Boardroom Productivity

Improving Your Board’s Productivity and Performance with Neuroscience

Published: October 13, 2014

Read Time: 8 minutes

680 neuroscience

Productive meetings are central to board effectiveness and Director satisfaction. Productivity in a board context is not just about efficiency. It should also be demonstrated through the value add the board delivers.

High-performing boards know that unproductive meetings waste time and money and can adversely impact decision-making. In the non-profit sector, unproductive meetings can drain already limited resources. Common actions boards apply to improve productivity in the boardroom include: streamlining agendas, delegating to committees, prioritising issues and modifying board packs (to name a few). However, even with the best time management strategies, productivity of the board can falter. As we learn more about human behaviour through our increased understanding of the brain, the reasons for these drops in productivity become more apparent.

Here are five principles from neuroscience that provide us with insight into ways in which boards may be inadvertently hindering their productivity and performance.

1. Moods matter

The recent discovery of mirror neurones has shown that we are wired to detect and mirror the emotions of others. Put simply, emotions can be contagious and toxic and stressful boardroom environments often infect the mood and cognitive performance of everyone.

Just as bad news travels fast – bad moods also travel fast. The brain perceives a threat five times faster than a reward (Coleman, 2006) and generates a fight or flight response. Biochemical changes then limit a person’s ability to regulate emotions and think rationally. This results in confusion, less effective decision-making, negative group dynamics, and reduced board productivity and effectiveness.

Does this mean that all emotion should be repressed in the boardroom? Not according to experts in the field of social cognitive neuroscience. A growing body of evidence suggests that our emotional regulation strategies are not only ineffective but are also bad for our health and those around us (Lieberman et al., 2007). Professor Matthew Lieberman of UCLA found that labelling our emotions maximises cognitive ability as it lowers the arousal of the emotional centres of the brain, producing a quieter brain state more conducive to effective functioning.

How to apply this: Maintain a strong focus on boardroom behaviours and build a culture of trust. Just as we can catch a bad mood, we can equally catch a good mood. Directors need to be aware and proactive in monitoring boardroom behaviours. To maintain a productive environment, Directors need to create a climate of respect, trust and candour in the boardroom where constructive open challenge and dissent is accepted and encouraged.

2. Focused attention increases productivity and performance

Multitasking is out. Focused attention has recently been found to be essential for peak productivity. Your attentional intelligence (as it is sometimes referred to) is an intelligence that, when highly developed, allows you to effortlessly and mindfully notice where your attention is focused at any moment and then intentionally choose where you want it to be. It necessarily involves withdrawal from some things in order to deal more effectively with others.

Jeffrey Schwartz, one of the world’s leading experts in neuroplasticity and co-founder of the neuroleadership field, states in his book The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force:

Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them.

Daniel Goleman, who popularised emotional intelligence, agrees. In his new book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Goleman concludes that in a world where we are bombarded by relentless distractions, focused attention is essential in everything we do. The better we can pay attention, the greater the level of excellence that can be achieved.

How to apply this: Foster attentional intelligence in your board

Focused attention can assist Directors to bring their best thinking to the table on the issue at hand. Individuals and the board as a whole will also be less susceptible to distractions or diversions, resulting in productive and efficient meetings. Practice attentional intelligence by prioritising, being mindful, staying present and consciously taking charge of your attention.

3. Respect cognitive limitations

As points 1 and 2 have demonstrated, self-regulation and attention are important for productivity. However, they can only be sustained over extended periods by taking regular breaks. The brain’s attentional resources drop after long periods of focusing on a single task, decreasing focus and hindering performance (Ariga & Lleras, 2011).

This also applies to our ability to monitor and self regulate our behaviours. After a marathon board meeting, the brain will have used up available sources of oxygen and glucose (the brain’s primary form of energy) leaving you feeling mentally drained and more susceptible to losing your cool.

Put simply, when required to participate in lengthy board meetings, Directors cannot maintain optimum productivity and performance without allowing time for brief rest periods at regularly scheduled intervals.

