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IOM Interview with Phil Dixon

Organizational Mindfulness Podcast

About Phil Dixon

Phil Dixon is the founder of the Oxford Brain Institute and former CEO of the Academy for Brain-Based Leadership. He is a prolific author in the fields of business and neuroscience, with works including Understand Your Brain: for a Change and Understanding your Brain: On Its Own @ Work


Phil was an early technologist at Apple, and over a 40-year career in IT, consulting, and neuroscience, he has worked and taught in both the private and public sectors, and in 16 different countries. 

Phil has an MSc in Consulting and Coaching to Change from Oxford Business School and HEC Paris, and a BSc in Computer Science from Warwick University. He is a frequent and international speaker on the topic of brain-based leadership.  

The Organization Mindfulness Podcast is presented by the Institute for Organization Mindfulness and hosted by mindfulness coach Brett Hill.

The Transcript 

Brett: Hello, and welcome to the Organizational Mindfulness Podcast, where every two weeks, we interview leading authors and thought leaders in the realms of mindfulness, neuroscience and organizational change. You'll hear the latest insights, discoveries and guidance from world class experts. as we explore recent trends, new ideas, and important work related to the adoption of mindfulness in organizations presented by the Institute for Organizational Mindfulness, a nonprofit organization where you can join a community of 1000s, who are champions for mindfulness in the workplace. Hi, I'm your host, Brett Hill. And today's show is really special. As we have a guest, the incredible Phil Dixon. Phil was one of the first employees at Apple and he began to explore what makes some groups work and others fail. What makes a good leader and how can you help people become better leaders, this exploration led to being involved with leadership training, where he advised companies like Apple, BP, Google and Twitter.


And then something important happened while acquiring his master's: he discovered the field of neuroscience, which was pivotal for him now. Instead of training, traditional leadership and traditional leadership training, he has created his own methods using neuroscience as the foundation for measurable and actionable change. So we can all be better people, have better organizations and build a better world. Based on this work, he founded the Oxford Brain Institute, and he’s the co-author of “Understand your brain for a change”, and his new book, “Understand your brain on his own at work”. Phil, we're really, really happy to welcome you to the show.

Phil: And I'm really, really happy to be here. Looking forward to it.

Brett: It's been so fun learning about your work and reading your books and talking with you. And in this, in your conversation in the book, you talk about how you were doing leadership training, as a way to help teams and leaders to be more effective. And you discovered some really impressive work in that direction. But then, as I mentioned in the introduction, you kind of shapeshifted yourself all of a sudden, whenever you discovered neuroscience, so can you say a little bit about how the discovery of the entire field of neuroscience or not so much the entire field? Because I'm sure you knew it was there, but something landed in you about the impact and the meaning of this. Could you say a little bit about that?

Phil: Yeah, it probably started... This was 20 years ago. And I started to see that we were doing leadership development, there were 1000s of books being written and 1000s of papers being published. And I would hypothesize that we weren't actually producing any better leaders. And I started to think  ‘what is it that we are missing? What do we do? What are we doing wrong?’ there has to be a different approach. I started to look for something that maybe would underlie all the different things that we were talking about in the way of competencies and all the traditional stuff we were doing. In fact, they coined a term called the Leadership Genome, and I was looking for something that if we could... and if there was something underneath everything else, and we could teach that, then maybe we'd have something. So I was looking for connective tissue.

Brett: So you were really, and this was based on your training experience, because you have worked with world class leaders at this point in time, like, some of the companies you'd work at, like, you know, at Apple, and working with the groups there. So at this point, you had had a lot of experience with, you know, big time leaders and, and what's got your attention all of a sudden now is what's underneath effective leadership. From a science point of view.

Phil: Yeah, we used to, we used to run some of the best leadership, leading edge leadership programs. And I would ask people, ‘what did you learn? What did you do differently?’ And it was a minuscule difference where we weren't having a major impact. And then, gosh, I guess it was about 12 years ago, 13 years ago, when I was first introduced to the neuroscience of the brain. It suddenly-I mean, I'm not trying to be overly dramatic-but it was like an epiphany. That's what I was looking for. If we can understand the brains of leaders, and help leaders understand their own and other people's brains, then we can maybe shift this whole profession/industry, whatever you want to call it, we can move it forward.

