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Published: May 30, 2006

 
 

The Neuroscience of Leadership

The fact that our expectations, whether conscious or buried in our deeper brain centers, can play such a large role in perception has significant implications. Two individuals working on the same customer service telephone line could hold different mental maps of the same customers. The first, seeing customers only as troubled children, would hear only complaints that needed to be allayed; the second, seeing them as busy but intelligent professionals, would hear valuable suggestions for improving a product or service.

How, then, would you go about facilitating change? The impact of mental maps suggests that one way to start is by cultivating moments of insight. Large-scale behavior change requires a large-scale change in mental maps. This in turn requires some kind of event or experience that allows people to provoke themselves, in effect, to change their attitudes and expectations more quickly and dramatically than they normally would.

Mark Jung-Beeman of Northwestern University’s Institute for Neuroscience and others have recently used fMRI and EEG technologies to study moments of insight. One study found sudden bursts of high-frequency 40 Hz oscillations (gamma waves) in the brain appearing just prior to moments of insight. This oscillation is conducive to creating links across many parts of the brain. The same study found the right anterior superior temporal gyrus being activated. This part of the brain is involved in perceiving and processing music, spatial and structural relations (such as those in a building or painting), and other complex aspects of the environment. The findings suggest that at a moment of insight, a complex set of new connections is being created. These connections have the potential to enhance our mental resources and overcome the brain’s resistance to change. But to achieve this result, given the brain’s limited working memory, we need to make a deliberate effort to hardwire an insight by paying it repeated attention.

That is why employees need to “own” any kind of change initiative for it to be successful. The help-desk clerk who sees customers as children won’t change the way he or she listens without a moment of insight in which his or her mental maps shift to seeing customers as experts. Leaders wanting to change the way people think or behave should learn to recognize, encourage, and deepen their team’s insights.

Attention Density Shapes Identity
For insights to be useful, they need to be generated from within, not given to individuals as conclusions. This is true for several reasons. First, people will experience the adrenaline-like rush of insight only if they go through the process of making connections themselves. The moment of insight is well known to be a positive and energizing experience. This rush of energy may be central to facilitating change: It helps fight against the internal (and external) forces trying to keep change from occurring, including the fear response of the amygdala.

Second, neural networks are influenced moment to moment by genes, experiences, and varying patterns of attention. Although all people have some broad functions in common, in truth everyone has a unique brain architecture. Human brains are so complex and individual that there is little point in trying to work out how another person ought to reorganize his or her thinking. It is far more effective and efficient to help others come to their own insights. Accomplishing this feat requires self-observation. Adam Smith, in his 1759 masterpiece The Theory of Moral Sentiments, referred to this as being “the spectators of our own behaviour.”

The term attention density is increasingly used to define the amount of attention paid to a particular mental experience over a specific time. The greater the concentration on a specific idea or mental experience, the higher the attention density. In quantum physics terms, attention density brings the QZE into play and causes new brain circuitry to be stabilized and thus developed. With enough attention density, individual thoughts and acts of the mind can become an intrinsic part of an individual’s identity: who one is, how one perceives the world, and how one’s brain works. The neuroscientist’s term for this is self-directed neuroplasticity.

 
 
 
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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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