That Won’t Work?


I was at a morning tea event the other day – a quasi networking event which I wasn’t  keen to attend as I was busy, however I went along to be polite. I was nailed to the wall by an older man who had run an engineering business for 35 years and was pontificating about the current times, HR, KPI’s, the younger generation and how awful everything was, all the while speaking with his mouth full of chocolate cake. Finally he said ‘what do you do’? I gave him the BBQ statement and he stopped chewing his cake and said ‘ that won’t work’. He then went into another tirade about how HR and KPI’s have made sure managers don’t take responsibility and blah blah blah. Needless to say I escaped and went back to the office.

I was struck by ‘cake man’s’ vehemence in his pontification about the problem – it was like a tsunami of negativity that was barrelling at me. I am not sure about you, but negativity exhausts me, I find it draining and tend to avoid it as much as possible. Negativity is a side effect of modern life due to the brain changes that have occurred as a result of technology grossly speeding up the rate of information transfer which I have referred to often in my posts.

As I surround myself with positive people who are forward thinking and solution focused – when I come across such negativity it feels really unpleasant, and I was a bit stunned to be honest. In fact most of our clients gravitate towards us because they are attempting to ‘work through negativity’ from people within their own businesses who ‘block people productivity progress’ in exactly the same way that ‘cake man’ did – “that won’t work”. They too express exhaustion with the ‘can’t, can’t can’t…..responses to their attempts to progress people productivity in their own organisations.

The good news is that this negativity can be overcome and resolved. The brain discovery I made some time ago is the precursor to this over-abundance of negativity. It is simply the ‘reaction’ from the brain to too much going on (overload), too much to process and too many decisions to make (daily working life for most). Simply put the brain processing area (where everything we do, say, think and feel is filtered) is like a switch – either ON of OFF. This part of the brain is not at all complicated and is like the language of computers (1 or 0) ‘on or off’ and all other processes upstream from the ‘1’ or ‘0’ will have the associated attributes of the ‘1’ or ‘0’.

The attributes of the ‘1’ are associated overload and the brain paying attention to a potential threat, we are hardly going to be jumping for joy with a ‘lion viewing us as lunch’ – so the emotions will be negative and the resulting thinking and actions will be negative as well. The attributes of the ‘0’ on the other hand is where creativity, potential, productivity, contentment, sense of purpose and satisfaction with achievement all reside. This is the state we all desire, crave and spend most of our time ‘trying’ to get to this state.

Whilst this solution to overcoming negativity is simple on the surface – in reality it is extremely difficult – if it wasn’t we would all be contented and ‘cake man’ would be a rarity. Unfortunately ‘cake man’ is not a rarity and people like him seem to have the loudest voices and get the most attention. Once again there are brain based reasons for this. There are two very significant further consequences of brain ‘overload’ due to people trying to process to much ‘stuff’.

The first is that information or brain processing overload due to too much ‘stuff’ has caused the brain to become ‘habituated’ to having to constantly check for incoming threats (too much stuff to process). This is interpreted by the brain as being in “dinner plate for the lion” mode most of the time, particularly at work which means negative emotions. This is an unconscious process and as such we have no idea that our brain is in this state and that we are interpreting things that are in no way ‘a threat’ in a negative way. This habituation has also shut down the reasoning, creative, problem solving part of our brain. Have you ever been in a situation where you have reacted to something and it has not worked out so well – then when you are a relaxed state later looked back and thought ‘that was a bit nuts’? This is because in the relaxed ‘brain state’ you are ‘seeing the situation’ in a completely different light. We don’t like being in this state and the other insidious thing is that we all know that our thinking, behaviours and beliefs are a bit mad and reactionary when ‘under the pump’. We don’t want to acknowledge this and yet ironically, this fuels another phenomenon.

This brings me to the second consequence of brain overload that is driving increased negativity – ‘emotional contagion’. Emotional contagion means people adopting the group emotions, sentiments and beliefs – stock market crashes or herd behaviour by way of example. The main driver for this, particularly with regards to work, is a powerful desire to ‘be right’. No one wants to be an outlier in our politically correct problem focused world, don’t stick your neck out, toe the party line. This is the way things are, we all believe it and so should you. ‘Cake man’ was telling me he was right and that I would fail because I was wrong as our ideas are incongruent or not a match to his and the group.

This phenomena of negative emotional contagion has gone through the roof over the past decade or so. Social media has been a vehicle for this – but it has not been the cause.  The media does not tell people how to think and feel – they do that themselves. However the media ‘tells people what to think about’ and the abundance of negativity means there is more often than not a negative take or lens view. Then social chit-chat and the contagion effect of ‘group mentality’ takes over, and we have what we know as the status quo.

