Thought Leadership

Using Neuroscience to Build Resilient Teams

There are three key concepts to understanding the significance of cultivating collective resilience: neuroscience, resilience, and teams

Author: Dr Etienne van der Walt, Neurologist, CEO and Co-Founder Neurozone

There is immeasurable value in understanding the neurobiology of living systems.

To understand the significance of cultivating collective resilience in today’s world, especially if you are a team coach, it is crucial to get to grips with three key concepts: neuroscience, resilience, and teams. As someone who prioritizes neuroscience, let’s begin by defining what constitutes a team. A team refers to a group of individuals who come together with a shared purpose and work collectively to accomplish specific objectives.

At Neurozone, we use neuroscience as the lens through which to understand the dynamics at play in successful teams and organizations. What we’ve discovered is the fundamental role played by resilience. Our research continues to show that collective resilience is more crucial than ever in ensuring adaptivity in organizations. We simply cannot succeed as individuals and this article will set out why this is the case. 

First, some context: we are swimming in a sea of global unhappiness. Across the world, there is a mental pandemic, which many believe was sparked by the Covid shutdown. But the truth is global unhappiness preceded Covid and has steadily been climbing for more than a decade. Gallup’s Global Emotions 2022 report, based on its research on subjective well-being, shows unhappiness has been continuously rising since 2011.

Why is this the case? There are four major contributors: poverty, hunger, loneliness and a lack of meaning, including in the workplace. We are not only living in times of great income inequality, but also of expanding wellbeing inequality.

Further increasing this rift is the exponential rate of technological change. With the frenetic pace of change only set to accelerate, there is the need to stay on the curve, to keep up. But this is impossible for us as individuals. The speed and impact of change have already exceeded our individual adaptive capacities. We need a different mindset and a different way of doing things if we are to survive. This is where doing it together — collective resilience — comes in. 

For humans, as complete brain-body systems, the desire to stay on the curve of change is driven by the outcome of doing so. In the absence of stress (perceived threat), we are able to achieve a baseline relaxed physiological state. Some describe this as a state of calm or flow. With its low blood pressure, low heart rate and efficient metabolism, this state allows the profound surveillance and maintenance that drives wellbeing of the brain and body, supporting longevity.

If we’re part of a team that has synergy and synchrony, we have an improved chance of moving into and staying in this state of calm. This, in turn, means we will have a higher capacity for problem solving, creativity and innovation. (In high-functioning, healthy teams, we may even be able to stay in and operate from this state while we are not actually working in the team.) 

Faced with a thousand challenges in a day, we’ll go in and out of this state. When a challenge — a threat or rewarding opportunity — makes its appearance, a structure deep in the brain called the hypothalamus activates the whole brain-body system to prepare for it. This is the stress response, during which our bodies push blood to the brain and muscles, reducing the replenishment and maintenance of the system.

The assignment of energy to a task, engaging our knowledge, skills and expertise, allows us to overcome the challenge, returning us to a sense of safety and to the baseline relaxed physiological state.

In the right doses, stress is not only good for us, it is as essential as the state of calm for long-lasting high performance and thriving. But in a world where tomorrow is going to be tougher than yesterday, we collectively need to have a very high yield from the energy we assign to tasks. Remaining in a non-baseline relaxed physiological state means the stress response becomes chronic: your whole brain-body system is continually in fight mode. Prolonged stress leads to burnout, ill health and death.

From a neurobiological perspective, the best protection against this is resilience. This capacity of the brain-body system to prevent implosion under severe stress is underpinned by three pillars:

  1. The brain builds knowledge, skills, expertise and experience in an energy-conserving way over our lifetimes.
  2. We have the ability to solve a problem or fashion novel products that are adapted for the group, promoting group survival and thrivability. 
  3. We have the capacity to learn and grow, becoming ever better at being able to overcome similar (and dissimilar) challenges. This complex adaptiveness prepares the brain-body system for new stressors.

