Strategy / Perspectives: Dr Marcia Goddard, Neuroscientist, &Ranj
April 14, 2020
Dr. Marcia Goddard holds a master’s degree in clinical neuropsychology and a PhD in social neuroscience. She made the move from academia to business in 2016, joining YoungCapital, one of the Netherlands’ largest recruitment agencies. Marcia formed a Science & Innovation team that drives innovation within the company. In 2019 she left YoungCapital to work at &Ranj. &Ranj has been developing games in order to achieve behavioral change for over twenty years, all over the world. Her goal is to build bridges between science and business.
Can you tell me about you and your background?
After I got my PhD I was working as an Assistant Professor. I had dreams of using the findings from my research to drive initiatives in the workplace. But in academia, you tend to publish your results and move on to the next project quite quickly and that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I had the realisation that I wanted to do more.
How did you make the move from academia and what projects have you been involved in?
When I finished my university contract, I sent my CV to a recruitment company. I asked whether with my background and with the research that I’d done, they had a job for me. They said no, which was quite depressing. I then got a call from the owner of a large recruitment company in the Netherlands, YoungCapital. We had a long discussion about me and my background in psychology. We also spent a lot of time talking about assessment and why you should use different assessment methods within IQ and personality testing. He ended up offering me a job, although initially, he wasn’t entirely sure what he’d brought me in to do.
At YoungCapital I set up a Science and Innovation department and studied company culture and behaviour on the work floor. Then in 2019, after 3 years, I was contacted by &Ranj, a gamification company. They approached me as they wanted to use a scientific approach in their projects. They specialise in behavioural change, mainly for large corporates. I love working there. It gets right to the core of what I want to do, using science to help people.
Have you found it hard to get buy-in from key stakeholders?
Not really. In my first role, it was the business owner who hired me, so I was lucky that I had a key stakeholder on board from the beginning.
Sometimes, I think the idea of bringing science and business together can seem quite complicated, but it’s really not. Luckily, I think I'm quite good at explaining science and making it accessible to everyone, so explaining the value of science hasn’t been too difficult.
In actual fact, I think the biggest challenge has been trying to get people on board with the innovation side of things. Despite being able to give scientific evidence and reasons for change, I’ve seen a lot of pushback. Businesses are simply used to doing things a certain way and are reluctant to change.
Let’s talk about the relationship between science and HR and where science adds value.
If we think about HR, what it is and what it’s all about, it’s about people. The resource you have to cultivate most in your people is their brains. During the working day, employees are thinking things, saying things and being creative, and insights from neuroscience can really help to determine which strategy will work best. If you ask questions like ‘how do you keep your people happy?’ or ‘how do you keep them productive?’, neuroscience allows you to get to grips with the behavioural aspect of your staff. That’s where I think science adds real value.
One of your areas of expertise is assessment. Can you talk me through some of the work that you’ve done and the results that you’ve seen?
At YoungCapital, I started developing game-based assessments, using neuroscience to change the way that we assess people. Traditionally, assessments have always been about IQ and personality, but those methods and the supporting research is outdated. It’s now 50+ years old and the work floor has changed so much in that time.
Instead, we spent a lot of time looking into the cognitive and soft skills most useful to businesses. It was apparent that creativity, critical thinking and ownership are key. This led us to start looking at the best ways to assess skills and that's when we started looking into introducing game-based assessments. At &Ranj, a gamification company, this research has continued.
What are the advantages of game-based assessments vs traditional assessments?
Through gamification, you can make assessments a fun and engaging experience. I think that traditional assessments and the process is unfair. A candidate wants the job and you want them to perform to the best of their ability, but then you give them an assessment that’s not enjoyable, it’s boring and could be stressful. Why wouldn’t you want to make it engaging and fun? That’s what gamification gives you.
Another big advantage of game-based assessments is that you don’t just have to look at the end result, which traditionally has been a number telling you how smart someone is. Instead you have the ability to look at the structure of reasoning, so how do people get to an end answer and what strategy do they use. It gives you a much more rounded picture of someone’s ability.
At &Ranj, do you just work with businesses? Or do you bring gamification to different age groups and audiences?
We do and actually, one of the projects that &Ranj are working on, and something that made me want to join the business is a project called ‘Can’t Wait to Learn’. We’re working to develop game-based learning, focusing on bringing maths, reading and writing to children in refugee camps. The games are in their native language and culture. We ship tablets to the refugee camp and make sure there is a facilitator to help the kids learn. It’s a great project.
Let’s talk company culture.
For the past four to five years I've been trying to figure out what makes a good company culture.
The work floor and the way we work has changed so much since in the past 20-years, in part due to things like digital transformation. So, I started studying what was at the core of this change and I realised it was adaptability, being able to deal with constant and continuous change.
I then started looking at what you need in order to deal with change because change always leads to stress. The brain likes to predict what’s going to happen, so when something changes, you find it stressful. This led me to start researching what you can do to get your brain to frame that stress in a positive way, because stress can actually push you to perform better.
