Monday, March 30, 2015

Blog: Neuroscience of leadership: evidence based practice



I’m fairly confident that were you to need surgery of some sort, and I hope you never have, you would want your surgeon was competent. In fact, you would be pretty confident that the shingle above the door and the very fact that she could get you onto the operating table before slicing and dicing, attested to her abilities. You would be expecting that the techniques she used would be up to date and based on the latest research: good research at that.  This would not be a time for experimenting with some fad, you would think.

Despite the importance of management/leadership to the well-being of millions of people and to organizational survival its practices have been defined by fads, fancies, anecdotes  and half-tested theories. But now, management/leadership practice can now move into the world of evidence-based practice. In fact, you can see the change in the titles in airport bookshops, the weathervane of what’s fashionable in management/leadership circles. I’ve often quipped that management is akin to prostitution in that they are two of the very few ‘professions’ that you can enter with little or no training other than on the job experience, and for which you don’t need any registration or ongoing education.

Research methods in how the brain is studied have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years to the point where the brain can be studies while people are performing behaviours. Researchers are now able to see which parts of the brain are firing in different circumstances, even when we are making decisions or reacting towards others.

Some canny researchers have started to make the links between what happens in the brain and what works for effective management/leadership practice. This exciting new field has been called the ‘neuroscience of leadership’. It is a significant leap forward in being able to apply science to a field of endeavor plagued by the difficulties of really understanding what works and doesn’t work outside of personal experiences.

Interestingly, a lot of the neuroscience seems to support many of the principles of transformational leadership, which is concerned with building human capacity and engagement in an organization. For example, the research shows that the carrot and stick approach that is a feature of transactional leadership is a poor motivator over even the medium term. People, assuming basic working conditions are reasonable, are more intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated. Being part of a team, having meaningful work, being able to apply one’s talents and imagination, and relationships are much more motivational than concrete rewards and punishments. And they increase effectiveness in a number of important areas described below.

Another great example from the brain research is the role of relationships in motivation, creativity, problem-solving and decision-making. It seems that people are much more productive in these areas if they have a positive relationship with their boss. This is based on research that shows that people experience, unconsciously of course, a rush of chemicals in the body that create a feeling of well-being when they have a positive interaction with another person. That is the other was engaged with them, listened, responded positively, was pleasant, and displayed empathy. Yes, all those ‘soft’ skills that are so easy to dismiss, work in motivating your team and enabling them to do their job better at the same time. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Two more examples before I close are people’s reactions to change and the folly of multi-tasking. The brain research shows that when confronted with change, any change, people release chemicals in their body that are the same as those that are released during a flight and fight situation. As a result they feel bad, but are not quite sure why, but the unconscious brain reacts by trying to establish stability. As a result the person resists the likely cause, any change in circumstances. This explains why humans are more likely to be conservative and are largely risk averse. We like the tried and true.

Finally, the mantra now in terms of high productivity and effectiveness is focus. It seems that the human brain is not that good at adapting to doing multiple tasks in a short period of time, despite what we might like to think. Rather, people are much more effective when they can focus, uninterrupted on a task rather than having to juggle many balls. This has huge implications for how we organize our day and our work. Not lease of these is the management of email and other social media. The choice seems to be: multi-task and be ineffective; or focus and be more effective in myriad ways.

What this brain research allows us to do is to base management/leadership practice on sound research, on evidence. The problem is that the research is shooting down a lot of ‘holy cows’ and beliefs that are held by managers/leaders.

What will be interesting is whether we can take notice of the evidence or continue to be comfortable with ineffective practices. Will we in fact take more notice of how we implement change, take more time to create good working relationships with our people, develop our teams, design our workplaces to be less ‘busy’ and more focused, and give people the time to be creative?

Clever managers/leaders are already doing it.



(Stewart is conducting half-day and full day workshops on how to apply neuroscience to leadership. He is also conducts webinars on the same topic for groups of up to 8)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Setting Free the Bears





I’ve just got back from Laos, doing the tourist thing: as you do. One day we went to the equivalent of what we would call a national park. They are desperately in need of preserving what forests and animals they have, as illegal and legal logging is decimating the flora and, as a result, the fauna. Poaching is another threat and has almost seen off what was a thriving elephant population. There aren’t many birds either as they have been hunted for food, and one can buy fried rats the market, but that is another story.

Then there are the bears. They too have been hunted to near extinction and are mostly kept in sanctuaries. One of the reasons for hunting them is for homeopathic (I refuse to call this pharmaceutical because it is far from that) purposes. One of the weirdest is the taking a bear paw and putting into a bottle of rice wine. Apparently it is good for the health. But the most barbaric practice is keeping bears in tiny cages and painfully extracting bile from them until they can no longer produce and die a horrible death: mostly practiced in China. Whatever medicinal benefit bile might provide can be obtained from synthetic substances but it probably has not health effect at all. Perhaps it’s a good placebo but so is a sugar pill.

Humans are a remarkably superstitious lot and this is not  just the preserve of so called developing countries. We see the same sort of psychological processes in our apparently more enlightened societies and it doesn’t need to be about grand scale belief systems. It can be spotted in everyday behavior as a primitive and flawed way of making judgments.

