Decision-making: can you trust your instincts?

We hardwire instincts in our brain

Day-to-day living requires us to process huge amounts of intricate information.  Just to cross a busy road, for example, we need to work out how far away the next car is, how fast it’s travelling, how wide the road is, and how long it will take us to cross. We do this in milliseconds and yet we don’t even know we’re doing it.

The ability to cross a road is so complex that it takes the first 10 years of our life to develop the necessary brain circuitry. We call this hardwiring – it’s automatic and it’s non-conscious.

People we consider exceptionally talented – musicians, university professors, sports-people – similarly hardwire their skills: a tennis pro knows where a 120mph serve will bounce because they pick up their opponent’s micro signals, muscle movements etc. and process them almost instantly so they are in the correct position to return the serve. Years of practice have created the hardwiring to make such abilities seem instinctive.

How often have we heard the expression “they’re a natural”?  The truth however isn’t so glamorous – as Michelangelo said “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, they would not call it genius at all.”

The plastic brain

The brain’s ability to reorganise and restructure itself is called neuroplasticity, and it gives human beings a unique survival advantage. For instance, we are able to inhabit any part of the planet because our brain can wire itself to survive under different conditions. We also learn and hardwire complicated tasks such as driving, writing, using a smartphone etc.

While neuroplasticity allows us to go through life hardwiring new brain structures it also brings its own problems. Take driving to work –we often can’t remember the journey we’ve just taken because we’re on autopilot: all well and good until one day we find ourselves driving to the office when we should be heading to the airport!

If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, they would not call it genius at all.


It’s easy to trick your brain

Our brain also has a tendency to make sense of partial information and jump to conclusions, sometimes perceiving things that aren’t actually there which neuroscientists believe is a survival instinct from our hunter-gatherer days. For example, if we see an orange flash in the jungle, our brain is hardwired to fill in the missing information to keep us safe – we perceive it as a tiger and prepare for action – even if it then turns out to be something innocuous.

This survival imperative has drawbacks – our brain often fills in the missing information based on hunches and draws the wrong conclusions.  In the Kanizsa Triangle (below), our brain pieces together a complete picture from separate fragments to give the impression of a bright white triangle, and a black-outlined triangle.

We see whatever our brain thinks we should!

Look at the chessboard below.  Unbelievably squares A and B are the same colour but B appears lighter once the chessboard is complete. This shows in a dramatic way that we only see what we expect, not what’s really there – even when we know that A and B are the same colour, our brain overrides this knowledge.  Incredibly 90% of what we see is generated from within the brain (the occipital cortex) and only 10% arrives through our eyes and optic nerve. Ultimately, we see whatever our brains think we should!

Confirmation bias

In the same way that the brain tricks us with optical illusions, it can also misinform us with labeling and stereotyping errors (thinking illusions). For example, when companies identify ‘high flyers’ or ‘under-performers’, the danger is that those labels will stick. Categorisation is so convenient for the brain that we don’t look for any evidence to challenge our perceptions, so if a ‘low’ performer does good work we may not see it, and if a ‘top’ performer falters we may fail to notice.

Confirmation bias is selective thinking, where we tend to notice things that confirm our beliefs, and ignore, or undervalue evidence that contradicts them: hence the phrase ‘give a dog a bad name’. Powerful as our instinct is, it can lead us to the wrong decisions! All the research shows that we can’t rid ourselves of cognitive biases, but knowing we have them helps us to make more balanced decisions.

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The neuroscience of conflict and emotional regulation

I recently got into an argument with a family member and with Christmas coming up it reminded me that this is often a time for conflict. Understanding its scientific roots might help reduce its impact.

The part of the brain that is responsible for detecting threats is called the amygdala. In our hunter/gatherer days a threat would have been a large predator so this was critical for our survival.

Today physical threats are rare, however our brain hasn’t evolved at the same pace as our environment so our threat-detection circuitry is still highly attuned. Threats today are more likely to be to social threats, and the brain treats these in exactly the same way as physical threats.

Status threats

A particularly powerful threat is what David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute refers to as a status threat, where we feel someone is belittling us or trying to get one over on us.

We are particularly sensitive to status threats because in our hunter/gatherer days, being further up the hierarchy, meant more food and mating opportunities. Being lower down the pecking order meant less food and sex!

