relationship between creativity and employee engagement?

The companies that care a lot about culture are trying all sorts of initiatives that give people a sense of engagement. This is especially important if a company needs to increase creativity, because creativity is closely connected to people’s engagement levels. Knowledge work, even if it’s not creative, requires good cognitive resources. Stress decreases cognitive resources fast.

How does the use of neuroscience fit into this equation?

What neuroscience is telling us, is that creativity and engagement are essentially about making people happier. It’s what is called a “toward state” in the brain. This is a state where we feel curious, open minded, happier and interested in what we are doing. Neuroscience can help us understand the kinds of interventions that can create this “toward state,“ such as giving people more autonomy.

What do we need to understand about the brain to increase real creativity and performance?

One of the surprises from neuroscience is how limited our brain is for undertaking conscious activities. Many decisions and problems we face at work are literally too complicated for our conscious mind. They require non-conscious processing, which people often think of as creativity. When the non-conscious solves problems, there are small numbers of neurons speaking to each other, and when the conscious is problem solving there are many, many more.

Can you clarify the difference between everyday conscious thought and non-conscious creative thought?

Conscious problem solving has a dramatically larger number of neurons speaking to each other per second.  With creativity, there is problem solving going on under the surface but we can’t hear it because moment-to-moment thought drowns out the signal.  Many of the technologies today are making that worse by having us be busier, making our brains nosier and never allowing for downtime. Creativity is quiet and involves subtle signals coming from a small number of neurons.

What’s the relationship between stress and productivity?

One study recently out showed that multitasking actually activates the reward circuit in the brain. It increases dopamine levels, literally making you happy. We can’t tell that it’s a bad idea because it feels great. This is dangerous, because it feels so good to multitask, but we don’t notice that were making more mistakes. Why stop something that feels good?

Here are some tools that Rock suggests will steer the brain toward increasing creativity.

  1. Create a positive state. Be positive in how you approach a problem.
  2. Quiet the brain. That means reducing the neural activation, the numbers of neurons speaking to each other. Being quiet, not speaking.
  3. Being internally focused. We can be more creative if we shut out what we see and hear in the moment. Practice mind wandering; effortlessly wander through thought, and cut down on external data.
  4. Not working on a problem that you fail to solve. The non-conscious has the resources of the milky way. If you’re having a problem, switch to doing something else and let the non-conscious do the work.

You can read more about David Rock’s thoughts on creativity, stress and the current state of the workplace climate in my recent Forbes article: Employee Brain on Stress Can Quash Creativity & Competitive Edge. And if you want to go deeper into the topic, check out the Neuroleadership Summit in New York City in October.

What do you think? Do we really need more stress to be creative, or is there much stimuli out there already?

You can also connect with me on Twitter: @JudyMartin8


  • Judy Martin

    It’s so good to hear from you. I like the way you articulated this:

    “Accelerating self-awareness using neuroscience to develop more adaptive leadership styles is an idea whose time has arrived.”

    I wonder though if corporate America has hit the tipping pain point where stress will actually be taken more seriously. With those job numbers out today, people might stay in that perception trap of “I’m lucky to have a job” and so companies might just continue to run them into the ground. Thanks for visiting!

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  • dawn groves

    Hi Judy, Xlnt article. I’ll read the Forbes version as well. I celebrate as worklife balance projects welcome insight from neuroscience. Understanding our brain responses allows us to partner with our biology instead of surmounting it. Keep up the good work and info. I’ll tweet this post.
    all the best,
    dawn groves

  • Bruno Pierre Gebarski


    Thank you Judy for this very well written and insightful article. People are taught in batches decided upon their manufacturing date (birth year) as Sir Ken Robinson rightly says! I love what Dan Pontefract, @dpontefract, says: We work with “19th century learning styles, coupled by 20th century leadership models fused with 21st century technology”. Promoting divergent thinking as opposed to linear is a task we all have to work on: it is one of the major brain-highway for releasing creative thinking! Thank you and looking forward to lots more of your fine writing.