 One example is the way in which we invent explanations for things that we don’t understand or for which we don’t yet have a scientific reason. This happens on a daily basis when we observe other people’s behaviour that doesn’t fit with our model of the world. We don’t understand it so we find reasons that concur with stereotypes we might have, or preconceived notions that were probably implanted by a relative, a newspaper or some other ‘respected’ source. Given it is our only reference point we believe it to be true rather than take the time to do some research.

You see this sort of thing happening on Facebook where a wild rumour about some marginal racial, ethnic or other group gets circulated and people keep sharing it, believing it to be true. A five-minute bit of research mostly shows these outrageous posts to be false but nobody takes the time to look. And of course it happens in organisations and groups of all kinds.

I have often been asked for my expert (sic) advice on matters in which I have some expertise. These are not many but there are some things that I do know something about. It might be the quality of the advice but frequently not only is the advice ignored but the person or organization does the complete opposite. The usual reason is expediency and a desire to ignore, as Al Gore calls it, an inconvenient truth. It is just too hard to do the thing (whatever it is) right so the advice is dismissed and the more convenient, preconceived approach is used.

One example is the organization that has a problem and is looking for a training solution. In fact, a brief investigation finds that the problem involves the organizational systems, processes, procedures or, more intangibly, leadership. This is pointed out but ignore because the solution is seen as too difficult. Much better to adopt a solution that is easy but will not work. But this example can be taken as a metaphor.


This sort of behavior is as primitive as extracting bile from bears for no good purpose. But, it is part of the human condition. Our brains have a lot of evolving to do before we can claim to be as sophisticated as we think we are.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Power of Self-Limiting Messages: And Drawing Straight Lines



Recently, I have taken up painting. Not the painting of buildings type but the artistic kind, although not sure what I’ve been painting could be called close to art, as of yet. I’m just six months into this new experiment with life and I’ve produced some reasonable efforts. What is even more interesting is that I have learned that I can draw. My birds, people and objects approximate what they are meant to look like, the proportions are good and others can tell what they are.

Since I was around 14 I have never tried to paint or draw. I was wont to quip that I couldn’t draw a straight line to save my life. The reason for this was that I developed an aversion to art when a teacher gave me 5% for an art exam and basically suggested I do science instead. I recall that day and I recall the painting that I did-it was pretty awful, a deep brown blob. The mark I got may have been generous like the joke about getting some marks for just turning up for an exam and writing your name. I duly went off to the science labs and never destroyed a nice white canvas again.

I have to agree with the teacher that I had no aptitude for art at all, at the time. But, of course, that was not the point. The complete lack of encouragement and writing me off as a dud had the effect of keeping me from a wonderfully creative experience for over 50 years. I suspect this is more true for those who have problems with being sporty and who are left on the sidelines rather than included, then lose interest in being active altogether.

I just love painting and, if left to my own devices and not disrupted by the  Director of Nursing waving the list of jobs to do around the house at me, will spend hours sitting at the easel. I am besotted.

What’s more, it is helping with other areas of my life, such as writing. And I seem to be having more good ideas lately. The evidence suggests that activating the creative parts of the brain will cause them to be active for some time afterwards. I always use creative activities to my workshops for this reason.  However, the point being that one does not have to be Renoir but just being creative is enough to have positive effects on my life.

As a psychologist I very frequently meet people who have self-limiting thoughts, usually implanted by an adult early in life, and nearly always without conscious malice. The malicious undermining of the self-esteem of another is a different matter, and it does happen, sadly.  Some people I meet struggle with these self-limiting messages all their lives. These are the ‘shoulds’, ‘musts’, ‘oughts’ and ‘cannots’ that get in the way of doing things that might ultimately fulfill us.

I also think that this can happen to adults too. Women in abusive relationships are a good example although they may have had some experience of abuse early in life as a model, so they don’t expect much else, although this is not true all the time.

As a psychologist, what interests me is how powerful these messages are: that we would take the opinion of another and believe it to be true. We are enormously fragile in a psychological sense. It behooves us to be aware of this when we make comments, even throw away ones, to children, family members, colleagues and those we manage at work.

The good news is that these self-limiting thoughts can be reversed. See your friendly local psychologist or send me an email and I can point you to some reading, if you are interested.

So, here I am, artist in the making. Still can’t draw straight lines but the great thing about art is that you don’t have to. Straight lines hardly exist in nature and they are boring anyway.


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You can find our most recent (there are two) book on self-determined learning (http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=self+determined+learning).

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Engagement and the normalisation of deviance



The term ‘normalisation of deviance’ was first coined by Diane Vaughan following the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986 (yes, it was that long ago-seems like yesterday). It refers to the gradual acceptance of flaws in procedures and operations, so that tolerance of less than optimal, or even acceptable practice becomes the norm.  In the case of disasters, for which the normalisation of deviance refers, danger signals are ignored, greater margins of error are accepted, and performance checks are not made. It is the development of a dysfunctional culture. The result is disaster.

