Business Brains 2021 Review

Business Brains 2021 Review

I have reported on plenty of topics in business – there were many from decision-making to diversity issues, to leadership, to change.

decision-making brain

Research into busines brains and behaviour was large and wide and I reported on numerous studies over 2021. One topic that generates a lot of interest is that of leadership and particularly of effective teams.

Effective Teams

There were a number of independent pieces of research that gave a lot of support to what we know makes for effective teams in business. One particularly impressive research into 48 teams from 5 Canadian startups by Brykman and King showed that those leaders who encouraged on-the-job-learning, and of note, also enabled and encouraged employees to speak up and give their ideas and suggestions for change, were more effective and more resilient.

Another meta-analysis of 22 studies of team effectiveness, published in May by Riedl et al. with the great title of “Quantifying collective intelligence in human groups” and including studies with 5,279 individuals in 1,356 groups showed this:

  • Collaboration processesare the most important factor (and collaborative ability including communication)
  • Individual skill (i.e. knowledge and competencies) is important
  • Group composition (including diverse skills but also women, see below)

And interestingly the mediating factors are:

  • Proportion of women in the group is significant predictor of group performance!
  • Social perception i.e. social intelligence, was also a major mediating factor.

This in combination with another piece of research by Muir et al. that showed that focusing on other’s needs builds trust and a piece of research by Cooper et al. focused on how rudeness affects decision-making (in medical scenarios) and stimulates a vicious circle of negative behaviour.

So, to summarise this research, and meta-analyses of other research, published in 2021, showed that the following will give you the most effective business teams:

  • Focusing on individual’s needs
  • Focusing on collaborative processes
  • Listening to team members
  • Encouraging contribution
  • Encouraging speaking up
  • Encouraging learning from mistakes / challenging situations
  • Cutting out negativity (rudeness)
  • Having diverse teams
  • Building social perception and emotional intelligence

Many of these have already been proposed over the years but these build on the solid evidence to give a rock-solid base to back these up and quieten any critics.

business meeting brain

Toxic Leadership

On the topic of leadership one of my most popular posts in 2021 was on the accidental toxic leader. This was a report on some fascinating research which investigated what influences toxic behaviours of leaders. What was fascinating is that generally most research has focused on the toxic personality traits of senior leaders and particularly the dark triad of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Toxic leadership has been viewed as a function of the person and the leader’s own personality. Toxic leaders are just toxic. However, this seems not to be the case!

Yin et al. over three studies investigated the effect of changing a person’s position, and hence power, on views of others’ behaviours. And the surprising results was that when people were put in positions of authority their views became harsher, they were less forgiving and more willing to dish out punishment! They ascribe this to what they call a “choice mindset”. When you are in a position of having authority and therefore choice, you over ascribe choice to others and therefore judge them more harshly. This is obviously also applicable to society in general.


Another topic that I have covered extensively over the years is the topic of diversity but often gender diversity and bias in decision-making. This is why when studies pop up in this field it draws my attention. One study which wasn’t in the busines filed, in sports (biathlon), I found interesting. It was interesting because it highlighted noticeable differences in men and women and also because it was in real-world scenarios with lots of data. Specifically, this looked at how performances differed over the world cup season without audiences, during the pandemic, compared to with audiences. Biathlon is that mix of cross-country skiing and shooting. It therefore has a physiological performance component, in the skiing section, combined with refined motor control and coordination in the shooting section.

Heinrich et al. analysed data from previous seasons with spectators and in the pandemic season without spectators. The data set is very large with hundreds of male and female athletes across dozens of races on the same courses. The results were interesting because of how they differed significantly in men and women.

For men:

  • They performed worse in the skiing section without audiences
  • They performed better in the shooting section without audiences

For women:

  • They performed better in the skiing section without audiences
  • They performed worse in the shooting section without audiences

There could be multiple reasons for this – one could be stereotype threat in that people tend to bend towards stereotypes in situations where they are judged by others. Of interest is that there were any differences in the first place as these were highly trained professional athletes competing for the same prizes and glory.

A number of other studies have also outlined differences between men and women and give us some clues as to differences in men and women. Ones is that of personality and there are many clichés in this field. One study gave some insight into this namely they found that men were no different, on average to women on many personality traits and decision-making preferences but they were more extreme! The study by Thoni & Volk from the University of Sydney analysed data of over 50’000 individuals in 97 samples. As Stephan Volk said

“We found men were much more likely than women to be at the extreme ends of the behavioural spectrum, either acting very selfishly or very altruistically, very trusting or very distrusting, very fair or very unfair, very risky or very risk averse and were either very short-term or very long-term focused.” 

