Brain Business … psychology at work … understanding human motivations and behaviours – customers, employees, investors and society

May 23, 2022

  • Can we predict the “irrational” behaviour of customers?
  • What drives preference, desire and loyalty to brands in today’s connected world?
  • How do we rebuild corporate trust and reputation in society?
  • Why are GenZ rejecting corporate employment in record numbers?
  • How can we design jobs to be more inspiring, enriching, and productive?
  • What creates psychological “safety” in high performance teams?
  • How do you “nudge” customers to change behaviours?
  • Why would people choose the same product but when it is 10 times more expensive?
  • How does storytelling change the way you explain strategies to investors?
  • What creates the “flow” state of heightened performance, when working intensely?

The business world thrives on technological innovations and operational efficiencies, but it is also intensely human. And as machines free people from processes, customers become more diverse and discerning, and creativity drives competitive advantage, then harnessing the potential of humanity matters more than ever.

In my new book Business Recoded, I focus on the world of being “more human” in a world of technology and change. This demands that leaders increasingly become the business pyschologists – how to really understand what makes people tick, how to engage and influence them effectively.

And it’s not just about employees, and how they more effectively work inside the organisation – its equally about customers and how to influence them (look at the growth of “behavioural economics” over recent years), crucially about investors and how they interpret value potential in a complex uncertain world, and most profoundly about society and how they perceive business in world where agendas such as climate and inequality, fairness and geopolitics, can seem at odds with the pursuit of profits and growth.

As a result “Brain Business” has become a useful and practical approach to applying psychology principles in all aspects of business, from strategic thinking and leadership development, to brand propositions and everyday work.

The Business Pyschologist

Today, every business leaders needs to become an expert at understanding and influencing human motivations and behaviours. There are many dimensions and components to this.

Daniel Goleman gave us emotional intelligence, where “EQ beats IQ” in developing employee behaviour, while Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point explained how ideas spread. Dan Ariely has helped reinvent customer propositions like Lemonade Insurance, while Richard Thaler taught us how to “nudge” customers into new behaviours. Freakonomics showed us just how unexpectedly markets behave, and success emerges.

Business applications of psychology have tended to focus on internal work behaviours – known as IO, or industrial and organisational psychology in the States, or occupational psychology in the UK, or in other places WO, work and organisational psychology. Yet the biggest non-articulation has been on customer behaviour, for example understand seemingly irrational behaviours, and how to influence them.

Areas which have yet to be explored, from a psychological perspective, lie in the attitudes and behaviours of investors – from private equity to stock markets, how they perceive the value of business ideas and strategies, how they balance risk and opportunity, and therefore drive trillions of dollars impact. Equally, in society at large, how we perceive corporations, and their negative and positive impacts on our broader world.

Freak Behaviours

Freakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt has sold over 4 million copies.  Incentives have been dangled in front of your nose all of your life. From “if you finish your plate you’ll get some pudding” as a child to “if you sell 100 cars this quarter you’ll get a 25% bonus” all the way to “if you don’t stop harassing the cleaning lady, we’ll put you in a home, grandpa!”

An incentive is meant to get you to do more of a good thing or less of a bad thing, and is used by anyone who tries to influence your behaviour. They say there are three kinds of incentives: Economic – usually involving gain or loss of time and/or money. Social  – when chances are you’ll look good in front of your peers or be isolated from them. Moral – appealing to your conscience and inner drive to do the right thing.

The more types of incentives are combined, the more powerful the incentive gets. For example, the disincentive (a negative incentive, the stick from the carrot and stick approach!) to commit a crime is pretty strong. You could lose your job, house and personal freedom (economic), it is one of the most morally reprehensible things you can do (moral) and of course, you’d lose your friends and your reputation would go down the drain (social).

Growth Mindsets

Concepts like the Growth Mindset, have been adapted from other fields, and are now increasingly common and incredibly powerful in driving business behaviours and performance.

