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)


  1. Finally, i have been waiting for you to jump on the wagon.

  2. it is dangerous to teach phsychopats soft skills
    saw I am FishHead (2011)?
    read about Vaclav Havel?

    1. Well, given you are looking at around 1% of the population, that screening people for training, and the fact that intelligent psychopaths are already able to manipulate anyone, I don't quite see what you can do. Stop training people?

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    1. HI, thanks very much. Nice to get some feedback.