Leading with the Brain

First, let’s get one thing out in the open for those of you who have not figured this out yet. I’m a nerd. There are certain things that I really get jazzed by that to others would be mind numbingly boring. I get that and I’m comfortable with it. I can live with myself.

Having said that, there is the coolest article in the Autumn 2009 edition of strategy+business (yes, I subscribe) on recent neuroscience research and the brain that relates directly to the issue of effective leadership. (Of course I’m such a nerd that I couldn’t just read the article but I had to find the sources that were cited in the article and read them too. If you hang out with me, it’s just a moment-by-moment flow of excitement!)

Actually, it is honestly a very interesting article titled “Managing with the Brain in Mind,” by David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of the book “Your Brain at Work.” In this article, Rock makes the argument that a person’s job is not simply a transaction where they work for you, they get paid. While this is an important aspect of our work, even more importantly, we view our workplace as a social system. Much research has shown that the brain is a social mechanism, looking for connections between people, events and data, so it would only make sense that much of our work life would be seen the same way.

Rock adds to the dialogue that the concept of “threat” applies to our primacy of social interaction. In other words, perceived threats to the social aspect of our work life will evoke the same response as perceived personal threats to our being. Our brains function in a way that we attempt to either flee the threat (by checking out, disengaging, or actually leaving our jobs) or fight it (through aggression either passive or active). Rock proposes that there are five qualities that enable employees to mitigate and handle these threats and that these are crucially important for leaders to understand:

Status: Research indicates that we are constantly assessing our status in relative terms to those around us. Threats to status are endemic in the organization when we give performance reviews, promotions or even passing comments in staff meetings. Research also indicates that something as simple as acknowledging a followers contribution can raise perceived status. Leaders who are sensitive to the status needs of their followers can offset this threat by the way they interact.

The brain sees a threat to the social system of work Certainty: As humans, we love stability and certainty in part because these are conditions that are less taxing to our brains and bodies. When we are not having to worry about what happens next, we are able to operate in a comfort zone. On the other hand, uncertainty registers in our brain (in the anterior cingulate cortex!) as a potential threat until investigated and understood. Transparency is the antidote to this issue. By sharing as much information as possible and keeping followers informed about current and future issues, effective leaders are able to avoid short-circuiting the resources necessary to get the job done.

Autonomy: Autonomy is the feeling that we as individuals are able to make our own decisions and chose our own courses of action. Perceptions of limited autonomy create a feeling of helplessness and a threat response related to the fact that our survival is not by our own choosing. Leaders who want to reinforce autonomy know that being micromanaged is a threat felt at a very deep level. Followers need choices, not just in the details of their work but in the bigger picture issues of balance and priority.

Relatedness: In our best efforts, and for the sake of diverse opinions and experiences, we often put together teams of unrelated people to focus on a crucial issue. However, the neural pathways triggered by meeting new people put us in a friend-or-foe assessment phase. While many of us like to think that we trust people until they show us that we can’t trust them, the fact is that we are suspicious at the onset of any new relationship. Leaders need to be thoughtful about the teams they form and, if made up of unrelated people, the team needs time to assimilate. Leaders need to attend to the social needs of those they assign to positions that will keep them isolated.

Fairness: Fairness is a concept that is also related to the limbic system of our brains. If violated, the response is hostility and lack of trust. As we have discussed in this blog before, I will only commit my actions to you if I trust you. If I don’t trust you, I spend a lot of time in protectionist mode, making sure that all of my bases are covered and that I am in a position to survive if and when you betray me. Openness and transparency are again the best responses to this issue. Leaders who are clear about the process they are using, and then apply it consistently, are seen as more fair than those who keep their thoughts a secret.

While I think it is highly interesting and helpful, I also don’t see neuroscience as the unifying theory to human behavior. It doesn’t answer the whole question of why we do what we do, but cognitive science may provide part of the answer. As a survival instinct, we act to avoid threats and, if brain research can give us some insight on what triggers the threat response, it is a valuable addition to the toolbox of the leader.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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