When Carol Dweck was a graduate student in the early 1970s, she began to study how children cope with failure, she quickly realised that cope was the wrong word, they realised. Now a psychology professor at Stanford, she has spent several decades studying this dichotomy which she initially termed “incremental theory”. She eventually found a better language – the “fixed” and “growth” mindset. Her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success became a bestseller.

Dweck applies the concept to every walk of life – from children’s education and parenting, to sports coaching and mental performance. She argues that a growth mindset leads to higher achievement, whilst a fixed mindset actively plateaus an individual’s progress. She also applies the idea to teams and organisations. Those who for example, like to single out star performers are more fixed in their mindsets, rather than embracing everyone with their different contributions over time.

Psychology starters

Just as starters, here are 5 simple and well known psychological theories that every leader should know, essential to understanding the fragile yet complex minds of human beings, and to influence better performance and collective success:

  • The Hawthorne Effect …  being observed leads to higher productivity, employees are more motivated to work harder when more attention is paid to them, be it in feedback, collaboration or rewards.
  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs ... starting from the basic human needs, once these are satisfied, you can influence people in more intangible, emotional ways – from belonging to self actualisation.
  • Authentic Self-Expression … the secret to making employees happy is by encouraging self-expression and letting new employees bring their unique values and perspectives to the job.
  • Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory … job satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not opposites; satisfaction comes from higher-level factors like recognition and autonomy; dissatisfaction is about lack of basics.
  • Group Think … the search for harmony and conformity leads people to not innovate and not express their true opinions; which usually leads to poor decisions being made.

They are the easy ones, familiar to most people with a foundation in understanding people. But the topics go much deeper. To stretch your thinking a little more, here are some of my favourite books on these topics:

12 Great Books on Psychology for Business

Atomic Habits, by James Clear

How to change your habits and get 1% better every day. If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves not because you don’t want to change but because you have the wrong system for change. This is one of the core philosophies of Atomic Habits: You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. In this book, you’ll get a proven plan that can take you to new heights.

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell

The power of thinking without thinking. Intuition is not some magical property that arises unbidden from the depths of our mind. It is a product of long hours and intelligent design, of meaningful work environments, and particular rules and principles. The Canadian journalist, who can still run a mile in under 5 minutes (that impresses me!), explores how the power of blink could fundamentally transform our relationships – the way we consume, create and communicate, how we run our businesses, and even our societies.

Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath

Why do disproved urban legends persist? How do you keep letting newspapers and clickbait sites lure you in with their headlines? And why do you remember complicated stories but not complicated facts? Over ten years of study, Chip and Dan Heath have discovered how we latch on to information hooks. Packed full of case histories and incredible anecdotes, it shows how an Australian scientist convinced the world he’d discovered the cause of stomach ulcers by drinking a glass filled with bacteria; how a gifted sports reporter got people to watch a football match by showing them the outside of the stadium; how pitches like ‘Jaws on a spaceship’ (Alien) and ‘Die Hard on a bus’ (Speed) convince movie execs to invest gigantic sums even when they know nothing else about the project. By demonstrating strategies like the ‘Velcro Theory of Memory’ and ‘curiosity gaps’, the book offers superbly practical insights.

Contagious, by Jonah Berger

Why do ideas catch on, and others don’t? Why does some online content go viral? Word of mouth makes products, ideas, and behaviors catch on. It’s more influential than advertising and far more effective. Can you create word of mouth for your product or idea? According to Berger, you can. Whether you operate a neighborhood restaurant, a corporation with hundreds of employees, or are running for a local office for the first time, the steps that can help your product or idea become viral are the same.

Drive, by Dan Pink

Drive explains the secret to high performance and satisfaction in today’s world is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and the world. To motivate employees who work beyond basic tasks, Pink argues that supporting employees in the following three areas will result in increased performance and satisfaction: Autonomy — Our desire to be self directed. It increases engagement over compliance. Mastery — The urge to get better skilled. Purpose — The desire to do something that has meaning and is important. Businesses that only focus on profits without valuing purpose will end up with poor customer service and unhappy employees

Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman

Does IQ define our destiny? Goleman argues that our view of human intelligence is far too narrow. It is not our IQ, but our emotional intelligence that plays a major role in thought, decision-making and individual success. Self-awareness, impulse control, persistence, motivation, empathy and social deftness: all are qualities that mark people who excel, whose relationships flourish, who can navigate difficult conversations, who become stars in the workplace.