When somebody upsets us, this triggers a threat, and instantly engages our non-conscious brain in a freeze, fight, flight response.

A fight response will mean we argue back, verbally attacking them to re-assert our status. We must win the argument. We must be right!  We are hijacked by our emotions. Our non-conscious brain is doing what it is designed to do.

However once we’ve calmed down we may regret our hasty reaction. But by then it’s often too late – the damage has been done. The old adage ‘words said in anger are hard to take back’ bears much wisdom. As does the advice from my grandmother, ‘count to 10 dearest’.

If the perceived ‘attack’ is from our boss, fighting back might be detrimental to our career prospects! In this case our non-conscious brain might choose a freeze or flight response. This will mean we disengage, bear a grudge or harbour resentment – often ruminating for days about what we’d like to have said.

Whether at home or at work, managing social interactions is a fundamental necessity. It is one thing to do it when things are going well, but to do it in the face of conflict and adversity is the sign of real mastery

The brain is a social organ

According to neuroscientist, Matt Liebermann, rehearsing social interactions in our imagination is evolution’s way for us to get more skilled in being social. Our brain is a social organ and our human competitive advantage comes from collaboration with others.

So how do you best manage conflict? Firstly recognise that your brain is designed to react to emotional triggers. These are your survival instincts and, whether you like it or not, you will respond on autopilot with a fight, flight or freeze response.

The trick is to interrupt these automatic non-conscious responses by engaging the conscious brain. One technique for doing this is called labelling. This literally means trying to label the emotion we are feeling. In my case the emotion was humiliation. By forcing our conscious brain to identify our emotional state, this diverts attention and blood-flow away from our non-conscious brain.


Once I did this, I was able to actually feel empathy towards my antagonist and the poignant sting I’d felt greatly receded. This short-cuts pointless battling, entrenched opinions and the risk of escalation.

Whether at home or at work, managing social interactions is a fundamental necessity. It is one thing to do it when things are going well, but to do it in the face of conflict and adversity is the sign of real mastery.


Neuroscience reveals the part of the brain to sell to

Could you be using neuroscience to boost your sales?

Most sales people sell to the thinking brain, focusing their pitch around facts and information like technical specifications, product features, credentials, pricing, etc. Yet neuroscience research shows that the non-conscious part of our brain is the real decision-maker – we make decisions emotionally, then justify them rationally.

The problem is that our non-conscious brain is not equipped for cognitive thinking: while we’re pitching to the thinking brain, the emotional brain disengages.  So how can we engage the part of the brain involved in buying-decisions?

Paint them a picture

Paint them a picture

The emotional brain is not inherently designed to process words. It evolved about 300 million years ago whereas language is only 40,000 years old. Also the optic nerve processes information 40 times faster than the auditory nerve. Incredibly 70% of the brain is used for visual processing. So lose all those text-heavy PowerPoint presentations – use pictures instead. The brain gets confused if it has to read text and listen to you talking. Watch any of the best TED talks, there’s not a bullet-point in sight. Instead they use evocative photography. It’s no wonder that the trend for websites is highly graphical.
Better still, demonstrate the product, tell stories and allow your prospect to get a feel for your offering.

Neuroscience reveals we make decisions emotionally, then justify them rationally.


Create contrast

The brain is our survival system. It is continually nonconsciously monitoring the environment, looking for change. So, in our hunter-gatherer days the appearance of a wild animal would be immediately processed as noteworthy and wake-up our brain.

The non-conscious brain therefore looks out for change, and ignores the non-remarkable. So if you begin your sales pitch with “We are one of the leading providers of sales training …”, this will largely go unnoticed. Much better to say “We are the only sales training company that applies the latest neuroscience research to boost sales performance”. This statement stands a much better chance of getting noticed. Hence the importance of communicating your niche and unique selling proposition boldly.

Stop telling, ask questions

Stop telling, start asking

All the research shows that the best salespeople ask questions rather than tell.  Skillfully crafted questions allow the client to work out for themselves how your product could help them.

The telling approach is ineffective because we all make sense of the world in very different ways. When we tell, we are operating from our viewpoint, not our client’s. What makes sense in our world may make little sense to them. We could be making all sorts of false assumptions.

