Coaching Corner - Insights from Neuroscience

Decision making fatigue

As we reflect on some of the most common issues brought to us as business coaches, many of them are connected to the responsibility senior managers and leaders have for making decisions. These can be decisions that will have a significant impact on the business and on the people who are connected with it. Judgement is always a much more difficult aspect of decision-making than analysing facts and figures, and coming up with a technical solution.

In our new book, The Neuroscience of Leadership Coaching (Bossons, Riddell & Sartain, Bloomsbury, 2015), we look at decision-making from a number of different angles, as many different aspects of neuroscience can be involved. Here, I would like to outline some of the practical implications of the insights we have gained from neuroscience. These can provide us with some useful possibilities when working with a coachee or colleague who is struggling with a decision they need to make.

Insight 1: Your emotional state affects the ease with which you make a decision. This is because your brain divides your emotional states into those that are more likely to make you approach a situation (by activating your reward system) or avoid a situation (by activating your threat system). If the threat system is being triggered, then it is difficult to be motivated. If you are coaching someone, it is useful to notice if they are only considering the reward that might come from a situation and ignoring any threats, or are they aware of the threats and not the rewards?

If someone is only considering the threats, then their emotional response is likely to create a stress response, which releases adrenaline. If this is the case, then their higher cortical thinking will be shut down, and they will be much less able to be creative about the options open to them. If someone is only thinking about the rewards from a particular course of action, then the part of the brain scanning for threat will not be active and the person is likely to ‘go for it’ without much care for the consequences.

Knowing that these situations trigger brain responses in us which are not under our conscious control means that we can choose to pause before we make an important decision to make sure we access more of our brain before applying our judgement. We could do this by having a coaching session; or we could also do it simply by noticing who in our team complements our own emotional state in relation to the decision in question, and making sure we listen to their side of the discussion as well as our own.

Insight 2: Your decision-making ability can be compared to a battery with a finite life span. At the beginning of the day, you may be fully charged and able to use your brain with agility to consider many aspects of a situation before making a decision. As the day wears on, and you deal with challenge after challenge, you begin to suffer from ‘ego depletion’, where the part of the brain responsible for self-regulation, error detection and conflict monitoring starts to be less effective. This also impairs your ability to trust others, which means you are less likely to seek the kind of help outlined above.

There are ways to ‘top up’ your decision-making battery…

  • Sleep: Short naps work just as well a solid night’s sleep.
  • Energy: The brain is like any muscle, it needs glucose to function properly.
  • Feeling more energetic: This increases your battery life – how can you get energised?
  • Feeling motivated: If you are motivated, then there is no limit to your capacity for will power. What motivates you?
  • Feeling positive: Constructive or positive feedback increases battery life. People with a positive outlook are more resilient to stress, and so suffer less battery depletion. How can this be developed for you?

As with all these links between the ‘science’ of neuroscience, the trick is to take the piece of biological information, and then to think about how this can be used for yourself, a colleague or the person you are working with as a coach. Some of the neuroscience seems to be simply backing up what we have intuitively known all along, but there is something comforting in having the scientific evidence. And also, it would be a bit worrying if this were not the case – our brains have always been working like this, even before we were able to take photographs of them at work!

I don’t understand what is being said here – please can this be clarified? (What is being linked to neuroscience? What does “the ‘science’ of neuroscience” mean?)

Henley’s Coaching qualification programmes provide professional development for individuals and teams in coaching, coaching supervision, facilitation and team coaching. This brings new dynamics to the way teams work to resolve business challenges.


Patricia Bossons

Director, Henley Centre for Coaching and Behavioural Change

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