Brett: So you discovered this and had this epiphany and said, ‘this is the key, this is the key that unlocks this door’. I'm being metaphorical. And as you started diving into this in a pretty deep way, like I've been looking through your book here, and I just want to hold this book up here called ‘Understand your brain on its own at work’ and you can see I've been making good reading of it. Here, and this is the second one, this is the one at work. And this is a companion to your first work. And I just wanted to let readers know about that, because this is something people should be familiar with. Do you have that one around?

Phil: Well yeah. So the first one was this, it's ‘Understand your brain for a change’. And really what that was, I had looked at, I've read lots and lots of books, by that time on the neuro leadership answer to the brain. And it seemed to come into two different categories. One was written by neuroscientists, which was so dense and almost impossible to understand, yeah, full of Latin analogies for the brain, and no one in their right minds who has been looking at it. At the other end, there was a lot that was written by you know, probably journalists and things that weren't rigorous enough. And I was looking for something in the middle. So that was... the first one is ‘Let's get a model of the brain’, as this new 55,000 references in here. So it is a good one to put you to sleep. But then the companion one was the first of four that we're planning on writing. And this was when you're working on your own at work, what are the sorts of things that influenced your decision making, your stress management, your presence, your courage, your accountability, and all those types of things, but it's about you on your own. 

Brett: Amazing. So I noticed that, in your approach to this, you start to talk early on about, you know, how the brain evolved. And one of the key things you talk about is how the brain evolved primarily to keep us safe. Do I have that right? And that as a result of that, that kind of skews everything that we do in a particular way. And you did something more than just tell people about this, you developed this notion of a thing called a “personal threat profile”. Can you talk to us about what that is? And why it matters?

Phil: Yeah, so. So yes, you're correct in that the brain has one primary purpose. John Medina, in his book ‘Brain rules’ basically says the brain’s purpose is a prediction machine for predicting problems about survival, whilst in an outdoor environment constantly on the move, and is constantly changing conditions, but it's all about survival. And, you know, if you look at it, then we're still operating with that brain. And I'll call it brain 1.0. Society's moved to version 25.0. But our brains are still operating in 1.0. So we are driven by responding to threats and rewards. And so every 1/5 a second, the brain is scanning its environment, we could talk about what that actually means in a moment, right? Scanning its environment, looking for threats and rewards. And, it reacts primarily to threats.


So what I did is I said, if we could step back and look at what are the types of threats, we don't tend to have too much in the way of being chased by saber toothed Tigers these days. There are some bosses like that. But we were primarily driven by social and emotional threats. And we said, ‘if we can look at whatever that is’, so we then... or I sat down for about two years, looked at a whole bunch of different things that we both want and don't want, and identified 47 different, different aspects of threat. And that we call a “threat profile”.

Brett: And so the profile, I mean, how does a person I mean, how do you implement this? How do you use this profile? I mean, you've got some is it? Is it something you're using on your work?

Phil: Yeah, so what if you can, there's lots and lots of character profiles out there and personality profiles. Last time I counted, there was like 2500 of them. And they typically give you labels or you’re one of these, they give a label or is TJ or you’re a yellow or you’re a pink or whatever it might be. But it doesn't go into enough granularity to actually be useful in what might cause you to react the way you do or what might cause you to be in conflict with another person or respond the way we want to. So the idea of the personal threat profile is it goes deeper than all those personality tests and actually looks at what's going on in your brain. And why you get triggered and what happens when you get triggered. You know, one of my favorites, please. 

Bret: So what-no go ahead please 

Phil: Sure. So what I say to some people is ‘from here on out, I'm going to give you the excuse you can use for the rest of your life: It was not me it was my brain’. Because when we're implying something about ourselves, it's like we have actual control over it whereas we don't have much control over many of the actions that our brain takes, a lot of it's going on and non consciously behind us. Yeah, so I can't remember the exact data. But you know that things happen in the non-conscious brain way before we were consciously aware of them. And I am recalling one piece of research that said they've identified brain patterns at an unconscious level, up to 13 seconds before we became consciously aware of it. 


Brett: 30 seconds. Whoa. 

Phil: Yeah, so, um, you know, it's when we think.

Brett: Yeah, yeah. And people are very resistant to that information as well. It seems like, you know, you try to tell people well, ‘I don't know you, I don't think you're making all the choices, you think you're making them?’ And people are like, so resistful, I think that's also one of the studies is that people are extremely resistant to this information.