In order for people to grasp new ideas, they have to create new connections and wire new “maps” into their own brains. This cannot happen through telling. It can only happen through one’s own thinking.

So, if you want to improve your sales results, stop telling clients how your product will help them, instead ask questions. This forces them to think about the issues and benefits for themselves – and research shows that this approach results in far fewer objections. People put up barriers when they think they are being sold to.

An additional benefit of this approach is that most complex sales require multiple decision-makers, so, by asking questions, you are helping your client to formulate their reasons to buy, which will help them sell your product or service internally.


Keep your sales message simple – or your customer switches off

If you’re like me, when you get into a lift (or elevator if you’re American) you may have to stop and think (perhaps only for a second) which button to press to open the doors, and which to close.  The problem is the triangle symbol isn’t as intuitive as a simple arrow. I always think the close door sign looks more like the HSBC logo!  The complex button layout (left) means you have to consciously think about which button to press.  The symbols on the right are more intuitive.  We don’t need to think about arrows; their meaning is innate within us.

Lift panel
HSBC Symbol
Open and close buttons

In sales, if your customer has to stop and think in order to decode your message, you are adding an unnecessary barrier. Research shows that buying decisions are made by the non-conscious brain. So if your sales message isn’t clear and simple, you are forcing customer to use their energy-hungry conscious brain rather than their intuitive brain.  This causes them to think rather than act and can put the brakes on sales.

Why have 'a policeman in an automobile' when 'a cop in car will do'?!

With any written sales message, the simpler the better.  All too often we see marketng messages describing features as‚ ‘a next-generation scaleable integrated architecture‘. Nothing about this is intuitive. We have to stop and think about every word, and then what those words mean together. This is hard work for the buyer, and diminishes the likelihood of a successful sale.

The same message could be phrased in simple language‚ ‘it grows with your business needs‘  This doesn’t require us to engage our conscious brain; the meaning is directly and instantly apparent. The result is that your customer is far more likely to engage with you.

Put another way, why have a policeman in an automobile when a cop in car will do!


Bluffing in negotiation – signals to look out for!

One of the most common questions I get asked in our Black Belt Negotiator classes is:

How do you tell if the other side is bluffing?

When people lie, activity in the conscious brain network increases. This contains our executive decision-making system, regulating our thoughts, actions and social behaviours— all fundamental components of deception.
Corticolimbic system

Dishonesty requires the brain to work harder than honesty

To test if someone is bluffing during a negotiation, ask them some very specific questions. If for example they say, “I’ve had a better offer from your competitor”, ask them open questions about the specifics of the “better offer”, for instance what was included/excluded in the offer, etc. If they hesitate and are unable to answer fluently and coherently it is likely they are bluffing.

A lying person is more likely to cover their mouth with their hand, scratch their nose, or cough, almost as if to cover up (literally) the lies. Also watch out for fidgeting or shuffling. This is caused by nervous energy and heightened brain activity produced by a fear of being found out. Repetition of words or phrases is a sign of buying time while they gather their thoughts or try to validate the lie to themselves.

Picking up the signals

Having observed hundreds of negotiations, what interests me is how bad people are at picking up on signs of bluffing at the negotiating table. Negotiation is a high-pressure activity, where we may feel a level of nervousness or anxiety. For this reason, our focus is usually on ourself rather than the other party – and so the most blatant signals from the other side are often missed.

Our brain evolved before language existed

To enhance your chances of picking up signals from the other side, make sure you are thoroughly prepared so you can relax into the negotiation.  When in a relaxed, yet alert state of mind, our performance is at its optimum and we have the capacity to pick up subtle signs that the other side may be unconsciously giving out.  Our brain evolved before humans had the capacity for language, so we all have an innate ability to pick up on body language and non-verbal cues.

Maintaining a bluff will have an impact on your ability to relate to the other party in a natural way.

The down-side of bluffing

The problem with bluffing is that it detracts from this ability.  If you are having to maintain a pretence, the increased work that is required from the conscious brain will mean that you’re even more likely to miss those vital signals. The conscious brain can only focus on one thing at a time.

Try this experiment

When you are next walking with a friend, ask them to count backwards from 100 in jumps of 7. You will notice, their walking slows down or even stops. This is because the processing power required for simple arithmetic means that even automatic functions like walking are impaired. So you can imagine that maintaining a bluff will have an impact on your ability to relate to the other party in a natural way.

