Neuroleadership: New Ideas in the Brain Science of Managers
A large manufacturer I once worked for was building a new engineering campus. When the time came to put in sidewalks between buildings, the paving company suggested letting employee foot traffic establish the most logical locations for the paths. After three months of employees naturally selecting the most logical connections between buildings, the paver knew exactly where to place all the paths—the routes where the grass had disappeared.
In a similar way, neuroscientists are studying the neuro-pathways and functions within our brains and are finding that our thinking and resultant behaviors also follow predictable patterns. The field of neuroleadership (Ringleb & Rock, 2008) has the objective “to improve leadership effectiveness within institutions by developing a science of leadership and leadership development that directly takes into account the physiology of the mind and the brain.” The four general categories of research in neuroleadership encompass new approaches to “decision making and problem solving, emotional regulation, collaborating with and influencing others, and facilitating change” (Ringleb & Rock, 2008).
A Roadmap for the Mind
Neuroscientists are mapping the areas of the brain associated with different activities, actions and messages using functional MRI scans. As they share their data, we are finding scientific evidence that changes our understanding of workplace behaviors and explanations for why some practices work better than others (Rock & Schwartz, 2006). For instance, feedback, whether positive or negative, will automatically trigger an emotional reaction in the part of the brain that controls survival, known as the limbic system. Additionally, social pain (being ignored, ostracized or humiliated) triggers the same areas of the brain as physical pain (Van Hecke, Callahan, Kolar, and Paller, 2010).
Another finding is that effective multi-tasking is a myth; we can hold more than one piece of information in our mind at a time, but cannot perform more than one kind of process at a time without a loss in effectiveness (Rock, 2009; Van Hecke, Callahan, Kolar, & Paller, 2010). Rock’s five mental processes of understanding are making a decision, recalling, memorizing and inhibiting. Each of these processes requires a change in course and the use of different areas of the brain (2009). Jumping between them is as exhaustive as taking a lengthy zigzag course instead of a straight line approach. These changes burn up glucose—the source of energy for thoughts— reducing our ability to think and act at maximum effectiveness.
Signal Change in Your Meetings
Patrick Lencioni, in his best-selling book Death by Meeting (2004), proposed a model of effective meetings based on four distinct contextual structures that allow participants to remain in one thinking domain at a time. The four meetings are “the daily check-in, the weekly tactical, the monthly strategic, and the quarterly off-site review”. This entertaining fable is an enjoyable introduction to neuroleadership in action.
Neuroscientists and neuroleadership theorists share a common interest in studying a small, almond shaped structure within the limbic system, the amygdala. The amygdala is charged with identifying whether something or someone is friend or foe, and drives our “fight-or-flight” or “approach-avoid” responses (Rock, 2008). If the amygdala senses a threat, the pre-frontal cortex—the seat of executive function—surrenders control to the amygdala’s primitive brain. Cognitive thinking decreases, subtle signals are missed, and generalization increases. Simply put, we become dumber just when we need all of our wits about us.
The emerging field of neuroleadership is a fascinating and practical subject for educators and leaders to explore. In the past two years, many excellent books and articles have been published that provide many more insights into what drives our behaviors and affects the quality of our critical thinking. If you want to understand how you and others think, it’s a no-brainer to explore this research.
Lencioni, P. (2004). Death by meeting. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Ringleb, A.H. & Rock, D. (2008). The emerging field of NeuroLeadership. NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 3-19.
Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 1-9.
Rock, D. (2009). Your brain at work. New York: Harper Collins.
Van Hecke, M.L., Callahan, L.P., Kolar, B., & Paller, K.A. (2010). The brain advantage. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.