What neuroscience explains and challenges about leadership

Dr Jacqui Grey from the NeuroLeadership Institute introduced this session by asking the following sets of questions:

How many of you wake up with your brain racing?
How many have trouble generally sleeping?
How many get to Thursday and forget things?
How many take a device wherever you go?

Her leading point was that there is a correlation with cognitive overload and poor decision making. In particular she said as the working week goes on we become overloaded with too much information and we naturally become more tired until the weekend. In terms of work, and how productive we are, we should schedule important work earlier in the week, and aim for the earlier part of the day, as the same principle applies as the day goes on.

In practice, I wonder what this means for project based work, and project deadlines. We place a lot of importance on delivering things at the end of the day, or at the end of a week. Yet if the brain is reaching a natural point of saturation, are we self-perpetuating a set of practices which are detrimental to our mental and physical health?

Dr Grey went on to describe that the 21st century is causing problems and challenges of leadership, which cause challenges to neuroleadership. Some quotes from the session provide useful context:

“Majority of people trust a stranger more than their boss.” To this point she helped frame a question by asking how many people would we trust with our children, or personal security codes or passwords. One of the reasons we trust a few people is because of the longevity of time we have spent with these trusted people. At work, we actively make this more difficult for ourselves by forcing a trusted relationship to happen, which is by nature unnatural. The brain needs time to process and understand the other person, and if we force this, we are not supporting the brain’s natural ability to create the necessary links to trust and work with others.

“65% of people prefer a better boss over a raise.” A key challenge for 21st century leaders is how do you grow people under the pressure of external environment. 98% of leaders interviewed admitted to misreading a situation because of preconceived beliefs. We have so much information, and so much noise to deal with, the automatic reaction of the body is to jump to conclusions. The limbic system, in this instance, jumps in and causes the well known amygdala hijack. We can train ourselves to reach calm sooner, and methodologies such as mindfulness help with this. I also think insights about the emotion timeline as described by Dr Paul Ekman help us to understand how emotion forces the body to act in certain ways.

Jacqui went on to talk about performance management in particular. Feedback, no matter how well delivered, is always hard to hear. When we tell people we’re due to have a conversation about performance, we’re already pushing them to a ‘threat state’. That is, we’re pushing them to a physiological set of reactions which mean the person is not ready to hear a message, no matter how minor it may be.

To change this reaction, the organisation needs to move towards a regular feedback model. I’ve expunded this for years, and am glad that there is some research to back this up. Essentially, if we have a regular set of conversations about performance, we allow the brain to adjust and make space to hear those messages and handle them differently. If we stick to the tired tradition of once a year reviews, we are not preparing either party to have a successful discussion, and almost inevitably end up with lacklustre and below par performance reviews.

The final thing to be shared was the SCARF model. Thinking about this model can help us move away from threat and toward a reward state. If we understand which of the following is important to an individual, we can focus on that to provide a way to help them engage with their work better. Importantly, these components are factors which inform action and decision making capabilities.

Status – how we rank ourselves in relation to someone else.

Certainty – can’t always give people the answers. This is about change.

Autonomy – being able to make own decisions.

Relatedness – feeling part of a group, inclusion.

Fairness – justice and pay.

This was a really useful session, and I enjoyed learning more about this topic. On hearing it, I’m of the opinion that if we understand this subject area better, we can be better performing HR/L&OD professionals. I would go so far as to argue that this topic is more important than big data as it is truly about people performance, and what we can do to improve the way we lead and the way we inspire others to act.

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Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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