Cake man and his views was a prime example of how the brain has reacted to overload. The interesting thing is that ‘cake man’ acknowledged there were problems and was very verbose and clear about the extent of the problems – yet could not entertain an alternate view on solving the problems. In the words on Einstein – insanity.  I will discuss cake-man’s views on HR and KPI’s next time – that was really interesting. I could dismiss cake man as a nutter – but he isn’t, he is a member of a large cohort who think like he does – they are not nuts – just overloaded.

Email NOT the problem – Human conditioning IS

We hear about email being tarred and feathered continuously as the scourge of modern workplaces, and strategies abound to deal with this awfulness. These discussions and strategies are all very interesting and helpful to a degree. However, as with most of the modern day problems of overload and too much stuff and all the rest of it – these problems are environmental in nature. Technology has radically changed the landscape out there – not too dissimilar to the motor car replacing the horse. Unlike the transition from the horse and cart to the motor car – the demands for ‘decisions to be made’ did not really change.

Looking at the radical change to the human environment due to technology and connectivity, what has changed so radically is the speed at which this ‘stuff’ comes at us. The days of a phone call, office memo, fax or snail mail order being the height of demands seems unfathomable from our current vantage point of literally 10’s to 100’s of emails per day. So email has been demonised as the culprit of this overload and overwhelming demand on our daily lives at work. Well there is, technically speaking, no ‘real difference’ expect for the amount of stuff at any one time that we ‘expect’ to have to deal with.

There in lies the source of the ‘problem of email’. It is not the email or the technology – that is just a modern efficient means to pass information around. Rather it is the way humans (yes that is us) respond to the email. Most email strategies will have among other things, suggestions such as only check your email once or twice a day – yeah right who seriously does that? We have been conditioned forever in workplaces to respond to ‘requests, demands and expectations’ to do things. In the days of snail mail, phone, fax and memo’s we responded to each new request, even if that meant putting the request in the pending tray. The pace of ‘requests’ was such that this was a manageable strategy.

Now with the speed of requests being as it is – such a strategy of ‘responding’ is completely unsustainable and just plain ridiculous. Yet most of us are on this rat-wheel. Can you see that is it our conditioning to respond that is the problem, not the email process? I hope so – because you can never change the email process no one can, however we are all capable of changing our behaviours – when we know how. So what we need to do is ‘re-condition’ or ‘adapt’ the way we ‘respond’ to email requests to do something. The current conditioning is automatic, and I would hazard a guess that there are not too many people out there consciously aware of their ‘own conditioning’ with ‘responding to emails’.

New Year’s Resolutions – Why they so often fai


As a Behavioural Neuroscientist I always ask the groups I train in how to succeed with behaviour change, ‘how often do you succeed with your News Year’s Resolutions (NYR’s)?’ Over the years I have been finding that more and more people don’t bother. I always ask why? “Because I know I will fail or give up, so I don’t bother” is the typical response. Invariably the conversations also turns to things such as how many people buy gym equipment on Ebay in April or May because of failed NYR’s.

Let’s unpack this ‘failure’ to stick with NYR’s. Firstly, people are not weak willed or ‘no good’ because they fail to stick with change. Secondly, the root cause of ‘failure’ to stick with behaviour change is brain overload – which effectively sabotages efforts to change. Why? Because change requires significant ‘brain power’ which is simply not available due to brain overload in our fast paced world of too much stuff too fast.

Successful behaviour change is the next frontier for businesses continual ability to keep up with the ever increasing speed of technology driven changes in the marketplace. Behaviour change is a fundamental driver of humans – we are hardwired to change in response to changes in our environment. However, brain overload, a physiological phenomenon resulting from technology grossly increasing the speed at which ‘stuff’ is presented to us for our brain to process, has severely compromised the human brain’s ability to process information.

The fallout is increasingly limited availability of brain power to get things done – which renders things like behaviour change being pushed way down the pecking order in terms of available brain energy. The good news is – we can learn to ‘adapt’ our brain to successfully change and work efficiently in a world of gross information overload. Adaptation is not the same as Neuroplasticity – that will not work. Adaptation means learning to ‘control’ the unconscious or hidden brain, which ironically is where more than 60% of all we do each day occurs.

Dr. Lucia Kelleher is the MD of People Data, systems and processes that collect real-time data, guide business leaders with interpreting and actioning the data to drive sustainable behaviour change, the new frontier for businesses success in the digital age.

