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Published: May 30, 2006

 
 

The Neuroscience of Leadership

In a world with so many distractions, and with new mental maps potentially being created every second in the brain, one of the biggest challenges is being able to focus enough attention on any one idea. Leaders can make a big difference by gently reminding others about their useful insights, and thus eliciting attention that otherwise would not be paid. Behaviorists may recognize this type of reminder as “positive feedback,” or a deliberate effort to reinforce behavior that already works, which, when conducted skillfully, is one aspect of behaviorism that has beneficial cognitive effect. In a brain that is also constantly pruning connections while making new ones, positive feedback may play a key functional role as “a signal to do more of something.” As neuroscientist Dr. Thomas B. Czerner notes, “The encouraging sounds of ‘yes, good, that’s it’ help to mark a synapse for preservation rather than pruning.”

At the organizational level, Mike wants to change the way thousands of people think. A common approach would be to identify the current attitudes across the group through some sort of cultural survey. The hope would be that identifying the source of the problem would help solve it. Based on what we now know about the brain, a better alternative would be for Mike to paint a broad picture of being more entrepreneurial, without specifically identifying the changes that individuals will need to make. Mike’s goal should be for his people to picture the new behaviors in their own minds, and in the process develop energizing new mental maps that have the potential to become hardwired circuitry. Mike would then get his team to focus their attention on their own insights, by facilitating discussions and activities that involve being entrepreneurial. After that, Mike’s job would be to regularly provide “gentle reminders” so that the entrepreneurial maps become the dominant pathways along which information, ideas, and energy flow. He also needs to catch the team when they get sidetracked and gently bring them back. The power truly is in the focus, and in the attention that is paid.

Perhaps you are thinking, “This all sounds too easy. Is the answer to all the challenges of change just to focus people on solutions instead of problems, let them come to their own answers, and keep them focused on their insights?” Apparently, that’s what the brain wants. And some of the most successful management change practices have this type of principle ingrained in them. “Open-book management,” for example, has been credited with remarkable gains at companies like Springfield Remanufacturing, because it repeatedly focuses employees’ attention on the company’s financial data. Toyota’s production system, similarly, involves people at every level of the company in developing a fine-grained awareness of their processes and how to improve them. In both of these approaches, in workplace sessions that occur weekly or even daily, people systematically talk about the means for making things better, training their brains to make new connections. If you took an fMRI scan of a Springfield or Toyota employee when that person joined the company and again after 10 years on the job, the two scans might reveal very different patterns.

Few managers are comfortable putting these principles into practice, however. Our management models are based on the premise that knowledge is power. This “transmission” approach to exchanging information (exemplified by lectures and textbooks, where knowledge is “transmitted” to a passive receiver) has always been the prevailing teaching method in academia, including the business schools that many managers attend. Since many executives assume that the teaching methods they endured are the only teaching methods that work, it’s no small matter to consider trying a different approach in our workplaces. For many executives, leading others in such a new way may be a bigger change, and therefore challenge, than driving on the other side of the road.

 
 
 
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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.