As business negotiation is all about building long-term mutually beneficial relationships, ‘bluffing in negotiations’ can only be a detrimental policy.


Cognitive biases that prevent delegation and growth

I don’t have time to delegate!

When my children were young, as well as running a demanding business, I was a single parent.

One of the things that really got to me was that my kids couldn’t even load the dishwasher properly.  Surely that was the least they could do after I’d cooked the dinner!

They’d put the plates in the wrong section, the cutlery the wrong way round and the glasses upside down.  I’d get increasingly irritated as I re-stacked everything.   Why bother trying to get them to do it.  It was quicker for me to do it myself – at least it would get done properly!  Sounds familiar?

After several months of frustration it dawned on me that if I wanted them to stack the dishwasher properly, I’d needed to invest some time training them.

The problem was that I felt I didn’t have any spare time to carry out the training.  It was a leap of faith for me to realise that the future reward would compensate for the time invested in training today.

The cost of failing to delegate

We see this type of thinking in the workplace – the time and effort to develop staff is an investment, and the payoff will only occur in the dim and distant future. Too often staff are set up to fail – for example when a high performing technician is promoted to a manager without any training for the new role.

What’s at play here is a cognitive bias called temporal discounting, where we attach a disproportionate value on the here-and-now compared with the future. The future seems vague and distant, whereas now is vivid and Technicolor!

In financial terms, our brain views £70 today as more appealing than £118 in 3 months time. We also see this type of thinking in the board-room where short-term dividends often trump longer-term investment.

So next time you catch yourself thinking “it’s quicker to do the job myself than get someone else to do it –then correct their mistakes”, STOP.  Think.  What is the cost of failing to delegate?

  • Depriving your staff of learning and development opportunities
  • Chaining yourself to operational detail rather than strategic initiatives
  • Keeping yourself and your staff in their comfort zone
  • In short – preventing organisational growth

Harvard Business Review cites that most leadership teams spend just three hours per month making strategic decisions – in fact they dedicate more time choosing the company Christmas card!

Don't fall victim to temporal discounting. Doing everything yourself is not a strategy for growth.

Effective delegation

  • Don’t fall victim to temporal discounting.  Doing everything yourself is not a strategy for growth
  • Spend your precious time on issues that exert the greatest impact on your company’s long-term value
  • Seek every possible opportunity to delegate, develop others and grow!
Do you have the necessary skills to delegate effectively?

“Playing it safe is a risky business” – are YOUR plans bold enough?

On a recent trip to London’s Victoria and Albert museum, I came across this inspiring quote from Rei Kawakubo, a Japanese fashion designer:

Playing it safe is a risky business

Rei Kawakubo

This struck a chord with me as we’d been wondering whether we were too risk averse in our own business.

An example, where I notice many managers play it safe is delegation. Perhaps a reason why many managers fail to delegate is the fear of losing control over the outcome – will the task be done correctly, to my standards? This is what leadership guru David Rock refers to as a certainty threat. If I do the job myself, I can be sure of the outcome – if I delegate it to someone else… who knows?

This type of thinking is reinforced by phrases like “if you want a job done properly, do it yourself” – unfortunately this is precisely what undermines good leadership practice.

We all know the huge costs of not delegating:

  • Not freeing up your time to focus on high value tasks
  • Not giving others the opportunity to learn and develop
  • Failing to allow the business to achieve its potential
  • Creating a culture of disengagement and low morale

Of course there are risks in delegating, but these are massively outweighed by the benefits

Heads you lose, tails you win!

Behavioural economist and Nobel prize-winner, Daniel Kahneman explains that we are not prepared to take such risks because losses loom larger than gains. To demonstrate our inherent loss-aversion, he asks if you would accept the following gamble on the toss of a coin:

Heads you lose £1000, tails you win £1500?

Even though the odds are clearly in your favour, most of us would reject this gamble as too risky. For most people, it would take a win of between £2000 and £3000 to risk losing £1000. This is because we all have specialist threat-detection circuitry built into part of our brain called the amygdala – essential to keep us safe in our bygone cave-dwelling days.