Employee well-being = organisational wellbeing

Research indicates that workplace absenteeism costs the Australian economy on average $18 billion per year with workplace stress and overwhelm being a major contributor to it.

Research also indicates that a successful employee well-being program can:

  • Decrease sick leave by 25.3%
  • Decrease workers compensation by 40.7%
  • Decrease disability management costs by 22.3%
  • Save $5.81 for every $1 invested in employee wellbeing
  • Increase organisational performance by 2.5%
  • Increase employee engagement by a factor of 8

Yet even with these impressive statistics, poor employee well-being costs Australian employers $10.9 billion a year and workplace stress claims costs have increased by 45% in just a few short years. Stress from overload is also responsible for businesses losing 3.2 days per worker each year. This means that attention to employee well-being is much more than just ‘the right thing to do’ it is an imperative of good financial management.

We believe that the root cause of this increase in stress in the workplace is brain overload. Essentially the brains inability to process the amount of information we have to deal with on a daily basis. We forget that the amount of stuff we expect our brain to process today, has increased 1000’s of times over compared to pre-tech days. The hard-wired (that means it does not change and is not neuroplastic) ‘input’ part of our brain simply cannot process at the speed the modern tech driven world demands and this has caused the brain to become overloaded.

Companies need to recognise that the overwhelmed, hyper-connected employee is a product of the 21st century global, fast paced marketplace. They are overloaded and overwhelmed and this can lead to stress and anxiety.

Workplace stress in most cases is poor ability to cope with a demanding overloaded world we now live in, which reduces resilience. The level of information and distraction in the workplace is set to increase further and therefore stress will increase, if left unchecked. The answer is for people to understand how brain overload has created overwhelm and constant feelings of being out of control and to provide them with the tools and knowledge to manage overwhelm.

Employers and employees both have legal obligations in relation to the management of health and safety in the workplace. Workplace health and safety legislation requires employers to ensure the workplace is safe and healthy and employees and employers must identify potential hazards. This legislation refers to both mental and physical health.

Most organisations focus their attention on the physical wellbeing of their employees and struggle with how to manage the more intangible mental well-being. Business and HR leaders have an opportunity to ensure their workplace takes a holistic approach to wellbeing that considers all aspects of employee well-being through the OH&S Act consultation process. A well-being survey which includes a psychological hazard assessment will inform your employee well-being plan and identify the key areas of ‘overwhelm, overload and potential stress in the organisation.

Once you have this data you can commence a meaningful well-being change program which will include:

  • A process for engaging leaders and employees
  • Immediate actions to eradicate the risks if relevant
  • An education process on how to control and eradicate the cause of ‘stress’ and teach people how to adapt their brains’ processing ability to cope in a fast paced world

Other tools such as an effective measurement system to ensure the well-being change plan is followed, ensures your organisation complies with legal obligations, and that responsibility for implementing the plan is cascaded through the organisation.

Employee well-being and productivity are unquestionably linked which is a further direct link to the bottom line of an organisation. If employee well-being is not properly managed it can lead to poor productivity, stress, absenteeism, errors, fatigue, low morale, poor concentration, lack of focus on output, lack of strategic alignment and purpose and lack of customer care and accidents.

Uncertainty = fear of the future, the unknown. How did uncertainly become so paralysing?

I have not ‘read newspapers or watched television news for decades, however once a week or so I will flick through a newspaper whilst waiting for my coffee to be made in a cafe. Headlines such as these are daily fare, no wonder uncertainty and ‘fear of the future’ is so prevalent, “would you like doom with your gloom, how about supersizing that”.Most days I mingle with the public on transport, in cafes, shops and just walking about. As a Behavioural Neuroscientist and Researcher I observe people, listen and study non-verbal cues. There is a direct correlation between what I hear and observe whilst ‘people watching’ and the negativity in the media.

The long term effects of this are contributing to crippling people in terms of their ability to make decisions, change behaviours, feel good about their achievements and to be self-responsible both at work and outside work.

Has the media always been this negative, have we always been fed this ‘diet of doom and gloom’? I would argue not this relentlessly. There is actually a reason for this perpetual negative feedback loop, and it has to do with a brain discovery I made over a decade ago. The advent of technology 15 or so years ago created such a radical shift in our external environment that it can be likened to an event such as a meteor hitting the earth.

As humans we first have to ‘survive’ in response to what our environment ‘throws at us’. Our survival brain – which is unconscious – does a pretty good job at adapting to change in terms of keeping us alive. However there are consequences to the way the brain reacts in response to a changed environment.

