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From The Brain to the Team

Sabre's MD Talan Miller has just had this article on how neuroscience can better inform team development published in the UK Training Journal.

When cutting edge neuroscience is partnered with a tool that serves the needs of the social brain it’s a potent combination.

Research in neuroscience, and more specifically into the social systems of the brain, is delivering wonderful insight into how the “emotional fuel” that each person brings to any situation drives teams, leaders and organisational culture.

Neuroscience is itself such a highly complex field however that it demands an equally high-level of expertise to understand it, let alone apply it daily.

Therefore it can be risky to expose busy people to masses of material that they simply do no not need or have time to properly absorb. The potential benefits can be quickly lost.

Fortunately there are proven tools that can help to build a bridge between the current neuroscience and the practical development of people, teams and leaders with the brain in mind.

To help apply useful components of neuroscience intelligently yet pragmatically, it is useful to match relevant insights to a known and reliable model. This integrated approach relies heavily upon the selected model being robust enough to meaningfully gel with emerging lessons from neuroscience. Some models make the cut, and some don’t.

At Sabre with our use of the Belbin Model to build such bridges of understanding, we are also privileged to work closely with expert, author and researcher in the fields of neuroscience and the social brain, Peter Burow and his team at Neuropower.

They have spent in excess of 20 years researching the social brain and its impacts upon team development, leadership and organisational culture with leading neuroscientists and universities around the world. They have created a model and an elegant acronym that they refer to as RELISH. It helps to identify the crucial social needs of the human brain as individuals, teams and organisations develop.

The progressive and ongoing engagement of these social systems of the brain helps people and teams to better understand themselves, their peers and learn how to perform together (especially when under pressure).

The RELISH acronym from Neuropower illustrates six major social systems of the human brain at play as teams develop (most of which occurs sub-consciously).

Individuals and teams can exhibit these systems along what we sometimes nickname a “Goldilocks” scale of “Too Much”, “Too Little” and “Just Right”. Imbalance in one system can cause poor alignment in others as a team develops.

The Neuropower RELISH acronym is in brief:


(the P1 System)

This system is driven by functions of the brain that automatically attune to habitual patterns, rules and tribal and cultural norms.

Teams Need:

  • Sense of optimal security

  • Rules and structure

  • Sense of purpose / why team exists

  • Clear rules and expectations

  • Fair enforcement of rules

  • Leadership setting examples

  • Team Role clarity and understanding

  • An enforced code of conduct


(The C1 System)

The system based on brain functions that regulate emotion and chemically reward for certain patterns of thought or behavior.

Teams Need:

  • To allow spontaneity

  • Freedom of individual expression

  • Encourage creativity

  • Ease friction and find ways to deal with conflict (not avoiding it)

  • Encourage fun and enjoyment at work

  • Brainstorm ideas

  • Balance individual expression with healthy ways to deal promptly with conflict.

Leading The Pack

(The P2 System)

These are the elements within the brain that enable us to challenge and break habitual patterns, identify and seek what we want and to compete.

Teams Need:

  • Realistic yet challenging objectives and goals

  • Willing engagement and effort

  • Establishment of systems for recognition and reward to motivate and engage

  • Competitive strategies for the team

  • Quick wins to boost collective sense of success

  • Careful management of people falling behind or losing momentum

Interpersonal Connection

(The I2 System)

These are the elements within the brain that enable social interaction, empathy with others and understanding of others feelings and contributions.

Teams Need:

  • Interpersonal support and understanding

  • Genuine interest in and recognition of varying strengths and contributions of individual members

  • Active listening and willingness to leverage individual strengths

  • Push for authentic interpersonal communications

  • Ensure internal negotiations are “win-win” in nature

Seeing the Facts

(The I1 System)

This is the set of functions within the brain that helps recognize patterns, cause and effect, data and factual inputs.

Teams Need:

  • Factual measures and feedback on performance against strategy

  • Encourage ongoing learning and countering of biases and emotion in decision-making

  • Factual de-briefs and milestone review sessions to identify lessons learned and to carry them into real world application

  • Seek to apply team knowledge and intellect

Hope for the Future

(The C2 System)

These are the elements of the brain that can process “big picture” visions and concepts and enable openness to new ideas and collective optimism.

Teams Need:

  • To create a sense of optimism and forward progress for the team

  • For people to have confidence in their own roles and future within the team

  • Flexibility and openness to new ideas and ways of doing things

  • Ability to visualize ideal outcomes and future of the team

These key insights from the neuroscience and the six crucial social systems of the brain have the capacity to radically improve team performance when paired with good facilitation and a pragmatic profiling tool such as Belbin.

The importance of recognising value

The most foundational psychological need is to belong or relate to others. From an evolutionary perspective, being part of a tribe has ensured our survival.

This means that teams are at the very core of all social and commercial structures. In order to secure our role in a team, we must add value to that team.

This is particularly relevant as the P1 social system of the brain is engaged in the formation of new teams and as any changes unfold. Humans will sub-consciously seek security and relatedness in this way. More than being liked, the brain also needs to be needed.