Freakonomics, by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt

At its roots, economics is simply the study of incentives. It’s all about how we use our limited resources in an attempt to satisfy our unlimited wants and needs. It’s about the trade-offs we make each day. For example, we’re incentivised to go to work and trade our time (limited resource) to get money to buy the things we want. When we’re a toddler, we’re curious to see what’s going on up there on the stove so we reach up and touch it, but when we get burned we’re incentivised not to touch it again. Our parents praising us for a good score in our 4th grade maths test is an incentive to do some extra homework the night before the test.


Give and Take, by Adam Grant

Everybody knows that hard work, luck and talent each plays a role in our working lives. Grant focuses on the importance of a fourth, increasingly critical factor – that the best way to get to the top is to focus on bringing others with you. Give and Take changes our fundamental understanding of why we succeed, offering a new model for our relationships with colleagues, clients and competitors. Using his own cutting-edge research as a professor at Wharton Business School, as well as success stories from Hollywood to history, Grant shows that nice guys need not finish last. He demonstrates how smart givers avoid becoming doormats, and why this kind of success has the power to transform not just individuals and groups, but entire organisations and communities.

Mindset, by Carol Dweck

Dweck explains why it’s not just our abilities and talent that bring us success-but whether we approach them with a fixed or growth mindset. She makes clear why praising intelligence and ability doesn’t foster self-esteem and lead to accomplishment, but may actually jeopardize success. With the right mindset, we can motivate our kids and help them to raise their grades, as well as reach our own goals-personal and professional. She reveals what all great parents, teachers, CEOs, and athletes already know: how a simple idea about the brain can create a love of learning and a resilience that is the basis of great accomplishment in every area.

Nudge, by Richard Thaler

Every day we make decisions: about the things that we buy or the meals we eat; about the investments we make or our children’s health and education; even the causes that we champion or the planet itself. Unfortunately, we often choose poorly. We are all susceptible to biases that can lead us to make bad decisions that make us poorer, less healthy and less happy. And, no choice is ever presented to us in a neutral way. By knowing how people think, we can make it easier for them to choose what is best for them, their families and society.

Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely

Why do smart people make irrational decisions every day? The answers will surprise you. Predictably Irrational is an intriguing, witty and utterly original look at why we all make illogical decisions. Why can a 50p aspirin do what a 5p aspirin can’t? If an item is “free” it must be a bargain, right? Why is everything relative, even when it shouldn’t be? How do our expectations influence our actual opinions and decisions? Behavioural economist Dan Ariely cuts to the heart of our strange behaviour, demonstrating how irrationality often supplants rational thought and that the reason for this is embedded in the very structure of our minds.

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

Why do some people and companies struggle to change, despite years of trying, while others seem to remake themselves overnight? Duhigg visits laboratories where neuroscientists explore how habits work and where, exactly, they reside in our brains. And he uncovers how the right habits were crucial to the success of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and civil-rights hero Martin Luther King. He argues that the key to exercising regularly, losing weight, raising exceptional children, becoming more productive or even building revolutionary companies is understanding how habits work. By harnessing this science, we can transform our businesses, our communities, and our lives.

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Why is there more chance we’ll believe something if it’s in a bold type face? Why are judges more likely to deny parole before lunch? Why do we assume a good-looking person will be more competent? The answer lies in the two ways we make choices: fast, intuitive thinking, and slow, rational thinking. Kahneman reveals how our minds are tripped up by error and prejudice (even when we think we are being logical), and gives you practical techniques for slower, smarter thinking. It will enable to you make better decisions at work, at home, and in everything you do.

Find out more, and for keynotes and workshops, by emailing me at

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