Phil: Yeah. And when I'm trying to illustrate the non-consciousness of things, I asked people if they've ever blushed, and you know, pretty much everyone puts their hand up, was that a conscious decision you made, you made a decision to flush your face with blood? Basically, you did that consciously. No, you didn't, or shivering, or your hair standing. I mean, all of those things are going on behind the scenes as your body is making a decision that's out of your control. And one of many, many things.

Brett: Right, and so one of the things you said is the things out of your control, and I was just actually reading in your book, the one about at work, and you talk about these environments, and the ability to kind of get things done, you know, willpower, and many, many other fabulous topics. And one of the things you mentioned in that is your environment, it's sort of like it when you're in challenging environments, you have less capacity to actually implement tasks in a willful way. And would that be because we just don't have the capacity to sustain resistance against these environments? Or is it just a brain resource we consume, or what and the corollary to that is, it makes sense to manage your environment so that it's not as stressful, and that has direct implications in how a person might structure a business in a business work environment?

Phil: Absolutely. So if you uhm, there's a big struggle that goes on in the brain every 1/5 a second, and that is the brain... part of the brain is trying to react to the threats and rewards. But the part that's reacting to that is like a, I've got a colleague who calls it a century who pounded 30 cups of coffee, and is just ‘Hi, hi, hi’. And so anything that comes in, this century is ready to just jump at a moment's notice, then sends a little message up to actually the prefrontal cortex that says, ‘should I be worrying about this?’ And the prefrontal cortex sends a message back saying, ‘No, no, no, no, that rustle you heard, which is the wind in the leaves, it wasn't a snake, you can sort of settle down’, so that little struggle is going on all the time. And the prefrontal cortex, which I mentioned just now starts to get tired. And the more decisions or the more overrides that it has to do that, and the more tired it gets, it also gets taken offline by being put under threat. So if I was to, I won't do this, but if I was to insult you, or dismiss an idea of yours, or, you know, whatever it might be-

Brett: Some kind of challenge to your brain. 

Phil: And gradually, as we get more and more of these challenges, the prefrontal cortex gets taken more and more offline and therefore is less and less able to make certain that century’s reaction is controlled. And so we revert basically, to non-conscious behavior which brings out biases and habits and patterns, and all those types of things.

Brett: And so one of the environmental factors that plays at work is the notion of you know, working with anxiety of course, and you know, the stress of just deadlines and ‘to-do's’... you mentioned in the book that one of the key things that people report having anxiety about is their bosses, that they have a lot of stress around, you know, the people that they're working for. So let's say you're, you know, you're you're trying to be a good person and you're reading your book and you're looking at your threat profile and you realize you know, ‘I'm threatened by my boss’ and I don't mean like, you know, a physical dangerous way but like, you know, the threat of like, ‘I hope this’. They're challenging you and they're maybe demanding. And so that causes you stress, what would you recommend for a person to help them keep or to help the prefrontal cortex have more capacity to manage an experience?

Phil: Well, my father used to call me a passive rebel. So I have to be careful about how I answer things like that. Because most of the time, I'd say, go and find yourself another boss.

Brett: Well, there is that (laughter). You had a couple examples in your book where you actually did that actually, you have the one case where you talked about you being brought in as a consultant, and they asked you to do some things, and they clearly weren't ready for the truth. And you just kind of said, ‘I'm sorry, I'm out of here’. And I remember that story. It was pretty good. 

Phil: That's right. Yeah. And, but I've done that a lot. What can you do sort of short of that? Well, first of all, identifying what are the types of things that your boss, or the environment might do to make you feel under stress or under threat. So for example, let's say, I use myself as an example, one of my most important things is having a high degree of autonomy over what I do. If I find that I don't have that level of autonomy, that will put me under stress. So understand things like that. My second biggest drive is fairness. So if I think if I find something that I see, and it's got to be my opinion, not, not everybody else’s, my opinion, it's not fair. And that's gonna put me under stress as well. Different things put different people under stress. So finding out what are the ones that are going to put you under stress, you as a specific individual, are probably the biggest thing, the biggest single first step easy for me to say. So finding that out is the first step in managing it. The second is doing something about it. I think it was... I forget who it was that sort of analyzed the different reactions we can have to stress and one of them is if you can identify it, if it's possible to remove the situations that actually put you in under stress, then that's the simplest first strategy. If I know that anytime I meet with Brett, then I'm going to feel stressed then don't meet with Brett. I mean, it sounds flippant, but it's for some people, it's actually a choice.


