Cognitive processes: How they can help you achieve professional success

18/01/2023 | Santander Universidades

Every single mental and physical action you perform, from combing your hair to eating, you do because your brain has processed the information around it then operates on that basis. These are what we call cognitive processes, and aligning them with your work is key to your career development. 

What are cognitive processes?

Cognitive processes are the mental operations the brain performs to process information. Through these operations, the brain interacts with the information around it, stores it and analyses it in order to make the relevant decisions. Their influence on behaviour makes them indispensable when it comes to adapting to social contexts, as well as for survival. 

It is these processes that allow the brain to process the information it receives from the senses, register it, retrieve it as needed, and above all, learn.

Cognitive processes, also called cognitive functions, include basic aspects such as perception and attention, as well as more complex ones, such as thinking. Any activity we do, e.g., reading, washing the dishes or cycling, involves cognitive processing. 

This happens with most of our daily activities, so when any of these cognitive functions suffers damage, the ability to perform certain activities is impaired. 

Although these processes have been studied in different disciplines, such as neurology, anthropology and even philosophy or information sciences, it was cognitive psychology which first analysed the influence of information processing on behaviour and knowledge acquisition. In the late 1950s, the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky with regard to cognitive development and learning caused a veritable revolution in the scientific world of the time, and are still relevant today.  


Types of cognitive processes

Cognitive processes can be divided into two broad categories

1. Basic cognitive processes

These form the base on which to process and compile information, allowing it to be captured and kept in the "system". These are:

  • Perception. The system processes information, the organism captures sensations and gives them meaning. 
  • Attention. Human beings select, focus on and dedicate their mental resources towards stimuli.
  • Information processing. This allows the captured information to be processed so that it can be compiled. 
  • Memory. Detected information is retained in the system to be worked on later, in the short or long term. 

2. Higher cognitive processes

These are a mix of the information from the basic processes introduced earlier, which are: 

  • Thinking. This brings together all of the information, allowing judgements and deductions to be made, and learning to occur. Such reasoning can be inductive, deductive or hypothetical-deductive. 
  • Executive functions. They facilitate behaviour management through planning, behavioural inhibition and decision-making. They allow behaviour to be directed towards medium or long-term goals, thus avoiding sudden impulses. 
  • Learning. This depends on our ability to pay attention to a stimulus, to store it in our memory and later retrieve it. 
  • Language. Fundamental for communications and to internally regulate behaviour in the form of self-given instructions. Language is not only oral, but also includes other types of communication. 
  • Creativity. This involves the development of new strategies separate from what has been learned. 
  • Motivation. The process by which someone devotes their behaviour and energy to a specific topic or interest.   

What is the relationship between cognitive processes and cognitive skills?

Cognitive processes are the mental operations which help to build cognitive skills, and which can be trained and improved.

Learning these skills is a lifelong undertaking, and one that continually updates our cognitive skills such as memory, concentration or association, among many others. To develop a rationale, the brain needs to harness these skills, which allow it to put this very process into practice. 

Let's look at language as an example. To interpret it, we must resort to acquired learning, memory and thinking, among other complex cognitive processes. So, for example, by purposefully performing the action of remembering and creating mental images, it's possible to improve our memory, which, in turn, will help to develop language.

The fact is that the brain is like a muscle, hence these cognitive skills can be trained and, as a result, we can improve our skills when it comes to performing certain activities. By doing so, we can reap benefits such as an improved attention span or more fluid intelligence. But how can all of this be achieved? The answer is by performing specific parts of these processes that help to build up the skill.

While cognitive training exercises are often used, above all with people who have neurological disorders or brain damage, anyone can – and should – exercise their brain, as this will allow them to acquire these skills and develop better responses in a specific area.

How do cognitive processes relate to professional success?

As has been shown, cognitive processes are related to learning, intelligence and experience, since they allow knowledge to be compiled based on information provided by the senses. But why are they so important in the professional sphere?