Resilience is what helps keep us on that curve of rapid accelerated change. The work we do at Neurozone shows us how important collective resilience is for teams to thrive in a time of flux and technological revolution. But what are the driving forces that foster a cohesive whole that surpasses the sum of its parts? There are four themes that contribute to this dynamic:

Sense of purpose

Think about the organs in your body and how they have a clear purpose: the liver, for example, detoxifies harmful substances and metabolizes nutrients and medications. But it, like us, is in service of the organism, and it is ultimately responsible for ensuring the thrivability of the next, higher-order system. 

When it comes to the organism that is you and me, however, defining purpose is less clear cut. We have to allocate resources to ensure we stay alive, survive and thrive in life. But we also operate in many different and higher-order groups, from a squash club to a work team to a family unit, where we play a specific role. Each of these aggregates has its own purpose and each is part of a bigger organization, which has an even broader purpose…

The purpose of every living entity in a living system is multifold – a liver cell’s purpose is to be an efficient, long-living liver cell. But this cell also has a higher-order purpose: to form part of an efficient organ, the liver. In the same way, the liver has a purpose to be the best liver possible, but the liver’s higher-order purpose is to contribute to the organism’s thrivability. Get the picture? You and I as living organisms innately serve the self and the next system that we form a living part of and so on… The latter gives us a sense of meaning and this we call ‘Purpose in Life’.

Science shows that a purpose in life helps reduce inflammatory conditions, cardiovascular disease and dementias. But given the lack of meaning that is driving people’s unhappiness today, perhaps we have lost this idea of a sense of purpose, of purposefully being part of a much bigger, living system?

Cultivating a sense of collective purpose in your teams is beneficial for wellbeing and longevity. An awareness of being part of a living, dynamic system drives resilience and high performance capacity. So ask — and help your team members answer: Why are we here and what are we trying to achieve? 

Everything affects everything

Take a cell — its nucleus, cytoplasm, its thousands of mitochondria, the little vesicles and the cell membrane. Together, they form a neuron. But that’s not actually the whole. The true wonder emerges when the neurons give rise to brain activity, to thought, to life. In this way, the neuron becomes something much greater than the sum of its parts — a living, thinking entity that transcends its individual components in complexity and potential.

This has profound implications for the application of being a collective. The leaders of future organizations will harness and support their people as individuals, while recognizing the importance of optimizing the living system for maximum energy and yield. 

Our energy is finite

The sky’s the limit. Everything is possible. Dream the impossible dream… just don’t forget that energy is finite in our brain-body systems.

Human bodies burn food as fuel, producing heat and energy. It does this through cellular respiration, a series of chemical reactions that take place within our cells to convert the energy stored in the food we eat into a form of energy our cells can use, called ATP (adenosine triphosphate).

Although energy is a finite resource, humans have the capacity to produce energy as we need it, which is fortunate as the brain is a very greedy organ. It may constitute only 2% of the body’s mass, but it uses approximately 20% of the energy to do its work. 

Because energy is so precious, we have to figure out how we can get the highest yield. Energy boosters (optimism, gratitude, enthusiasm, curiosity) maximize energy, while energy blockers (negative intrusive thought patterns, destructive habits, addictions, low mood state) and energy leakers (chronic stress) make it less available.

The brain’s powerful reward system helps us stay motivated and achieve our goals. Located in the mesolimbic area, this network ensures we experience a sense of satisfaction and pleasure when we accomplish something. It also helps us calculate the potential rewards and punishments of a given action. But energy blockers and leakers all interfere with this reward system, reducing the amount of ‘anticipatory dopamine’ that is secreted and making it harder to feel motivated or satisfied.

For coaches working with leaders and teams, it’s crucial to address these challenges, however sensitive and difficult they may be. Fostering a healthier reward system will help promote resilience that will lead to greater success and fulfillment.

The secrets to achieving optimal performance lie in the attitudes we underestimate — optimism, gratitude, enthusiasm, humor and curiosity. These boosters increase the amount of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and motivation, in our brains. This unconscious process of anticipation and reward can spiral us upwards, towards higher performance.

If you have this going on in the brains of each individual in your team, you’ll have it in the group brain — and that is something extremely powerful. This alignment of individuals into the living entity that is a team leads to the achievement of the highest yield and maximizes the capacity for high performance with a energy-yield ratio that comfortably outperforms computers. Once again, a whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts. 