How to apply this: Change your meeting from a marathon to a series of shorter sprints

For optimum cognitive performance and productivity, micro breaks are a must. Ideally extended periods of focus should not exceed 90 minutes. The activities undertaken during the breaks are also important and should involve completely disconnecting from the task at hand or any other cognitive tasks e.g. no checking emails or making phone calls. Even if only for a few minutes, Directors should move away from the table and where possible get some fresh air.

4. Set goals

Goal setting is not something that is motivating to everyone. Some love it and others are more inspired by overcoming challenges and problem solving. Both of these cognitive preferences add to the cognitive diversity of a board, however, for improved performance goal setting has been shown to be of key importance. Studies have shown that people who set goals outperform those who don’t, irrespective of whether they set those goals themselves or the goals are set by others (Locke, 1996).

How to apply this: Support achievement of business deliverables

To optimise your board’s value add, consider how your board can best support the executive in the achievement of business deliverables. How can your board monitor risk, apply good governance and keep things moving? Targets for consideration by the board should include both the immediate and longer-term goals. Also ensure that the board’s expectations, timeframes and lines of accountability are clearly understood by all.

5. Focus on the benefits you are delivering to others

Dr. Adam Grant is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and undertook a study that showed that helping others motivates us to work harder. In his book titled Give and Take he describes his study involving staff at a university whose job was to make calls to university alumni to raise money for undergraduate scholarships.

Grant staged an intervention where some of these callers received a surprise visit from a past scholarship recipient who had directly benefitted from the work that they do. The visits were only of 5 minutes duration. At the end of that time the manager said, ‘Remember this when you are on the phone – this is someone you are supporting’.

It would be expected that this intervention might improve performance for the rest of the day. However, by tracking their performance data over the weeks that followed, Grant found that improved performance was sustained a month later and had resulted in a 171% increase in donations. An outstanding outcome given that all he did was remind people how their work was helping others.

Grant then ran a complementary study. In this study he gave one group of callers a letter that explained how their work helped them personally and sent the second group a letter describing how their work benefitted scholarship recipients.

Those with the self-focus (the first group) did not change their performance.

Those focused on others (the second group) once again showed dramatic gains – the number of donations increased 153% and the donation value increased by 143%.

Grant’s work, which has been replicated with consistent results, reinforces the very simple construct that when we can see how what we do helps other people, we are more engaged, work harder, care more about the organisation we are working for and produce better outcomes.

How to apply this: Remember why you are there

Make sure your board is clear about how what you do benefits others and regularly revisit this. When we give to others the reward network in our brain lights up far more than when we receive. Our brains are wired for social connection, and the brain releases oxytocin which is a critical driver of our motivation to care for others – even in circumstances where there is no mutual gain.

The principles outlined above, which might previously have been considered just good common sense, are now backed by scientific research. If your board still has some room to improve its productivity and performance, reflection and situational analysis of less productive meetings can help in identifying your board’s Achilles’ heel(s).

Boards should continually being looking for ways to do things better. With our improved understanding of the brain, boards can now take a targeted approach to performance improvement. High performing boards will combine logic and brain based improvement strategies to maximise their productivity and performance, and in doing so will be working smarter rather than harder.


  • Ariga, A., & Lleras, A. Brief and rare mental ‘‘breaks’’ keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Cognition (2011), doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.007
  • Coleman, D., 2006. Emotional intelligence: why it can matter more that IQ. 10th anniversary ed, New York: NY Bantam Books.
    Goleman, D. (2013) Focus: the hidden driver of excellence New York: NY Harper Collins.
  • Grant, A. (2013) Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
  • Locke, Edwin A. (1996) “Motivation Through Conscious Goal Setting”, Applied and Preventive Psychology, 5:117-124
  • Lieberman, M. D. (2013) Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. New York, NY: Crown
  • Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S., Pfeifer, J. H., Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18, 421-428.
  • Schwartz, J., & Begley, S. (2002). The mind and the brain: Neuroplasticity and the power of mental force. New York: Regan Books/HarperCollins Publ.


Executive Coach
Inspired Reality

Belinda Cohen is a former lawyer and manager who provides coaching and consulting services across a range of sectors. Belinda works with boards to improve their performance and decision-making through analysis of boardroom behaviours and dynamics. Belinda is co-author of the forthcoming book ‘Shift: Making the change that matters’, a leader’s guide for developing performance at work.

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