So, some of these discrepancies between sexes are not down to average personality differences, but the extremes – and prominent people are more likely to be extreme – this is what often gets them there and these are mostly men! This is not to undermine other biases which we know exist.

Other research showed how and under what conditions women can be considered better than men in leadership conditions. One interesting older research by Herbst et al. that I reported on in 2021 was in negotiation scenarios in which women are routinely reported to perform worse than men on average. But on one condition women can be as good or better than men. The condition? It is when they negotiate for their friends! 

Another one from the workplace by Sy and van Knippenberg in 2021 also showed under what conditions women are considered more effective leaders than men. Yes, you read that correctly. And this is again very interesting, notably that when women focused on positive emotions of calm, cheer, and pride, and not negative emotions of anger, fear, or remorse, they were considered more effective than men!

woman diversity business

Bias and decision-making

On the topic of bias there were a few studies into how to mitigate bias and some of these techniques are surprisingly simple. For example, the legendary Ellen Langer (the godmother of mindfulness) and Maymin showed that a short mindfulness intervention reduced bias on 19 of 22 biases measured! The mindfulness intervention was as simple as showing increased perceptional awareness of one’s surroundings – for example, by paying attention to the colour of the walls or the furniture in a room. Another by Yoon et al. showed that by observing others making decision combined with awareness of bias was much more effective than simply instructing people in bias.

September and October produced a mix of studies into the workplace. These ranged from one large well-conducted study showing how air quality disrupts productivity by Cedeno et al. to how microbreaks improve productivity by Kim et al. So, take a micro break now!

team business brain

An interesting one on decision making showed that in forums there are often a lot of followers — those who simply follow the advice of those more knowledgeable. Is this a good thing or bad thing? Interestingly it makes group decisions more random and excessive — either a lot better…or a lot worse!

One by Guarana et al. showed that decision-making is better if made within your time according to your chronotype. I have also reported regularly on the impact of chronotypes — chronotypes refer to your preferred clock type. Most commonly split into just the owl (late to bed and late to rise) and the lark (early to bed and early to rise).

Another reported on how your heartbeat affects your decision-making — notably that an elevated heart-rate degrades decision-making circuitry in the brain, in the words of Fujimoto et al.! Another one, by Knowles et al., that I found interesting, was on how deadlines seem to negatively impact response rates. Yes, you read that correctly, having no deadline was twice as effective as having a deadline (and short deadlines are more effective than long deadlines).

Something that I also found particularly important, by Moutousssis et al., and doesn’t really seem to have been picked up by others is the concept of decision acuity. It has gone under the radar because one, it was in young people and two, it was focused on psychopathology. But the results are important because they found there was an important ability to make decisions which was independent of IQ and negatively correlated with psychopathology. This suggest that there is a DQ rather than just and IQ and EQ.

Other topics also help to explain how we as human beings behave be that in society or in business. For example, another piece of research by Walker et al. looked at what changes people’s behaviour and they found that uncertainty triggers a change of behaviour irrespective of whether the outcome is good or bad or necessary. On the counter side the boiling frog syndrome was found to be true: slow change over time does not trigger changes which can lead to the frog boiling, or rather the business not making changes they should be making. This can of course be explained by how neurons slowly habituate to current environment and that they need a threshold of stimulation to activate.


To finish off where better to focus than quality and excellence a much-abused word in the corporate world. A study by Goulet-Pelletier et al. at the end of 2021 showed that focusing on excellence rather than perfection improved creativity.


So, 2021 saw more evidence for positive leadership behaviours gave us more insight into decision-making and showed how to support creativity – now we only have to get this message into business. Alas that is the difficult bit


Brykman, K. M., and King, D. D. (2021). A Resource Model of Team Resilience Capacity and Learning. Gr. Organ. Manag. doi:10.1177/10596011211018008.

Cassar, A., and Rigdon, M. L. (2021). Prosocial option increases women’s entry into competition. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 118. doi:10.1073/pnas.2111943118.

