The Neuroscience of Leadership

by Matthew E May

The Neuroscience of LeadershipA few months ago I introduced you to the work of Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a research neuropsychiatrist at the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine, in a column called The Neuroscience of Change, Or How to Reset Your Brain. The challenge in business, especially if you’re a business owner or leader responsible for change, is helping others make that change, helping people “reset” their minds.

Change is never easy. “Like driving a car with standard transmission for the first time, changing a hardwired organizational habit can be nerve-wracking. It is now clear that human behavior in the workplace doesn’t work the way many executives think it does,” Schwartz wrote in an article for Strategy+Business, coauthored with David Rock, executive director of the Australian-based NeuroLeadership Institute.  ”That in turn helps explain why many leadership efforts and organizational change initiatives fall flat.”

Now, for the small business owner starting up, or the entrepreneur with just a handful of associates, leadership in the traditional sense of the word probably isn’t the most pressing issue. We just need to get up and running in a lean and agile way and get our stuff to market, right?

But at some point we all run into the issue of creating or managing change: markets change, customer requirements change, competitors sneak up on us. Given the pace of change today, we’ll soon find ourselves at the back of the pack if we can’t establish and maintain a position of primacy. Doing just that drops us on the doorstep of leadership.

That’s where neuroscience can help leaders, though. It can help business people lead and influence what Schwartz/Rock term “mindful change,” meaning change that “takes into account the physiological nature of the brain, and the ways in which it predisposes people to resist some forms of leadership, and accept others.”

That sounds like a scientific formula, but it isn’t. In fact, Schwartz/Rock claim that “there is a great deal of art and craft in it.” Still, understanding the neuroscience of leadership can help make that art and craft work more effectively. Thanks to neuroscientific discoveries, we can now safely make several conclusions about human behavior change that just a few years ago would have been labeled incorrect.

We now know, for example, that:

Change is pain. When change comes to our workplace, it’s unexpectedly difficult because it provokes the feeling of physiological discomfort.

Behaviorism doesn’t work. “Change efforts based on incentive and threat (the carrot and the stick) rarely succeed in the long run.”

Humanism is overrated. The reality is that the conventional and empathic approach of connection and persuasion doesn’t sufficiently engage people.

Focus is power. “The act of paying attention creates chemical and physical changes in the brain.”

Expectation shapes reality. Whatever one’s preconceived notions may be, they have a deep and profound impact on what one actually perceives.

Attention density shapes identity. “Repeated, purposeful, and focused attention can lead to long-lasting personal evolution.”

These conclusions are significant for anyone in the position of needing to change behavior. And in business, that amounts to nearly everyone. The question becomes: what do we do about them? How can a leader effectively change their own or other people’s behavior?

“Start by leaving problem behaviors in the past,” advise Schwartz/Rock. “Focus on identifying and creating new behaviors. Over time, these may shape the dominant pathways in the brain. This is achieved through a solution-focused questioning approach that facilitates self-insight, rather than through advice-giving.”

What they mean is this. Let’s say you (as leader) have a stated goal of hitting $6 million in revenue by year-end. The company misses the mark. If you ask people why $6 million didn’t make it to the top line, they will make new mental connections that are useless in making the situation better: “The client couldn’t make up their mind.” “We didn’t have enough people.” “We didn’t have enough time.” “The economy is too uncertain.” The reasons might be valid, but they don’t support or generate any change.

Instead, you should focus attention on new circuits people need to create in order to achieve the objective in the future by asking questions like, “What do we need to do to resolve challenges like this?” The question provokes the very insight that people need to constantly remind themselves of the stated objective, and to keep their mind’s eye on the target. And if you ask regularly about progress toward the goal, it reminds people to give the challenge even more thought.

Sound too easy? Can it possibly be true that the answer to most challenges of change is simply to focus people on solutions instead of problems, let them come to their own answers, and keep them focused on their insight?

“Apparently that’s what the brain wants,” write Schwartz/Rock. “And some of the most successful management change practices have this type of principle ingrained in them.”

Originally appeared on AMEX Open Forum

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Matthew E MayMatthew E. May is the author of “IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.” He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are ‘elegant’ – a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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  1. Excellent article. I highly recommend the book Evolve Your Brain by neuroscientist Dr. Joe Dispenza about how to reprogram and evolve the brain so that new new, positive and beneficial habits can take over. Thoughts create chemical reactions that keep one addicted to patterns and feelings that can lead to unhappiness, failure and self defeat.

    In the new paradigm in science, consciousness is the primary fabric of reality. Your consciousness transcends your brain. You do not have to identify with your existing brain circuits; you can change those brain circuits and hierarchies and thus change your life. Neuroscience reveals that we can mold and shape our neurological framework by the repeated attention we give to any one thing. The key factor in making neural connections is focused attention.

  2. Mohieddine Chouaibi

    Excellent article with bright idea.

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