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Published: May 30, 2006

 
 

The Neuroscience of Leadership

You’ve probably had the experience of going to a training program and getting excited about new ways of thinking, only to realize later that you can’t remember what the new ways of thinking were. Were the ideas no good in the first place? Or did you just not pay enough attention? A 1997 study of 31 public-sector managers by Baruch College researchers Gerald Olivero, K. Denise Bane, and Richard E. Kopelman found that a training program alone increased productivity 28 percent, but the addition of follow-up coaching to the training increased productivity 88 percent.

Further research is needed to help us better understand how much attention is required to facilitate long-term change and in what kind of format the requisite training can be delivered to foster better performance. For chronically late people, habits like carrying two timepieces — one fast and the other accurate — or routinely trying to arrive 20 minutes early to meetings may be effective precisely because they focus conscious attention on the improved result. With an attention model, learning becomes possible through many media, not just in a classroom. Also, given the small capacity of working memory, many small bites of learning, digested over time, may be more efficient than large blocks of time spent in workshops. The key is getting people to pay sufficient attention to new ideas, something the “e-learning” industry has struggled with.

Martin Seligman, founder of the positive psychology movement and former president of the American Psychological Association, recently studied 47 severely depressed individuals. The study involved two unusual components. First, participants focused their attention on things that were proven to increase happiness — specifically, an exercise called the three blessings, in which people wrote down three things that had gone well that day — instead of on the source or nature of their unhappiness, which is where many mental health interventions focus. Second, communities were allowed to form, which encouraged people to pay attention to the happiness-inducing exercises. Depression in 94 percent of the participants dropped significantly, from clinically severe to clinically mild-to-moderate symptoms. The impact was similar to the effects of medication and cognitive therapy combined. Perhaps any behavior change brought about by leaders, managers, therapists, trainers, or coaches is primarily a function of their ability to induce others to focus their attention on specific ideas, closely enough, often enough, and for a long enough time.

Mindful Change in Practice
How, then, can leaders effectively change their own or other people’s behavior?

Start by leaving problem behaviors in the past; 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.

Let’s go back to Mike, our pharmaceutical CEO. One of Mike’s direct reports, Rob, has hired only three of his targeted six new team members this year. If Mike asks Rob why he didn’t reach the goal, he will focus Rob’s attention on the nonperformance. As a result of this attention, Rob might make new cognitive connections (also known as reasons) as to why he didn’t find the new people. For example, “All the really good people are taken by other companies,” or “I don’t have time to do the kind of recruiting we need.” Although these reasons that people were not hired might be true, they do little to support or foster any change.

A more useful place to focus Rob’s attention is on the new circuits he needs to create to achieve his objectives in the future. Mike could ask Rob, “What do you need to do to resolve challenges like this?” Mike’s questioning might provoke Rob to have an insight that he needs to remind himself of his annual objectives more regularly, to keep his eyes on the prize. If Mike regularly asked Rob about his progress, it would remind Rob to give this new thought more attention.

 
 
 
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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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