Risk aversion can seriously harm your wealth

Now imagine you are allowed ten tosses with the same odds: heads you lose £1000, tails you win £1500. Nearly all of us would accept this as the chances of making a substantial profit are high and the risk of making an overall loss is minimal.

Daniel Kahneman points out that over the course of our lives we do indeed get many chances to take risks where the odds are somewhat in our favour. If we reject these chances as too risky on an individual basis we will be all the poorer in the long run.

Similarly, imagine you are a divisional manager in a large corporation – your in-built risk aversion means that you are likely to play it safe and avoid risk, even when the odds are mildly in your favour. Now consider the corporation as a whole; if every manager rejects such risks, the organisation will suffer financially. The CEO will have a different view of risk to individual managers.

Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go - T S Eliot

What’s your perception, tolerance and propensity for risk taking?

Are you being bold enough with your plans? Get in touch to arrange an assessment of your risk type or indeed other leadership strengths


“Do what I say, not what I do!” The neuroscience of hypocrisy

Have you ever wondered why a sad film makes you cry? Or why a tense drama has you on the edge of your seat?

The reason is: mirror neurons!

A mirror neuron is a brain cell that fires both when you do something and when you observe the same action performed by someone else. In other words, the neuron mirrors the behaviour of the other person, as though you were doing it yourself.

If I see someone sipping a cup of coffee, those same neurons fire in my brain to make me want to do it too. You may have noticed that when you are in rapport with someone, you often subconsciously adopt the same posture – another example of mirror neurons in action.

James Bond

In his book, the Empathetic Brain, neuroscientist Christian Keysers, illustrates the point: Your heart beats faster as you watch a tarantula crawl on James Bond’s chest in the movie Dr No, your hands sweat and your skin tingles under the spider’s legs. You feel scared, tense, and finally relieved when Bond manages to escape the danger. We are essentially empathic.

Mirror neurons, first discovered in the 1990s by Dr. Rizzolatti, at the University of Parma, enable us to understand the actions of other people, and to learn new skills by imitation.

In our hunter-gatherer days, if we saw someone getting sick from eating poisonous berries, we wouldn’t want to make the same mistake ourselves. The human race wouldn’t have survived long like that.

The brain is a social organ

The brain is designed to befriend and interact with fellow humans. Our very success as a species depends on co-operating with others who have specialist skills to complement our own. Mirror neurons facilitate the organisational learning process.

We are all familiar with clichés like 'lead by example' and 'walk the talk'. Mirror neurons help explain the truth behind such adages.

So what are the lessons for business leaders?

We are all familiar with clichés like ‘lead by example’ or ‘walk the talk’. Mirror neurons go some way towards explaining the truth behind such adages.

The Holy Grail for most organisations is a happy, positive and energised workplace. It should now be obvious why a manager’s mindset is critical in creating that culture. A manager who looks for the positive, complements others, and coaches them to raise their game will activate those same mirror neurons in their staff.

By contrast, a downcast, critical manager will only spread negativity. I would suggest that it is a manager’s duty to transcend their own feelings, and invoke in themselves how they want their team to feel.

Many times I have to give a conference speech early in the morning after a sleepless night-flight. If I came on stage tired and yawning, I’d send my audience to sleep. I have to create in myself the energy and excitement with which I want to infect the audience. They will literally pick up my vibe. It is no different for business leaders – they have to be the culture that they want to create.

Neuroscientist, David Eagleman, associate professor at Stanford University, conducted experiments asking subjects to look at photos of people in differing emotional states. Eagleman discovered that those same emotional states were mirrored back in the faces of the subject, and actually detected in their brain. So just by looking at a happy face it actually makes you happy!

With a twist to the experiment, Eagleman then repeated this on subjects who’d had Botox treatment. Botox is a toxin that paralyses the facial muscles and so impacts the way a person can smile. Those unable to mirror the smiles in others could not activate their own “smiling” neurons. They were consequently starved of happy signals within their own brain, reducing their empathetic responses. How ironic that people use Botox to feel good about themselves, yet it actually has the opposite effect!

Thanks to mirror neurons, being generous and giving towards others is the ultimate in win-win. It not only makes their day… it makes yours too!


How to throw away money & wreck relationships

Know your neuroscience!

