Employee engagement

Why leaders need to know how their people actually think


2 + 2 = ?

Complete the phrases…

Fish + ?

Bread + ?

Salt + ?

Easy peasy right.

Now try this one...


27 x 19 = ?

Did you even bother?

Go on try… try!

No really, I need you to try.

Not so easy eh.

You’ve just experienced the two sides of your brain in action… the first set of questions were processed by your fast brain. The answers should have come to you automatically and effortlessly.

But to answer the long multiplication question you needed your slow brain. You had to decide whether you answered it and if you tried, it almost certainly felt hard.

These examples come from the groundbreaking book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman’s like the godfather of all the behavioural economics research that has revolutionised our understanding of how people process information over the past 20 years.

Kahneman’s view is that we have two operating systems in our brains: the fast brain and the slow brain. (NB. He’s not talking about two separate brain regions, instead it’s like we’re running Windows and Mac operating systems on the same machine).  

Fast Brain and Slow Brain

Now why should any of this matter to business leaders?

Well, most organisations run on the assumption that their employees are perfectly rational (what we’d think of as the slow brain)… but remember how hard it was to do 27 x 19. If you had to do that every time you made a decision at work, you’d be exhausted by 9:15am!

The slow brain uses more energy than the fast brain so most of the time our fast brain steps in. From an evolutionary perspective, there’s a good reason why we default to the fast brain whenever possible… if we were permanently using our slow brain, we’d get through less stuff and we’d have to consume way more calories.

The truth is that most of our behaviour and decisions are driven by the fast brain – the intuitive, ‘emotional’ system… not the slow, deliberate ‘rational’ brain.

Our advice to business leaders is to acknowledge how people’s brains actually work and to recognise that it’s easier to change the way you manage your people than to undo millions of years of evolution.

Its easier to change the way you manage your people than to undo millions of years of evolution

If you want a handy metaphor to remember, our logo was inspired by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt who suggested that:

Humans are like rational riders sat on emotional elephants Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis

If you want to change your employees behaviour or decision making… don’t just use methods that speak to the rational rider (slow brain), because unless you can engage the emotional elephant nothing’s going to change.

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