Key cognitive processes for professional success

The processes that have the most influence in the world of work are those related to executive functions. So, anyone who would like to enhance their cognitive processes in order to develop their professional career should focus on: 

1. Planning

Forward thinking is essential for professional success and achieving your goals. The very act of thinking ahead about the best way to perform a task makes it easier to identify the steps to follow and establish an order of priorities. 

To successfully undertake any project, these previously set objectives must be met: to do so, it is vital to establish a suitable timeline, as following this will facilitate successfully reaching the goal

Such planning is key to professional development because it is precisely what allows us to achieve the set goals. Without proper planning, professional development isn't possible, because your objectives will not be optimally achieved. 

2. Inhibition

Inhibition consists of the ability to control impulsive responses, replacing these with reasoned ones. 

It is another vital element in professional development, because without it, it's impossible to bring purpose to the various situations we come across at work. 

Impulse control, which is possible thanks to inhibition, proves essential in tense or stressful situations, which may be common in the workplace. 

Moreover, in the case of conflict, whether with co-workers or superiors, one's capacity for inhibition is also key to resolving the issue, without it deteriorating into major conflict. 

3. Monitoring

Monitoring refers to the ability to monitor one's own behaviour and always ensure that the plan is followed in order to achieve the objectives. 

Used in many everyday situations, it proves especially useful in the professional sphere. It's about working without losing sight of the plan in order to achieve the set objectives, ensuring that there is no deviation from said plan. 

It's important to be aware at all times of which path to follow - and that you're following it correctly. Otherwise, any work undertaken will not fulfil the set goals. 


4. Decision-making

This means choosing a specific course of action in line with external or internal variables, such as one's own experience.

Decision-making is a never-ending process in the professional world, so it is vital that these decisions are the result of an evaluation which has taken all the variables into account, as well as the pros and cons of each option. 

In this sense, it is crucial for professional development to be a person capable of making decisions, no matter how difficult these may be, as otherwise, your work may be negatively impacted. 

5. The working memory or operational memory

This is the short-term memory that allows for the storage and handling of information to perform complex tasks. In the workplace, working memory is important for reasoning, language, reading and mathematical skills. 

Working memory allows us, for example, to hold a conversation while retaining certain key concepts to later analyse them and in turn, provide the appropriate answers. Or write down the main points in a speech, while still keeping up to speed on how the speech is progressing. 

If a person’s working memory is limited in any way, this will cause significant difficulties for them, e.g., in following instructions that consist of several steps, since it will prove difficult for them to keep the next step in mind while performing the current one. 

That's why working or operational memory is key to professional development.   

6. Cognitive flexibility

This is the ability to adapt to changing conditions and modify plans as necessary. It makes it easier for us to take the perspectives of others into account, hence it is essential, especially for teamwork. 

The dynamics of group work require an ability to understand other people's points of view, even if these differ significantly from our own, and be able to assimilate these in order to find a solution that takes the opinion of each team member into account. 

All this is possible thanks to cognitive flexibility, making it a key element for professional development. 

7. Problem solving

This is the ability to apply knowledge in search of solutions. When it comes to the workplace, problem-solving is one of the skills that companies prize the most. 

According to the Soft Skills 4 Talent study by ManpowerGroup, the ability to solve problems is set to be the social skill that companies value the most in 2021, according to 69% of the HR managers surveyed. 

Ultimately, the ability to solve problems in an effective and agile way is a major asset for companies. People who act proactively, without wasting time, who identify the most appropriate solutions for each situation, while also analysing the medium and long-term impact, are, without a doubt, key elements to hold on to at any company. 


With this aim in mind, and to help people progress, overcome the challenges posed by the fourth industrial revolution and grow in an inclusive and sustainable way, Banco Santander is committed to three key concepts to boost employability: lifelong learning, reskilling, and upskilling. To this end, it has developed the Santander Open Academy website, a unique, pioneering global programme.

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