Print This Post Print This Post

I have talked a lot in the past about the Neurobabble Fallacy. I know this makes many people uncomfortable. I have friends and family in the Neuro-something business. There is neuro-marketing, neuro-leadership and neuro-lots-of-things. Some of that stuff is legitimate. For example, understanding how cognitive systems react to signals and applying this to advertising. If you want to call that neuro-marketing, so be it. But beyond those prosaic aims, there is a whole industry of neuro-anything that aggressively attempts to legitimize itself by bringing in pop-neurosciences to dinner every day.

Neuro-leadership is one of those suspects. It tries to link brain functionality to leadership. Of course brain functionality can be linked to anything that has a brain. Since we are not quite sure what that thing called ’leadership’ is about, the linkage is a tricky one.

Are there correlations between the firing of those neurons, the waking up of those circuits and feeling rewarded by a business achievement? You bet. Do those circuits also fire when gambling and wining? Most likely. And after a good date on Saturday night?? Yep. Does it mean that gambling can be understood by studying business achievement? Why not? The other way around? Dating? Why not. So… are we then talking ‘rewarding systems’ in the brain? You bet. OK!

Wait a minute! Are we perhaps talking correlation? That makes a lot of sense. However, just to remind everybody, there is a strong correlation between the number of people who drowned by falling into a pool and the number of films in which Nicolas Cage appeared. Which does not link swimming pool safety with film making. For other correlation data such as the strong connection between the divorce rate in Maine, and the per capita consumption of margarine, visit this.

I am making enemies by the minute. I know. I am oversimplifying. Yes. Maybe. Apologies, neuro-friends. I am certainly disgusted by the amount of neuro-bullshit that leadership/management and other disciplines built upon shaky foundations are willing to swallow to legitimise themselves.

Do I have any qualifications to have an opinion on these bridges too far? In my previous professional life I was a clinical psychiatrist with special interest in psychopharmacology. I used to teach that stuff in the University. I then did a few years in R&D in pharmaceuticals. I then left those territories to run our Organizational Architecture company, The Chalfont Project. I have some ideas about brains, and some about leadership and organizations. I insist, let both sides have a good cup of tea together, but when the cup of tea is done, go back to work to your separate offices.

The transferability of models between disciplines is not a sin. But I remind everybody of Alan Sokal’s ‘Intellectual Impostors’. Here is an old summary of mine:

The “Sokal Syndrome”: Intellectual nudity, Intellectual Impostures, Mind Grafitters and Airport Books Business School Graduates

And if you have time The hard sell of a big theme supported by dubious, incoherent but dramatically presented evidence

I will neuro-stop my ranting now

Keep up with the Daily Thoughts

Twitter Email


  1. Paul Brasington

    I wonder if the attraction of neurobabble is rooted in what Iain McGilchrist would argue is a characteristic left brain urge to impose control through over-simplification (I’m paraphrasing a complex argument here) – here suddenly is the prospect of cutting through all that messy human stuff, reducing it to something more mechanical and so predictable, by routinely confusing correlation with causation.
    It matters a lot because it seems this stuff has gained some traction, despite its evident banality and conceptual naivety. Here’s something from a publication put out under the aegis of the Engage and Prosper organisation, a typical passage which seeks to show the value of neuroscience in internal communication.
    “When you create supportive and collaborative environments, the brains of employees can process information more quickly and more easily, leading to effective change. But if the brains of employees perceive the workplace or their role within it as a threat, then comfort, motivation and satisfaction are all likely to decrease.”
    All you have to do is remove the phrase “the brains of” from each sentence and you’re just left with a statement of the bleedin’ obvious. But it’s worse than banal, because it tries to turn the complexity of real people into something we’d understand as less than fully human, a mere organ which we can understand through chemistry and a glorified location map, rather than harder work of human observation and interaction. In its roundabout way it’s trying to reintroduce FW Taylor’s notion of the business as a machine, rather than a complex living and constantly evolving organism. I know that’s ironic when you might have thought thinking about brains would emphasise the organic as well as the complex, but the way neuroscience is being used seems essentially reductive rather than enlightening.
    I’m a writer, not a behavioural scientist, but I’ve been working in this area long enough, and have enough basic philosophical rigour to know when some really sloppy thinking is being pushed as insight. If you haven’t come across him by the way (and I appreciate you may well have done) McGilchrist is well worth reading. I know his left/right hemisphere model has been attacked as an over-simplification, but that’s to miss his point that he’s talking more or less metaphorically by that point, attempting to describe a cultural disposition rather than a physical fact. It’s a disposition which tells us quite a lot about management ideas and their common distortions.

Would you like to comment?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To search my website, please use the form below.

  Daily Thoughts

September 27th, 2023

Redefining Talent Wealth

The war on talent McKinsey consultants started it with a book of the same title. By focusing on what it […]

September 8th, 2023

What I Learnt From The Monks: A Little Anthropology Of Leadership And Space On One Page

My friends, monks of a Benedictine monastery in the Highlands, Scotland, spend most of the time in silence. I mean, […]

August 23rd, 2023

Can We Rescue DEI From Its Trap (The Label)?

Most of the problems and challenges in organizations, together with most of the solutions, are behavioural in nature. It’s about […]

August 10th, 2023

Restructuring to force collaboration, is likely to create more anxiety than collaboration. Structural solutions for behavioural problems hardly work.