We stick together

Driven by an intrinsic need for social safety, humans naturally aggregate in small groups. Our brains help keep us alive through bonding (entrustment). Situated above the brainstem is the hypothalamus, the director of our emotions and the driver of the secretion of hormones such as oxytocin. At this primordial level, oxytocin allows us to effectively entrust our lives to each other in different iterations: a pair bonding between a mother and a baby, between soldiers in a war zone or players in a sports team. 

Bonding also happens in the workplace in teams of five to eight people. (If you have larger teams, you’ll need to ‘huddle’ into smaller groups.) A collective sense of purpose — something you need to achieve together — is another key ingredient for the achievement of this kind of entrustment. 

A sense of belonging is different to bonding. Belonging uses dopamine, not oxytocin, and fosters a feeling of shared values among members of a larger group. Because we do things in a similar way, we belong. This dates back to the earliest times when, if you were not part of a group, you were guaranteed to become a snack for predators. Because we still have a deep, ancient fear of being ostracized or rejected, feeling like you don’t belong can lead to chronic stress. 

Although belonging and bonding activate different pathways in the brain, they are both essential to build our collective resilience. To leverage the collective value of a socially safe group, we need a diversity of perspectives and the safety to voice them freely. This means everyone has the right to voice their opinion, which is respected and utilized. Being heard creates a sense of psychological safety.

Affective empathy (feeling in another’s shoes) encourages bonding and cognitive empathy (thinking in another’s shoes) fosters psychological safety and a sense of belonging. Together, they act as the glue for resilient, collective innovation, which, in turn, leads to much higher outcomes.

Power of mindset and mindfulness

So, we have a purposeful, energized team, with members who feel a real sense of bonding and belonging. But this doesn’t add up to much if we’re not making appropriate internal representations of what is out there. 

This is our mindset, which determines how we perceive the world and our place in it. What we see can hinder our chances of thriving in a world that is rapidly evolving. But it is here that visionary leaders, ones with an understanding of the nature of the future, must help teams adjust their mindsets and adapt to new challenges.

This change in perception is possible because our brains create internal representations of what is out there and then compare it with a memory system, or map. By assigning different values to incoming stimuli, we can change our internal map and guide ourselves through life in a more appropriate way. 

While mindset shapes our perception of the world, mindfulness determines how much of that world we see. It ensures that we focus on the important cues and ignore the rest (latent inhibition). Once we have the appropriate data, we are able to come up with sophisticated solutions to complex problems.

Practicing mindfulness activates the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for executive function and self-regulation. This regulatory control is essential for solving complex problems and enhancing resilience. When we lack mindfulness, our brains may rely on more primitive regulation, leading to impulsive and reactive behavior. 

As a coach or team leader, you want to cultivate a flexible mindset and mindfulness within each individual. With knowledge and honed skills, resilient teams can solve problems in an innovative and collaborative manner. Fueled by positive energy and a sense of psychological safety, we know that such teams will achieve remarkable results.

The dynamism of change

It’s important to remember that resilience is a dynamic process, and different behaviors may have varying significance at different stages of our lives. Resilience is not about personality; rather, it’s about behavior, about life. That’s why it is so important to continually assess and monitor behavior so that you can ensure you get the highest yield for the energy ascribed to the tasks of living, surviving and thriving. 

Because these systems are physical, they have the capacity for change. Our brains undergo transformative changes and neurogenesis, generating new cells and strengthening connections. These changes are especially evident in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for problem-solving, and in the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and where memory is built. 

This resilient system of knowledge, skills, expertise and problem-solving capacity is all part of life. It is physical and dynamic. It grows and interlinks to form living, breathing teams and ORGANizations. It is this collective capacity that team leaders and coaches need to support and optimize for high-performance resilience.

How can we help you?

We specialize in training professionals who use a coaching approach to optimize their people.

Contact Cuan Macnab-Holding, Neurozone Consultant: Business Development & Organizational Resilience



Similar posts