I found that a big part of turning workplace stress into a positive comes down to company culture, and psychological safety has a big part to play here. We've developed a framework that explains what kind of behaviours you need in your company culture to get positive growth, revenue wise and behaviorally.
We’re partnering with the University of Rotterdam to gather data from businesses in order to validate the model that was built. We’re starting to build a pretty good idea of the behaviours that we need to target in order to help businesses create a culture of change. I think that’s the best term to use here.
It’s really topical right now, but let’s talk about stress and the brain and some of the work you’ve done in this area.
Why do people experience stress at work?
There are a number of reasons but often, when people experience burnout or heightened stress in the work place it’s in response to a situation. The interesting thing is that usually, the situation is nowhere near as serious as the individual perceives it to be. It’s often that someone is worried about making mistakes, not wanting to say no to people or always wanting to be perfect in our jobs. A lot of the stress we experience, we cause ourselves.
Do businesses have a role to play in tackling stress in the workplace?
I think organisations have a really big role to play and I think it comes back to company culture.
A lot of organisations say that they give their people room to grow and develop but when you look at KPIs, they’re so focused on revenue, targets and budgets. There’s a real discrepancy between what businesses are saying they're doing what they're actually doing, which leads to a lot of stress for their employees. For example, if you’re telling your staff it’s OK to take regular breaks and to take time to look after mental health and wellbeing, but then there’s too much work to get through, it’s not going to work.
How about on an individual level? What can we do to combat stress?
I think it’s really important to understand that dealing with stress is a process, it doesn’t happen overnight.
An exercise which I think is very effective in dealing with stress is to name your inner voice. When I tell people to do that, the response I get is ‘I’m sorry, what?!’ But in the sessions that follow I don't talk about their inner voice anymore. I use the name they’ve chosen. Let’s go with the name Harry. So, I'll say things like ‘Harry says this. Harry says that’. This method creates distance between what Harry is saying and what you’re doing. This helps you to distance yourself and your actions from your inner voice.
Another thing that really helps is Mindfulness. It doesn’t have to be a 40-minute session or a silent retreat, it can be as simple as spending two minutes standing looking out the window, doing nothing else. It can really help you in the short-term. If you're feeling overwhelmed and like your head is full, then you need to take a break. But take an actual break. I hear so many people say they’re taking a break but then they’re scrolling through Instagram feeds or going off for a walk, but still thinking about what they have to do next. I think this type of mindfulness is about letting yourself be in the moment for a second. Too many people are going from screen to screen. It’s too much stimulation, the brain can’t handle it and it’s making us stressed.
I stumbled across your TED talk. How did that come about?
Initially, you have to be recommended to the organisers. You then have to send over footage of you doing public speaking and then there’s an interview but there’s no formal audition as such.
I did mine on how to teach like a toddler and it was one of the most amazing things I have ever done professionally. My goal has always been to spread science and to share it with as many people as possible. Doing a TED Talk was the ultimate way to do that so I'm thankful.
As a successful female in STEM, what are your views on how we tackle the shortage of females?
It’s difficult, but I don’t think that there’s an issue with STEM not being attractive to females.
I think there are a few things to note here. Firstly, as the older male generation retire from STEM, there will be a new generation coming through who will think differently, which I think will help.
Secondly, I think we need to look at how we bring up our children in a gender-neutral environment. There’s plenty of research to prove that even without realising, we will give children different toys based on their gender. We give boys toys to simulate visual perception and spatial skills and girls are often given soft fluffy toys. We don’t even realise we are doing it. There is something ingrained in our culture that means that girls are pushed one way and boys are pushed another.
Finally, and this won’t be a popular statement, but I think females need to do more. If you want something, you have to go for it. There’s so much talk about this problem but for things to change, we need to stop discussing it and take action.
Do you think we'll see more academics moving into business?
I really hope so. I think it would benefit both parties.
There is a bit of shift, but it’s slow. In the future, I think we’ll see more people switching from the behavioural sciences and neuroscience into business. We’ll also hopefully see more partnerships between businesses and universities.
Do you miss academia?
No, not really. I'm really happy I made the move. I wanted to do research, I still get to do that. I wanted to make an impact and translate my findings into useful business initiatives and I’m lucky enough to be able to do that too. I've been fortunate but also, I've not been willing to make any compromises. I really want to do research as part of my job and that won’t change.
Finally, automation and AI, will it wipe out the human recruiter?
No, they’ve been saying that for decades haven't they? It won’t happen, or at least not any time soon. Recruitment is about people, finding people, hiring people, coaching people and giving advice. AI is not going to be able to do that because there's one thing humans have that computers just don’t have - empathy.
I’ll never say never, but right now, building empathy into an algorithm seems impossible. Empathy is not something rational, it's a social radar that we all have. It helps us interpret really subtle and nuanced cues from people and that's something recruiters are very good at.
So no, I don't think AI will replace recruiters, Although I do think technology can really help with the recruitment process. It can do a lot of the boring and repetitive tasks and can even give advice about which candidates to call first. That’s the type of technology I do believe in.
If you're interested in being interviewed as part of the BPS Perspectives series, I'd love to hear from you. You can get in touch with me at email@example.com.