The radical changes to our environment (outside world) due to technology have largely been unnoticed in terms of the way the brain has responded and reacted. I think we would notice the changed environment from a meteor hitting the earth by way of example, much more. However, from a human adaptation perspective these changes could not be more all-encompassing and absolute.

Technology has increased the amount of ‘stimulus or stuff’ in our environment exponentially. Whilst this stuff is largely ‘silent and invisible’, is it not too our survival brain or processing centre. The result is our brain’s processing centre is continually in ‘melt-down’, stretched beyond breaking point attempting to cope with the onslaught of stuff coming at it continually.

The most profound impact of the brain responding continually to ‘too much stuff’, is that it is in a ‘state of high alert’ constantly which translates directly as negative emotions and negative overthinking. The brain interprets too much stuff as a potential threat – not just too many emails.

This part of the brain is the same as when we were living in the tree’s, so too many emails is interpreted as us being ‘lunch’ for a predator. I am sure no one would be in a joyous, creative, curious or innovative state whilst being stared down by a hungry lion.

The media is essentially reacting to this ‘state’ of perpetual negativity due to brain overload. If you think about it at each moment we view the world through a lens – that lens is determined by how we ‘feel’. The brain reactions from ‘too much stuff’ described above, means most of the time that lens is negative.

Therein lies a big clue as to why ‘stories’ in the media and the way things are portrayed, are so negative. These stories in turn are ‘read’ and consumed by people who are ‘overloaded’ with their ‘brain processing’ in a negative state, and ‘cements’ for them that ‘these stories are true’.

What I observe and hear when I am doing my people watching is the continuation of the negative feedback loop – the ‘doom and gloom’ is constantly being talked about – so therefore it ‘must be true’.

However, interestingly I am finding more and more people I meet with my business are realising that this ‘diet’ of negativity is overbearing, and they are choosing not to fill their minds with this stuff. They are starting to realise that they can begin the process of reversing the ‘brain adaptation’ of continual negativity by not supersizing their day through reading and consuming negative media.

The more ‘astute’ have made the connection that ‘what I read and see is what I think and feel, and therefore what I believe and do’. So they are therefore deliberately exercising ‘I am what I think’ and I think that reading negative media stories is not going to help me make decisions, change behaviours, feel good about my achievements and be self-responsible.

Perhaps the most profound truth of life is ‘you are what you think’. In the words of Sir Lawrence Olivier from the narration of the theme from the rock opera “Time” in the 1960’s – choose your thoughts wisely.

To Blog or Not to Blog? – is the question

I have not posted for some time and there is a reason for that, and there is also a reason why I am blogging now.

So why did I stop posting? It was a moral dilemma – moral compasses appear to be in short supply with sections of humanity currently. My moral dilemma was about putting ‘more stuff’ out there and add to an overloaded world that is stretched to breaking point. Overload is the Achilles Heel for businesses in terms of managing people productivity. If I could have $1 for every customer of ours who says I am swamped and seem to be getting nowhere, I would as they say, be wealthy.

The other side of my dilemma is that being at the leading edge of people productivity, we at Productive People really do need to blog to keep the momentum of change for the better, moving. Another thing our customers tell us is that they are suffering from information paralysis – which impacts their ability to act and make decisions. They lament that there is so much ‘expert opinion’ out there  diametrically opposed they are pulled from pillar to post and this causes anxiety, as it increases their getting decisions wrong is palpable for our customers.

Prior to the ‘digital age’ and the tsunami of ‘expert stuff’ that is blogged daily from an army of ‘experts’ the size of China’s military (2.3M), expert advice had meaning was well founded in science and had been tested in the field over time. This meant that people like our customers responsible for making decisions, could do so with high levels of assurance that their decision would be good for the business. This has been eroded as the expert ‘hat’ is available in any $2 shop, and is shipped by the container load across the globe. Spare a thought for the business decision makers.

After pondering this conundrum for some time I realised that there is no real moral dilemma at all. Have we at Productive People not brought together the culmination of decades of research, experience, field testing of how people can work most efficiently in the modern fast paced marketplace?  Yes we have. So therefore we have a higher moral obligation to at least provide a yardstick and leveler for those business decision makers, if not to take our methods on board directly, to at least provide an opportunity for food for through with their decision to increase assurance of getting it right for the business.

