While the topic of what constitutes good and effective leadership continues to be debated, what cannot be ignored is the potential role neuroscience has to offer in enhancing leadership development based on the physiology of the brain. Neuroleadership is the term coined by Dr. David Rock in 2006 relating specifically to using different aspects of neuroscience to explore how to boost performance in four key areas:

  1. problem solving and decision making
  2. emotional self-regulation
  3. working well with others
  4. facilitating change.

„Analytical“ meets „emotional“

Partnering with the new brain science makes good business sense because it provides the hard science that backs the development of those soft skills that are the backbone of all business relationships. Technical expertise, experience and results focus are highly valued skillsets. However, being strong in analytical skills doesn’t necessarily translate into also being good with people. The question is can you have both? While research has shown this to remain a rare commodity, exceptional leaders have the capacity to alternate rapidly between analytical thought and social skills. Better still this skillset can be learned.

Safety first: the human cost of business

The brain’s primary function is to keep us safe. Our very survival has depended on being alert to any potential danger in our environment and then taking the appropriate action to either move away or towards that place that looks as if it will provide us safety or reward in the shape of food, shelter or a mate. In the workplace this is about providing a brain safe environment to enable us to do our work well. The modern day threat is the increased complexities of work being performed and the hours worked. This coupled with economic uncertainty and global geopolitical events have contributed to the spiralling levels of stress, stress related illness, mental health issues, high staff turnover and presenteeism.

Increasing efficiency and effectiveness requires examining current workplace practices to determine whether tasks are being undertaken in a brain-friendly manner that will minimise a threat response and promote a reward state. When we feel safe, we are more relaxed, more focused, more collaborative and open to new ways of doing things, and less likely to engage in conflict that result from misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

Working with the social brain

Maslow’s hierarchy states we depend on having air, food and shelter to sustain us. This thinking is now being challenged by those working in social cognitive neuroscience who believe our ability to connect socially is as important to our survival.

As humans we are hard wired to connect. We have a fundamental drive to ‚belong‘ because being part of the ‚in-crowd‘ makes us feel safe. Exclusion causes us social pain, shown by studies to hurt as much as physical pain, because they share common neural pathways. This underpins how important the role of social and emotional intelligence is to the health and wellbeing of any workplace. There are six elements that leaders can use in every social interaction to minimise a threat response in themselves or others and boost effectiveness:
  • Trust: Trust is the foundation of every interpersonal relationship. You build trust by developing your trustworthiness as demonstrated by your actions and interactions with others. When we are with someone we trust, levels of oxytocin (the ‚trust‘ hormone) are elevated, so we feel safe and more relaxed. This leads to more open, deeper and more meaningful conversations. A trusting relationship doesn’t hold back, we smile, interact and collaborate more.
  • Respect: Feeling respected for who you are, regardless of your position in the pecking order provides a sense of knowing who you are, and your capability. The problem is it can be very easy to inadvertently show disrespect, which immediately puts that person in a state of threat. Being overlooked for an invitation to a team meeting, witnessing an ‚eye roll‘ while putting across your point of view, or not being acknowledged when entering a room rapidly diminishes self-confidence and self-esteem. Maintaining respect starts with things as simple as using a person’s (correct) name and always giving credit where it is due.
  • Autonomy: Choice matters. Having a sense of self-direction or choice has been shown not just to be important for motivation and sense of purpose; it’s linked to health and wellbeing, even to the level of determining how long we live. Studies have shown how a lack of autonomy is linked to a 30% higher risk of heart disease as well as being demotivating. Providing choice, even if it is just a perception, reduces threat, keeps us well, builds resilience and promotes a willingness to step up to new challenges.
  • Impartiality: Playing fair extends far beyond the nets of the local tennis club. Favouritism or bullying is a very strong threat that we feel deep in our guts. It’s that sense of disgust accompanied by wrinkling up our nose as if we just smelt something really bad when involved in a workplace dispute, failed negotiation or disputed judgment call. Behaving in an impartial manner in every interpersonal interaction can mean the difference between being accepted and listened to, or ignored. The effective leader always looks to play fair.
  • Clarity: Your choice of words, phraseology, even punctuation can mean the difference between a message getting through and being understood in the way it was intended or not. One of the biggest social threats in any workplace today lies around the level of uncertainty people are experiencing; whether this relates to job tenure, job description or expectations. Choosing to be economical with all the facts can be a bad move. If the sense is of not being told the whole story; rising stress levels quickly engender fear and a rapid downward spiral of mood or motivation. Being clear about the message, sharing what is known (so far) and being as transparent as possible about the intention of the message provides the clarity required to stay in the galvanised state.
  • Empathy: While aligned strongly with trust, empathy provides a genuine reflection of understanding of what others may be experiencing. Empathetic leaders are valued for coming from a place of service and humility when sharing a tough decision. It softens the blow for the person receiving it and helps others to remain resilient in the face of adversity. Empathy is a skill set that can be learned or enhanced. When Telefonica Germany put their staff through an empathy training program, the company saw a 6% increase in customer satisfaction in just 6 weeks. It begins by choosing to spend time getting to know people, showing sincerity and generosity of spirit.
Effective leadership is people-centred. Incorporating the findings from the social cognitive neuroscience or Neuroleadership can assist every leader to boost organisational health, efficiency and performance.
Marco Giannecchini