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Published: May 30, 2006

 
 

The Neuroscience of Leadership

In theory, an effective solution might well emerge from the person-centered approach. But there is rarely time to go through this process with employees, and no guarantee that it will produce the desired results. True self-actualization might simply lead someone to quit his or her job. Moreover, in practice, the humanist approach leads to an emphasis on persuasion. The implicit goal is to “get people on board” by establishing trust and rapport, and then to convince them of the value of a change. Performance management training manuals on administering annual appraisals often counsel managers to “deliver constructive performance feedback.” Translated from the jargon, this means, “Politely tell people what they are doing wrong.” Though colored by humanist intent, this approach is, in its own way, as mechanistic as behaviorism. It assumes that if people receive correct information about what they are doing wrong, and the right incentives are in place, they will automatically change.

But the human brain can behave like a 2-year-old: Tell it what to do and it automatically pushes back. Partly this phenomenon is a function of homeostasis (the natural movement of any organism toward equilibrium and away from change), but it also reflects the fact that brains are pattern-making organs with an innate desire to create novel connections. When people solve a problem themselves, the brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters like adrenaline. This phenomenon provides a scientific basis for some of the practices of leadership coaching. Rather than lecturing and providing solutions, effective coaches ask pertinent questions and support their clients in working out solutions on their own.

The power of changing behavior by asking questions goes back to Socrates, but even the Socratic method can backfire when it is wielded by someone in authority who is trying to convince others of a particular solution or answer. Leslie Brothers, a psychiatrist–neuroscientist and author of Friday’s Footprint: How Society Shapes the Human Mind, has demonstrated that the brain’s structure predisposes us to be socially oriented. Newborns experience a form of empathy, and at six months, well before they can speak, infants experience advanced socially oriented emotions like jealousy. When someone tries to politely tell people what they are doing wrong and phrases the criticism as a question (even one as seemingly innocuous as, “What made you think that solution would work?”), subconscious alarm bells ring. People can detect the difference between authentic inquiry and an effort to persuade them.

Neither the behaviorist perspective nor the person-centered approach has been sophisticated enough to provide a reliable method for producing lasting behavior change in intelligent, high-functioning workers, even when it’s in their own interest to change. It’s time we looked elsewhere.

Focus Is Power
Some of the biggest leaps in science and industry have emerged from the integration of separate fields. When the study of electricity and of magnetism coalesced to become the science of electromagnetism, the field gave us the electric motor and generator, which in turn sparked the Industrial Revolution. To understand how to better drive organizational change, we turn to another nexus, this time between neuroscience and contemporary physics.

Neurons communicate with each other through a type of electrochemical signaling that is driven by the movement of ions such as sodium, potassium, and calcium. These ions travel through channels within the brain that are, at their narrowest point, only a little more than a single ion wide. This means that the brain is a quantum environment, and is therefore subject to all the surprising laws of quantum mechanics. One of these laws is the Quantum Zeno Effect (QZE). The QZE was described in 1977 by the physicist George Sudarshan at the University of Texas at Austin, and has been experimentally verified many times since.

 
 
 
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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.
 
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