Normalisation of deviance is similar to the more well-known psychological phenomenon of desensitization. When we become desensitized to something our feelings about it become less acute, we become less afraid perhaps, less amazed, less concerned. This occurs due to repeated exposure to an event, which results in familiarity. It becomes more normal.

The idea of normalisation of deviance can be applied to organizational operations as well as safety. I want to choose the example of employee engagement here, since engagement has been demonstrated to be critical in determining organization success, effectiveness and efficiency.  The cost to organisations of having disengaged employees is truly staggering.

Employee engagement is effected very strongly by leadership, usually of the transformational rather than transactional kind. That is, management through people where there is an emphasis on: excellent relationships between leaders and employees; the development of people; involvement in decision-making; sharing of information; excellent communication; clarity of expectations; employee control over flow and pace of their jobs; intrinsic reward; collaboration; trust; and a clear vision, for example.

Low levels of engagement are, however, the norm, according to a series of surveys of a large number of organisations across the globe conducted by the Gallup organization, and others. This means that most organisations are not managing their human resources well. This results in lowered productivity, efficiency and effectiveness.

What is important is the extent to which poor performance, poor leadership, poor followship and a dispiriting lack of engagement can become the norm in organisations. I’m sure most of you can tell stories about airlines, retail organisations, service providers, hospitals, and schools, for example, where there is a culture of mediocrity: where you, the customer, is treated shabbily. It is due to the normalisation of deviance.

Organisational culture is the responsibility of leaders. It is up to leaders to normalize engagement rather than a culture where unacceptable standards are the norm, deviant. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that culture change is possible, largely by adopting transformational and situational leadership approaches. At the same time the organization needs to look outwards rather than inward, to be agile, responsible and flexible in what is now a constantly changing environment.

Success is embedded in a normalisation of excellence and it is leadership that drives it.



Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The diminishing age of consequence



It may just be that I am becoming a grumpy old man but the idea of accountability seems to have disappeared from modern life. Perhaps told age has eroded my tolerance to the thinness of a battery egg shell,  like Clint Eastwood in that wonderful movie Gran Torino.

The recent incident involving Kurtly Beale has brought this into sharp focus for me and I’ve been grappling with notions of values and personal responsibility for a week or so now. Like others, I am just gobsmacked that Australian Rugby would allow Beale back into the Australian side at all, let alone so quickly, after his atrocious behavior. Sending a disgusting and denigrating text to a work colleague would result in instant dismissal in any workplace with no parole. Not only did Beale get parole, it was cynically foreshortened. So, off goes Beale for a European holiday.

It hardly needs me to point out the message that this sends, especially young people, about values, about the way we can treat other people. It appears that it’s is OK to abuse someone in a way that is likely to damage them irreparably. That he is a man abusing a woman is an even more terrible reflection of our societal values, given he has been reprieved from all responsibility. The fact he copped a fine misses the point completely. In any case, $45,000 is nothing for a man of his financial status.

One of the topics covered in psychology 101 is the shaping of human behavior, how we learn. It is a terribly complex process but one of the simplest ways we learn is by understanding consequences. If your behavior is rewarded, or you see others rewarded for their behavior, then you are more likely to repeat that behaviour If reward is removed then a behaviour will be avoided of can be extinguished. We learn that there are consequences for what we do. One of the most powerful ways we learn is through the approval or disapproval of those people who are significant to us.

In this way we find out about what’s right and what’s wrong. If it all works out well we learn what it takes to live in harmony with other people, we find that empathy for others is a valuable tool in relationships, that caring is nice. Of course there is that 2 or 3 percent of people that never get it and turn out to be psychopaths. The rest of us are shaped by the ways others respond to us and how we feel about what we are doing.

Vicarious learning is responsible for shaping a lot of our behavior. We learn by watching others and how they get along when they do something. Again, it is usually most powerful when it involves people we are close to or admire. Parents are obviously big determinants of behavior in their children. But, other relatives, work colleagues, bosses, friends and, yes, celebrities can model our behavior too.

Before the next bit let me be clear that physical or other abusive forms of punishment are very poor at shaping behavior, at least in the long term. You’ll get compliance but not a change in behavior or attitude. All we do when we do this is teach someone to be similarly violent or abusive. If you don’t want to believe me then please look at the evidence. It is overwhelming that physical punishment is not a deterrent or a game changer.

But, consequences are critical. I have seen many parents shake their heads at the selfish antics of their children, people look totally confused when their partner leaves them, be angry at their inability to get a promotion, or depressed that no-one seems to like them. Many of them failed to understand the consequences of not understanding consequences.

It’s the same in workplaces. Even in this age of apparent enlightenment we see bullying behavior such as that exhibited by Beale. In many cases the consequences are minimal, if there any at all. Bullying remains a critical issue in many organisations. But also endemic are failures of leadership, a failure to live up to common values such as honesty and integrity, and lack of engagement. Similarly, we endorse the vapid behavior of our politicians, their dishonesty, their self-interest, their disingenuousness. Our news media has become morally bankrupt, controlled as they are by self-interest. The truth is a leaf on the wind.


Our silences, our lack of outrage, is deafening and it provides the endorsement, the consequences of bad behavior.