strategy+business is published by PwC Strategy& Inc.
 
or, sign in with:
strategy and business
Published: May 30, 2006

 
 

The Neuroscience of Leadership

Breakthroughs in brain research explain how to make organizational transformation succeed.

Illustration by Jason Holley
Mike is the CEO of a multinational pharmaceutical company, and he’s in trouble. With the patents on several key drugs due to expire soon, his business desperately needs to become more entrepreneurial, particularly in its ability to form internal and external partnerships to reduce time-to-market. Yet his organization has a silo mentality, with highly competitive teams secretly working against one another. How can Mike change the way thousands of people at his company think and behave every day?

Businesses everywhere face this kind of problem: Success isn’t possible without changing the day-to-day behavior of people throughout the company. But changing behavior is hard, even for individuals, and even when new habits can mean the difference between life and death. In many studies of patients who have undergone coronary bypass surgery, only one in nine people, on average, adopts healthier day-to-day habits. The others’ lives are at significantly greater risk unless they exercise and lose weight, and they clearly see the value of changing their behavior. But they don’t follow through. So what about changing the way a whole organization behaves? The consistently poor track record in this area tells us it’s a challenging aspiration at best.

During the last two decades, scientists have gained a new, far more accurate view of human nature and behavior change because of the integration of psychology (the study of the human mind and human behavior) and neuroscience (the study of the anatomy and physiology of the brain). Imaging technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), along with brain wave analysis technologies such as quantitative electroencephalography (QEEG), have revealed hitherto unseen neural connections in the living human brain. Advanced computer analysis of these connections has helped researchers develop an increasing body of theoretical work linking the brain (the physical organ) with the mind (the human consciousness that thinks, feels, acts, and perceives).

The implications of this new research are particularly relevant for organizational leaders. It is now clear that human behavior in the workplace doesn’t work the way many executives think it does. That in turn helps explain why many leadership efforts and organizational change initiatives fall flat. And it also helps explain the success of companies like Toyota and Springfield Remanufacturing Corporation, whose shop-floor or meeting-room practices resonate deeply with the innate predispositions of the human brain.

Managers who understand the recent breakthroughs in cognitive science can lead and influence mindful change: organizational transformation 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. This does not imply that management — of change or anything else — is a science. There is a great deal of art and craft in it. But several conclusions about organizational change can be drawn that make the art and craft far more effective. These conclusions would have been considered counterintuitive or downright wrong only a few years ago. For example:

  • Change is pain. Organizational change is unexpectedly difficult because it provokes sensations 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. In practice, the conventional 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. People’s preconceptions have a significant impact on what they perceive.
  • Attention density shapes identity. Repeated, purposeful, and focused attention can lead to long-lasting personal evolution.

Change Is Pain
“Why do people resist change so stubbornly, even when it’s in their own interest?” wonder CEOs like Mike. Changing the way others go about their work is harder than he has expected. New advances in neuroscience provide insight into why change can be so difficult, and there are several key findings.

 
Page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9  | All | Next Last>
 
 
Follow Us 
Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google Plus YouTube RSS strategy+business Digital and Mobile products App Store

 

Resources

  1. Leslie Brothers, M.D., Friday’s Footprint: How Society Shapes the Human Mind (Oxford University Press, 1997): Social impact on brain development.
  2. Tetsuo Koyama, John G. McHaffie, Paul J. Laurienti, and Robert C. Coghill, “The Subjective Experience of Pain: Where Expectations Become Reality,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 102, no. 36, Sept. 6, 2005. Click here.: Documents the role of expectations in the placebo effect; summarized in Bruce Bower, “Thinking the Hurt Away,” Science News, September 10, 2005: Click here. 
  3. Gerald Olivero, K. Denise Bane, Richard E. Kopelman, “Executive Coaching as a Transfer of Training Tool: Effects on Productivity in a Public Agency,” Public Personnel Management, vol. 26, no. 4 (Winter 1997): Research on the value of follow-up in coaching.
  4. John J. Ratey, M.D., A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain (Pantheon, 2001): Readable summary of thinking about the biology of thought, change, and learning.
  5. David Rock, Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work (Collins, 2006): Essentials of coaching by one author of this article.
  6. Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D., Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior (Regan Books, 1997): OCD function and cure turn out to illuminate many leadership issues.
  7. Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D., and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (Regan Books, 2002): Rewiring connections and the underlying neuroscience.
  8. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D., Henry P. Stapp, and Mario Beauregard, “Quantum Physics in Neuroscience and Psychology: A Neurophysical Model of the Mind-Brain Interaction,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 360, no. 1458, June 29, 2005: Emerging quantum brain theory.
  9. Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (1990; Free Press, 1998) and Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (Free Press, 2002): Research-based popular books on the habit of optimism as an attention-focusing process. See also one of Dr. Seligman’s Web sites. Click here..
  10. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759; Cambridge University Press, 2002): Smith’s masterwork uses self-awareness as a vehicle for developing moral conscience.
  11. Jack Stack, The Great Game of Business (Doubleday, 1992): Explains Springfield Remanufacturing’s focused use of financial literacy.
  12. Mark Jung-Beeman’s Web site: Moments of insight and creative cognition. Click here.
  13. Edmund Rolls’s Web site: Descriptions of his current work and links to his books on the brain mechanisms of emotion. Click here.
  14. For more articles on organizations and people, sign up for s+b’s RSS feed. Click here.
 
Close