The other thing I can do is that's exactly what avoidance or avoidance strategies is a legitimate strategy. If it's impossible to do so. The other thing I can do is start to actually work on my inner self. And that is, if I eat if I know that I've got a meeting with Brett, and it's Brett that puts me under difficulty. Before the meeting, if I can breathe, deep breathe for two minutes. 10 or 12, deep breaths, that actually helps me with dealing with a level of stress, it increases my stress tolerance, if you like, if I can.

Brett: So how is that? How does that happen? Like what are the mechanics of that that caused that to be true?

Phil: Well, there's a strong linkage between the lungs, the brain and the heart. And so what is happening as you're doing deep breathing, then it is impacting your, it's the difference between your heart rate you have as you breathe in and your heart rate you have as you breathe out. That's called heart rate variability. And the greater that variability is, then the calmer you are and breathing deeply will cause that to to get you a greater variability. And that will in turn cause the brain to be more able to deal with stress. You're going to have to ask a neuroscientist the actual intricacies of how that operates, rather than me. I can tell you the results, not the ‘why’ it happens.

Brett: Sure. I mean-

Phil: Yeah, if you can do it for 10 minutes at the beginning of the day, it actually sets you up better for the next 24 hours. So 10 minutes a day. I think monks have known this for probably 2000 years. We are just now understanding the neuroscience behind it. But if you can do 10 minutes of deep breathing at the beginning of every day, it really helps.

Brett: Hmm, amazing. And you know, I'm always thinking in the context of like, how does this work at work? Like, you know, you can close your door before a big meeting and take some time to breathe? Before a presentation, before you have to lead something or maybe before you dive into a complex task, and the words I use or help gather your bits by just being present and breathing. Which sort of leads us to another question I wanted to ask. In your book, you have a lot of great quotes, and one of them stood up, as particularly relevant for this conversation was attributed to, I believe it's Congleton at the Harvard Business School, where it says, quote, “mindfulness should no longer be considered a nice thing to have for executives, it's a must have”. And I was wondering if you could say more about that?

Phil: Well, I think there is, there's more and more. Let me step back a moment. And that the more you can understand yourself as an individual, the more you can actually become a better leader. So self awareness is that, in my book it is the first literally in my book, and in the book we wrote, self awareness is the first thing and becoming mindful of what's going on is part of that self awareness. And so I think the second chapter is peeling off the layers of your personal onion, which is you getting to a point where you understand not only who you are, but who you are, as you come across to other people and the impact you have. So becoming mindful is an integral part of that process. And, again, as I said, in the book, I don't view that life is getting more and more complicated.


So if we can, at least, there's some things you can do something about, you can do something about getting understanding of yourself, you might not be able to do anything about the competition, or the environment you're operating in, or the legal situation, but you can have control over your own reactions and things like that. So that's why I think it's in this vuca world. I can explain what the vuca world is, if that's useful. In this vuca world, understanding who you are, why you react, the way you do, is really, really powerful.

Brett: And so using this information, what would you say to the audience, to people that are in business, who can influence the corporate culture or can implement programs? what would you like, what works, what should be like, top of mind for them, as they start to begin to think about how to implement, you know, some of these notions in their, in their day to day life and in a company?

Phil: Well, being aware of how they make decisions, being aware of how they come across an influence other people being aware of when someone comes into their office, and is in panic mode, trying to get them to think about a future vision is literally a waste of time, you know, so understanding the way that people's brains operate, and then being where they are. I think that's one thing. The other thing I think is you-we can incur, we can operate, we can work in a brain-friendly fashion. So if you come along to me, and you ask my opinion about something, I'm happy to give you an opinion. But more often than not, you actually, you've got an opinion about what you want to do. Regardless, in fact, it turns out that it's something like five times out of six. When you're asking my opinion, you have your own opinion, if I seek that out for you, from you, then if you actually turn around, say, ‘Well, my opinion is actually x’. If we do X, you're far more likely to actually make that occur than if I give you an answer.


