How Neuroscience Can Help Corporations Maximize Motivation

Researchers are studying brain function to better understand why and in what circumstances workers feel satisfied with their jobs.

Plugged into Emotiv neuro-computing sensors
Plugged into Emotiv neuro-computing sensors
Paul Molga

MARSEILLE — The operator of a shipping company is concentrating hard on his computer screen when suddenly it talks back to him. "Would you like some help?" it asks. "You should take a break!"

Throughout the day, the man tracks freight quotes to move thousands of containers around the ocean. The work requires flawless concentration, but the cerebral monitoring sensors he has been equipped with have spotted a rise in stress and a drop in attention. He risks making mistakes that could be costly to his business, and the computer knows it.

The machine's advice comes from an artificial intelligence program designed by the American company Emotiv, a specialist in customized neuro-computing solutions. It analyzes brain signals recorded from next-generation, intra-ear sensors similar to headphones.

Neuroscience is going to revolutionize learning.

To obtain the encephalograms, researchers usually cover their subjects with flexible helmets equipped with dozens of electrodes. But, to shrink this equipment down for use (it has only two electrodes), the company had to cross-analyze tens of millions of tracks to locate two useful signatures that would measure in real-time the cognitive and emotional state of an individual.

That's not all. Equipped with a Bluetooth connection, the headsets transmit the data directly to a cloud where their employee profile enriches company behavioral knowledge of employees and their work.

"Our goal is to enable organizations to harness the power of large-scale contextualized neuro-informatics by leveraging information collected in real-world work environments from thousands of people," says Olivier Oullier, neuroscientist and president of Emotiv.

EMOTIVE headset testing during the presentation — Photo: @emotiv/Facebook

Ouillier's company has just joined forces with the SAP software publisher to develop an application for professional training.

"Neuroscience is going to revolutionize learning by providing personalized interfaces that take into account the user's emotional state to get the most out of their attention," says Alexander Lingg, SAP's user experience manager.

Thanks to advances in brain imaging, neuroscience has recently seen dramatic developments that reveal the mechanisms of learning, memory, motivation, commitment, attention, decision-making and leadership, all of which interest the business world.

"They highlight the parameters that the brain needs to flourish," explains Pierre-Marie Lledo, director of the neuroscience department at the Institut Pasteur (and a regular columnist at Les Echos).

Lledo's work on neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to reshape its connections according to the environment and experiences), mirror neurons (those of empathy and imitation learning), and the social brain (relationships with others) convinced him that science can help create "neuro-friendly managers' who can organize their own work and also help their team. In doing so they can help reduce stress and stimulate creativity.

"It's about adapting the world of work to brain function rather than the other way around," says the researcher.

The American neuroscientist David Rock gave birth to the concept of "neuroleadership" in 2006. In a related book, Neuroleadership: Le cerveau face à la décision et au changement (Neuroleadership: the Brain Facing Decision and Change), neurologist Philippe Damier and teacher James Teboul extend Rock's work and highlight some of the management errors discovered by advancements in neuroscience.

They argue, for example, that there is no point in drowning your team with a flood of key arguments if their working memory can only retain three. Also, creating excessive competition between employees puts the brain system on alert. It then controls the secretion of hormones such as cortisol to prepare our body to defend itself.

Only 6% say they are motivated by their job, compared to 20% who say they are totally disengaged.

"Neuroscience comes to companies after they have made intensive use of processes whose characteristic is to demotivate the human," says Pierre-Marie Lledo.

The researcher draws on lessons that he distilled from senior managers of top French companies, from Danone to L'Oréal, where a Gallup study of September 2018 showed that the engagement rate of French employees is among the lowest in the world: Only 6% say they are motivated by their job, compared to 20% who say they are totally disengaged.

"The brain is destroyed by routine and feeds on change," is one of the messages Lledo wants managers to hear. "Do not expect great creativity in automatic processes," is another one. "Give employee real breaks," he also urges. "These are precious moments of intellectual wandering and ebullition that bring out creative ideas."

Traditional performance models are being challenged with the arrival of new generations. "One of the biggest problems is how we are ranked based on test results during the recruitment phase," says Olivier Oullier. "Our cognitive, affective and neurophysiological states are constantly evolving. This is why our working conditions must be based on factual data and be dynamically adapted to our feelings."

Recognition is key, say researchers, especially as it has a physiological reality. That's because recognition activates the neurological reward circuits on which motivation, trust and social cohesion are based. There's nothing more stimulating than a "neuro-benevolent" work environment, one in which employees enjoy both autonomy and delegated responsibility.

As Emilie Letailleur, chair the "think and do tank" Circle Embelys, explains, it's all about stimulating positive emotions. "Successful leaders have a high level of emotional intelligence," she says.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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