Sometimes restructuring is done with the intention of solving a collaboration problem. ´A people´ don’t talk to ´B people´; if […]

July 18th, 2023

The ‘Impossible To Disagree With’ School Of Management

‘Good leaders have empathy, respect employees and set the example. If you want to change things, you need to have […]

June 29th, 2023

Large scale change is not small scale change repeated many times. Small wins repeated are lots of small wins.

Large scale change, as a series of cascading small scale interventions (often under the philosophy of ‘small wins’) has dominated […]

June 6th, 2023

Culture change is not long and difficult. But we make it so…

I suppose the question is how long is long and how difficult is difficult? In general, business and organizational consulting have […]

May 19th, 2023

Value is an overused term in business and, as such, it’s becoming meaningless

Value, as usually used, means transactional monetary value. Usually it doesn’t mean intrinsic value, or value per se. For example, […]

May 4th, 2023

The importance of ‘critical thinking.’ Your own critical thinking is more effective at making your workplace better than any generic employee survey.

Build your own Employee Engagement argument for free. You can’t go wrong. Here are three baskets full of concepts: Basket […]

April 21st, 2023

´Busy-Ness’ Is A Trap

I went to a big conference where I was introduced by the chairman like this: “Welcome everybody. Lovely to have […]

April 14th, 2023

Training and culture change. The love affair that ends in tears.

It seems to be very hard for people to get away from the idea that if we just put individuals […]

April 11th, 2023

Teamocracies and Networkracies have different citizens: in-Habitants in team-work, riders in net-work

The old view of the organization is something close to the old concept of a medieval city, where citizenship was […]

April 5th, 2023

3 Ways To Get Approval From Your CEO Or Your Leadership Team

Way number 1: My team has developed these three options, A, B and C. Which one do you want us […]

March 29th, 2023

A Cheat Sheet To Create A Social Movement Tip = to shape organizational culture since both are the same.

Mobilizing people. This is another of the Holy Grails (how many have I said we have?) in management. Whether you […]

March 16th, 2023

Critical Thinking Self-Test: A 10 Point Health Check For Your Organization And Yourself. If any of these are a good picture of your organization, you need to put ‘critical thinking’ in the water supply.

Test yourself, and your organization. Do any of these apply? Doing lots, too fast without thinking. High adrenaline, not sure […]

March 9th, 2023

A culture of safety or a culture of training in safety?

Cultures are created by behaviours becoming the norm. Safety is at the core of many industries. Significant budgets are allocated […]

March 2nd, 2023

Empowerment is an output. If you can visualize it, you can craft it.

The real question is, what do you want to see happening so that you can say ‘people are empowered’? Employee […]

February 24th, 2023

A simple question will jumpstart your organization into change. It will also save you from months of pain spent reorganizing your people and teams.

The following line will short-cut months of (building) ‘alignment’, integration, reorganization, team building, coalition building, and any situation in which Peter, […]

February 20th, 2023

Lead Via Peer-To-Peer Networks – If you don’t lead via peer-to-peer networks, you’re only driving your car in first gear.

Peer-to-peer work, transversal, spontaneous or not, collaboration, peer-to-peer influence, peer-to-peer activities of Viral Change™ champions or activists, all of this is the […]

February 7th, 2023

Write a script, not a strategic plan

If you care about the journey and the place, you need a story. If you have a good, compelling one, […]

January 26th, 2023

3 self-sabotaging mechanisms in organizations

Organizations, like organisms, have embedded mechanisms of survival, of growth and also of self-sabotage. These are 3 self-sabotage systems to […]

January 10th, 2023

Who should be involved in culture change? All inclusive versus going where the energy is.

Many times, in my consulting work, I find myself facing a dilemma: Do I involve many people on the client’s […]

December 23rd, 2022

Tell what won’t change – Introducing 1 of my 40 rules of change

In any change programme that any organization wants to start, they will start by thinking of the things that they […]

December 16th, 2022

Scale It – Introducing 1 of my 40 rules of change

When creating effective change in any organization, there are 40 rules that, in my experience, are the key between success […]

December 5th, 2022

Assets & Strengths Base – Introducing 1 of my 40 rules of change

For more than 30 years I have been involved in ‘change’ in organizations. Again and again, some fundamental principles, and often […]

November 25th, 2022

Campaign It… is 1 of my 40 rules of change

When you filter out the noise, when you try to extract the core, the fundamentals, those ‘universal rules’ of change […]

October 31st, 2022

Hybrid or not hybrid? That’s not the question…

Culture is the new workplace If you want to have a conversation about the future of work, the nature of […]

October 24th, 2022

‘Powered by Viral Change™’: A Social Transformation Platform for the organization of the 21st Century

When we started to work on Viral Change™, as a way to create large scale behavioural and cultural change, and […]

October 14th, 2022

Corporate tribes, intellectual ghettos and open window policies

We talk a lot about silos in organizations usually in the context of Business Units or divisions. But these are not […]

October 7th, 2022

Peer Networks are the strongest force of action inside the organization

Peer-to-peer works, transversal, spontaneous or not, collaboration, peer-to-peer influence, peer-to-peer activities of Viral Change™ champions or activists, all of this is […]