Cedeño Laurent, J. G., Macnaughton, P., Jones, E., Young, A. S., Bliss, M., Flanigan, S., et al. (2021). Associations between acute exposures to PM2.5and carbon dioxide indoors and cognitive function in office workers: A multicountry longitudinal prospective observational study. Environ. Res. Lett. 16. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ac1bd8.

Fujimoto, A., Murray, E. A., and Rudebeck, P. H. (2021). Interaction between decision-making and interoceptive representations of bodily arousal in frontal cortex. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 118. doi:10.1073/pnas.2014781118.

Goulet-Pelletier, J. C., Gaudreau, P., and Cousineau, D. (2021). Is perfectionism a killer of creative thinking? A test of the model of excellencism and perfectionism. Br. J. Psychol. doi:10.1111/bjop.12530.

Guarana, C. L., Stevenson, R. M., Jeffrey Gish, J., Ryu, J. W., and Crawley, R. (2022). Owls, larks, or investment sharks? The role of circadian process in early-stage investment decisions. J. Bus. Ventur. 37. doi:10.1016/j.jbusvent.2021.106165.

Heinrich, A., Müller, F., Stoll, O., and Cañal-Bruland, R. (2021). Selection bias in social facilitation theory? Audience effects on elite biathletes’ performance are gender-specific. Psychol. Sport Exerc. 55. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2021.101943.

Herbst, U., Dotan, H., and Stöhr, S. (2017). Negotiating with work friends: examining gender differences in team negotiations. J. Bus. Ind. Mark. 32. doi:10.1108/JBIM-12-2015-0250.

Kim, S., Cho, S., and Park, Y. (2021). Daily microbreaks in a self-regulatory resources lens: Perceived health climate as a contextual moderator via microbreak autonomy. J. Appl. Psychol. doi:10.1037/apl0000891.

Knowles, S., Servátka, M., Sullivan, T., and Genç, M. (2021). Procrastination and the non-monotonic effect of deadlines on task completion. Econ. Inq. doi:10.1111/ecin.13042.

Kühn, S., Mascherek, A., Filevich, E., Lisofsky, N., Becker, M., Butler, O., et al. (2021). Spend time outdoors for your brain–an in-depth longitudinal MRI study. World J. Biol. Psychiatry. doi:10.1080/15622975.2021.1938670.

Maymin, P. Z., and Langer, E. J. (2021). Cognitive biases and mindfulness. Humanit. Soc. Sci. Commun. 8. doi:10.1057/s41599-021-00712-1.

Moutoussis, M., Garzón, B., Neufeld, S., Bach, D. R., Rigoli, F., Goodyer, I., et al. (2021). Decision-making ability, psychopathology, and brain connectivity. Neuron 109. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2021.04.019.

Muir (Zapata), C. P., Sherf, E. N., and Liu, J. T. (2021). It’s not only what you do, but why you do it: How managerial motives influence employees’ fairness judgments. J. Appl. Psychol. doi:10.1037/apl0000898.

Riedl, C., Kim, Y. J., Gupta, P., Malone, T. W., and Woolley, A. W. (2021). Quantifying collective intelligence in human groups. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 118. doi:10.1073/pnas.2005737118.

Sy, T., and van Knippenberg, D. (2021). The emotional leader: Implicit theories of leadership emotions and leadership perceptions. J. Organ. Behav. 42. doi:10.1002/job.2543.

Thöni, C., and Volk, S. (2021). Converging evidence for greater male variability in time, risk, and social preferences. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 118. doi:10.1073/PNAS.2026112118.

Walker, A. R., Navarro, D. J., Newell, B. R., and Beesley, T. (2021). Protection from uncertainty in the exploration/exploitation trade-off. J. Exp. Psychol. Learn. Mem. Cogn. doi:10.1037/xlm0000883.

Yang, V. C., Galesic, M., McGuinness, H., and Harutyunyan, A. (2021). Dynamical system model predicts when social learners impair collective performance. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 118. doi:10.1073/pnas.2106292118.

Yin, Y., Savani, K., and Smith, P. K. (2021). Power Increases Perceptions of Others’ Choices, Leading People to Blame Others More. Soc. Psychol. Personal. Sci. doi:10.1177/19485506211016140.

Yoon, H., Scopelliti, I., and Morewedge, C. K. (2021). Decision making can be improved through observational learning. Organ. Behav. Hum. Decis. Process. 162. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2020.10.011.

The (un)Happy Productive Brain

The (un)Happy Productive Brain

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