We have found Belbin’s team roles very useful here to help describe, and then allow teams to measure and work with, the different values and contributions that people actually bring to the team.

This in turn provides a solid foundation and ongoing language to progress eventually to the later and more open C2 system of the brain where high performance collaboration can be sustained naturally.

As organisational structures become flatter and roles more flexible, the ability to articulate the specific value that each individual brings to the team (and how they help the team achieve its objectives) becomes even more important .

In the spirit of Lean Six Sigma waste and duplication of human effort can be minimized with enhanced awareness of how our Team Roles play out in achieving our daily missions.

Conflict and language in teams

There is an all too common misconception that high performance teams have little to no conflict. This is simply not true. Conflict in teams is normal – and teams need a language to express it.

High performance teams have higher than average levels of conflict because they constantly challenge the status quo. It’s just that the emotional fuel and behaviours driving this conflict are better understood. This can be used as a platform for appropriately and constructively dealing with such conflict as it arises.

The ability to discern the difference between constructive conflict (based on different value-creating mindsets or behaviours) and unconstructive conflict (based in emotional reactivity) is the key.

Disagreements on the 'right answer’ are a common source of conflict in teams. Not surprisingly, disagreements lead to conflict and frustration, which activate threat responses in the brain that dramatically reduce an individual’s ability to think rationally and resolve the issue constructively. The more primitive limbic system rather than the rational system is engaged.

What teams need is a way to interpret differences of opinion in a constructive way that creates value, rather than destroys it.

By providing a framework for the team to understand differences, manage the conflict that comes from diversity and effectively put emotional responses into words, which is crucial in a team to manage and resolve conflict as it arises in order to reach high performance.

The science behind emotional reactivity when explained properly to people, can help them achieve better objectivity and manage unwanted biases. The brain’s natural fear response can thus become less intense, easier to manage and quicker to bounce back from when higher levels of understanding exist.

The neutral “Team Role Language” that Belbin provides enables a team to manage and resolve conflict as it arises and reduce the “amygdala moments” or fear responses in order to reach higher levels of performance together. For example ensuring that your “Shapers” are not bringing about too much conflict on the one hand, or that your “Teamworkers” are avoiding the conflict that is required on the other.

Humans are emotional creatures and the reactivity that comes with human interaction cannot (indeed should not) be removed, it just needs to be better managed.

Teams with empathy perform better

Teams that understand each other and display prosocial behavior will by default have greater empathy for one anther according to the neuroscience.

A high degree of empathy or affiliation for a person triggers the release of a neuro chemical called oxytocin and oxytocin has been linked to an increase in the level of generosity people show for others.

As such, a genuine understanding of different perspectives, team roles and world-views is crucial to the development of a cohesive, trusting and generous team.

A meaningful and immediate framework for building closer affiliation and empathy for the views and behaviours of others via individual and team profiling is useful here. Through exactly this form of understanding leaders and teams can accelerate the natural stages of team development.

It’s fine for people to drive us nuts at times, but it’s critical that we learn to understand why this occurs and that this is linked to a valuable contribution they may be making that simply differs from ours (or may in fact be too similar to ours).

Generosity and decency of intent within teams enhances engagement, and reduces unnecessary friction that occurs when the oxytocin levels are low.

In summary, current neuroscience is opening up wonderful new levels of understanding around what drives humans as leaders and as useful team members.

The social systems of the human brain have a profound impact on individual, team and organisational performance.

Developing a better understanding of what the “emotional fuel” actually is that drives behavior in teams and organisations can be used as a powerful enabler for genuine and lasting team and leadership development.

We have thus seen emerging neuroscience become a valuable tool in developing teams and leaders when it can be carefully vetted for relevance to the end users and their needs.

The science is validating the accuracy and utility of some established models such those of Belbin, Tuckman, Blanchard and Hersey’s Situational leadership whilst helping to create some new and useful ones such as Neuropower and their RELISH tool.

Talan Miller

Managing Director

Sabre Corporate Development

Further reading:

Why rejection hurts: a common neural alarm system for physical and social pain

Naomi I. Eisenberger and Matthew D. Lieberman Department of Psychology, Franz Hall, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1563, USA

TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences Vol.8 No.7 July 2004

Subjective Responses to Emotional Stimuli During Labeling, Reappraisal, and Distraction

Lieberman et al - Matthew D. Lieberman, Tristen K. Inagaki, Golnaz Tabibnia, Molly J. Crockett

American Psychological Association

Emotion, 2011, Vol. 11, No. 3, 468–480

Oxytocin Increases Generosity in Humans

Zak PJ, Stanton AA, Ahmadi S (2007) Oxytocin Increases Generosity in Humans. PLoS ONE 2(11): e1128. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001128

Oxytocin increases trust in humans

Michael Kosfeld1*, Markus Heinrichs2*, Paul J. Zak3, Urs Fischbacher1 & Ernst Fehr1,4


Vol 435|2 June 2005|doi:10.1038/nature03701

RELISH acronym and model are used with the kind permission of Peter Burow and the Neuropower Group. Thanks to Peter Burow, Zane Harris and Misha Byrne for their input and insights.

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