Understand how your brain works under pressure and the impact it has on your negotiation performance and decision-making ability. Use my tips to avoid throwing away money and wrecking your business relationships!

The myth of rationality

Look at the following subscription offer for The Economist magazine:

  • Digital subscription £59
  • Print subscription £125
  • Print and digital £125

You might be left wondering why the print and digital subscription is the same price as the print only subscription? Who in their right mind would choose the print only option?

Behavioral Economist at Duke University, Dan Ariely, tested out this hypothesis.

The results were as follows:

  • The digital subscription at £59 was chosen by 16% of respondents
  • The print and digital subscription at £125 was chosen by 84% of respondents
  • As predicted, nobody chose the print only option!

As nobody chose the print only option, Dan Ariely then re-ran the campaign without the this option:

  • Digital subscription – £59
  • Print and digital – £125

This time the results were reversed. What had been the most popular option became the least popular, and the least popular option became the most popular:

  • The digital subscription at £59 was chosen by 68% of respondents
  • The print and digital at £125 was chosen by 32% of respondents

How strange that removing an option that nobody wanted resulted in such a reversal, with a consequential revenue loss of 43% for the Ecomomist. This certainly questions whether we make decisions logically!


What we see at play here is our brain’s inability to judge something as good or bad in absolute terms. We have no way of knowing whether £59 or £125 represents good or bad value for the products in question.

However, including the print only option, enables the brain to make a comparison:

  • Print subscription – £125
  • Print and digital – £125

The print only option creates a reference point against which the brain gauges that print and digital is clearly a good deal.

Creating reference points

The lesson here for negotiators is of paramount importance: by mentioning specific figures too early in the negotiating process you set their expectations high before you have a firm commitment from them.

Picture this … You tell a customer they can have a 15% discount if they purchase 300 widgets.

You’ve now created a reference point (or expectation) of 15% by which they will judge the deal. From here on in, anything they manage to get beyond 15%, they’ll see as a gain and anything less they’ll see as a loss.

Let’s imagine they come back and say “thanks for the 15%, we’ll have 200 widgets”. This leaves you with a potential problem – you’ll need to explain that for 200 widgets the discount is only 10%.

Had you not previously created the 15% reference point, this would not have been an issue and they would have accepted 10% as the discount for 200 widgets.

With the initial expectation set at 15%, the risk now is that they’ll fight to improve your 10% offer. Even though they only want 200 widgets, in their minds they’re making a 5% loss against your original reference point. An experienced negotiator would certainly exploit the fact that clearly 15% is available, and will push for it.

TIP: Wait till you have a firm commitment from the other side before you commit to specifics

Losses loom larger than gains!

This situation is further compounded by another anomaly (cognitive bias) of the brain – consider if you would accept the following gamble on the toss of a coin:

  • Heads you lose £1000, tails you win £1001?

Most likely you wouldn’t accept, even though the odds are marginally in your favour.

  • How about: Heads you lose £1000, Tails you win £1500?

Probably you still wouldn’t accept the gamble. For most people, it would take a win of between £2000 and £3000 to risk losing £1000.

As Nobel prize-winner, Daniel Kahneman points out, this is because LOSSES loom larger than GAINS.


In our hunter-gatherer days, human survival depended on recognising threats (typically large, carnivorous predators!). A part of our brain called the amygdala is our primary threat-detection centre – alerting us to danger via a super highway. Interestingly, there is no equivalent super-highway for ‘good news’ or opportunities.

Now let’s revisit the scene where you’ve created a reference point (or an expectation) of 15%. As negotiations proceed and they realise they are only getting 10%, not only do they regard this as a 5% loss, but as losses loom three times larger than gain, they experience 15 units of pain!  No wonder they fight so ferociously to get you back to 15%.

Using round numbers

A discount of 15% gives the impression that it’s been set without much thought and opens the door for them to push you up to 20%. Much better to offer 13% – this is less likely to be challenged as it appears to have been precisely calculated – and if they do bargain you up, it’ll most likely be to 15%.

MY BEST TIP: If you’d like to know how to put these ideas into practice, contact us to find out how you can become a black belt negotiator… BEFORE your trading partners beat you to it!

In this short TV interview with Greg Fairlie, Dubai One TV, I explain the pitfalls to avoid and key points to succeed in negotiation