So you, eliciting the answers out of other people. And the data says five times as a six, they got the answer. But most of us who are so pressed, we'll just go ‘Oh, do X’ and we expect it to be done. Whereas we haven't taken that little extra time to go ‘Okay, Brett, what do you think we should do?’ And I sweat, like that. And then if you do get to the point, and if you do get to the point where somebody doesn't know what to do, don't give them one answer, give them two or three. Because the brain loves choices. So if you give them two or three possibilities, and then turn around and say, ‘and Which do you think is most appropriate in this situation?’ then their brain thinks ‘it's my choice’ and they're more likely to actually implement it. So these are normally right, you're not... these are not great big things to do like pushing a building over something. These are really small, micro adjustments that we can make to our interaction with other people.

Brett: Well, right. The thing I love about what you're saying is it's a, it's interpersonal, it's in conversation. It's in real time. But you have to have the presence of mind, the mindfulness, literally to be aware of, rather than just come back with my automatic answer, because I'm under stress, and I don't have much time, I'm going to be... I'm going to take into context what's happening, I can see this person who's under stress, I already know because Phil said, and it's true that people have opinions. And maybe it's better to ask, ‘Well, what do you think? Do you have an opinion?’ and then coming back with choices is a really, that's just really great advice I think, as well because it empowers the other person to make a choice and keeps them in the sense of... so the leader can then shapeshift without wrestling control, and give authority back to the the other, to their colleague. That's, that's really great advice and some sound management consulting there as well. I'm sure people, you know, are getting such great advice from you and your organization.


And I wanted to ask you, if there's one more thing, though, it's kind of like, one of the things that I like to hear from guests are like, what is it that drives you? Like, what? You've done so much work for so many years in terms of trying to help other people be leaders and more competent and have a better life. But I want to know, like, why and what is it about you personally that causes this to be the thing that you get up to want to do every day? What is it that lights you up about that?

Phil: That's a great question. And I don't know whether I've got a great answer. But when I discovered that we had brains, and I've been trying to be flippant here, and the fact that the… that what we were doing at a nonconscious level was so powerful, literally a switch flipped, and it became my purpose on this planet to help people understand the brain and get themselves and other people to have better lives. And so, you know, at some level, I know, I know, there's a level of curiosity. I was told when I was 16, that I would never write. And I think I'm wrong. And I think partly, part of it is just understanding. I mean, I read probably a half a dozen papers every day, not in depth, but you know, at least read the abstracts of half dozen papers every day. And at least a couple of times a week, there's something that I go, oh my gosh, I didn't know that. And so having that level of curiosity, I've got a high level of curiosity and I’m a learner. I, you know, I just like collecting, I like having input about things. So I think all those things that part of my brain out of who I am, that's what makes me tick in the morning. That glass of scotch you need

Brett : A little breathing in the morning, a little scotch in the afternoon and some abstracts in the middle of the day and you're good to go. It's a good life

Phil: Humor. Clearly. There's so many people that don't seem to have the ability to take things a little bit with a grain of salt, not taking them... I take life seriously. I just don't take myself seriously.

Brett: Well, there we go. That's beautiful. So I just wanted to thank you so much, because this has really been amazing. And if people want to find out more about you and what you do and your work, where do they go? How do they reach out to you?

Phil: The easiest way is to my email:

Brett: There was Phil Dixon one at... what was that last thing m-a...?


Brett: Mac like a Mac computer like.


Phil: As in the Apple Mac


Brett: Perfect that's because you were one of the people who helped get that produced in the world is that right?


Phil: Well, I wasn't on that side of it. I was on the IT side, but I do remember someone running in waving your circuit board high in the air saying ‘it works’. That was in the early days of Mac in 82


Brett: Well, that's a fun, fun thing to have in you know, your history is to be a part of such a pivotal point of personal computing that changed the world. And I appreciate the work that you're doing to change the world and to help people be better people. And I encourage people to go out and check out Phil Dixon's book, ‘Understanding your brain on its own at work’ and his other book is ‘Understanding your brain’. Amazing conversation. And I really appreciate you being a guest on the Institute for Organizational Mindfulness podcast.


Phil: Well, it's been a pleasure to be here. And if you want to ever invite me back, I'm happy to do it a second time.

Brett: We would be very, very happy to have you for round two. I know you're working on some other books, and it's going to be amazing to see what you come up with. Thank you so much.


Phil: Thank you. Take care. 


Brett: And there you have it. We hope you enjoyed this edition of the Organizational Mindfulness podcast. So follow us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you're enjoying your podcast. And if you enjoyed it, leave us a review. It really does help. You can sign up as a free community member at That's And that way, you'll be notified of all the great shows and other content we have coming up. I'm your host Brett Hill at Until next time, stay present.

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