A further reason to continue to post is that increasingly I am hearing out there that people are really tired of the noise – as they should be, it is exhausting. The brain has a finite level of energy and so much of it is wasted on a daily basis. Imagine if there was as much focus on getting things done at work as there is in paying attention to social media? What a revolutionary idea. The worst thing is that all this incessant focus on ‘social media’ has virtually no direct applicable benefit to getting things done at work on a daily basis. In fact it adds to indecision, avoidance and is a productivity killer, because it erodes attention and very little of it actually gets past the brain gate-keeper anyway.

I overheard the barista in my favorite coffee shop this morning commenting to a customer that if a Martian was looking down on us they would say “were not going to land down there, they’re all mad” – I laughed to myself. No one denies the world is changing at such a rapid rate almost on a daily basis and that collectively most people are screaming inside – ‘please can we slow down a bit’ – yet the ‘Red Shoes’ keep dancing. At Productive People we have the antidote to slow the ‘Red Shoes’ down and give you back control to stop them when you choose to – turning them into Dorothy’s red shoes.

Why your business cannot afford to ignore distraction

The Principals of Productive People and Employerbility have recently joined forces to conduct a second wave of earlier research to test a theory about productivity and distraction in Australian workplaces. Our full report is available (free) on our website.

Our theory based on our combined decades of consulting,  experience, academic  and desk research and our own observations led us to want to test the hypothesis that:

Australian workers are not so much dis-engaged and unproductive, they are distracted and overloaded which in turn leads to overwhelm and feelings of never having enough time to do all that is required – both at work and outside of work”

When asked what being productive meant? 68% said they are productive at work  “Getting business tasks done”


  • 70% work more than the hours they are paid;
  • 52% cannot complete their work in paid hours;
  • 38% spend 2 or more hours per day doing things they are not paid to do;
  • 33% are frequently distracted at work

So, what is actually going on? 

There is a disconnect – on the one hand people think they are productive at work – yet clearly they are not, as 70% work beyond the hours they are expected to work – but almost 4 in 5 report they could get their ‘paid work” done within the expected time if they could manage distractions and get on with work.

Constant distraction from the world of information overload – causes brain overload. This brain overload feels like busyness, and to all intents and purposes people think they are being productive.

Global research shows people are distracted at work on average every 3 minutes and that it takes 20 minutes, plus significant mental energy to get back on track.

The state of ‘getting back on track’ or re-focusing, is confused with ‘productive output for the business’.

It is not productive output

Rather it is noise and interference – a bit like trying to listen to a badly tuned radio, or watch an out of focus television. Just think how much effort and how frustrating it is to listen on a bad phone line.

We have become conditioned to this state and associate work with the ‘unpleasantness of the badly tuned radio. We blame our boss, our colleagues, the workplace systems and processes and constantly try to ‘fix’ the problem, and alarmingly failure rates are high.

None of these solutions are focused on the Root Cause of the Problem – ineffective work habits developed from years of trying to deal with a situation our brains are not designed to deal with – too much information or ‘stuff’ vying for our attention constantly.

The solution?

Learn to ADAPT our brains processing functions to the realities of the environment we live and work in. This is NOT Neuroplasticity – it is Neuro-adaptation. Once learned and practiced – efficiency flourishes.

Download the full report

We work with organisations to transform people overload to perform and offer solutions to productivity issues from analytics and programs to behavioural change tracking and advisory services.

The Future of Work in the Age of Technology

At some point in our evolution we became sentient and aware of our own existence and this marks the beginning of continuous improvement.

The old clique there are 2 certainties in life, death and taxes really should be death and continuous improvement.

We accept that the will to live is extremely powerful and the driver of that is essentially continuous improvement. From the time we are babies we become accustomed to ‘effort and practice’ to achieve our desires. You don’t see too many babies that decide they are just not going to bother walking – despite the number of time they fall, they get up and try again. Eventually mastering walking unconsciously.

This is the beginning of a lifelong ‘obsession’ with continuous improvement, all of our education, business and economic systems are based on this single premise – we move forward and continuously improve. Continuous improvement has as its foundation – systems, structures and rational thinking – interspersed with creative, innovative thinking and first and foremost ‘awareness’ of our environment, our interaction with it and what is working and what is not working so well for us, our businesses and our lives generally.

So why is it that we have largely stopped continually improving currently in 2015? We can argue that we are living more advanced lives than ever before in history – and that’s true. What I am referring to is – that whilst we have all this wonderful technology and comforts – yet never before has there been so many ‘unhappy, dissatisfied and discontented people on the planet’. So what gives? This is not intended to be an existential discussion albeit elements shall enter the discussion. The way out of this mire of lapsed continuous improvement is logical and the way forward is right under our noses.