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Why Neuroscience Matters to Executives

The latest research on how the brain works unearths fresh insights into effective leadership.

New findings about the physiology of the human brain are reshaping traditional views of organizational structure and behavior. Last year, we explored this emerging body of knowledge in “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” published in the Summer 2006 issue of strategy+business and then discussed in an s+b online seminar. The response to the seminar was so enthusiastic that there wasn’t enough time to address all of the audience questions. Here, we take on some of the unanswered queries.

How can recent developments in neuroscience be applied to organizational management?
One of the biggest challenges organizations encounter is how to thrive when faced with constant, disruptive change. The study of neuroscience has provided us with a deeper understanding of why people find change so unsettling. It offers valuable insight into the way people approach new tasks or manage upheaval and helps us understand how the human brain utilizes mental resources to deal with ambiguity, resolve conflict, or find creative solutions to complex problems. Neuroscience can help organizations become more effective in how they manage change, which should increase organizational productivity and employee satisfaction.

The more we understand the phenomenon of change, the more effectively we can manage it. Neuroscience shows us why some common practices work well, such as allowing people to take ownership of a new initiative. It also explains why some don’t succeed. For example, using threats or incentives to implement organizational change is rarely sustainable. No other field is exploring the physical science involved in these kinds of issues.

Do these lessons pertain to all types of organizational interaction?
Yes, all types. Leadership, management, peer-to-peer support, even managing up. We are exploring the physiology of the brain and its effect on each of these relationships; specifically, which portions of the brain are utilized when people set objectives, give feedback to one another, develop strategies, or make decisions about how to attract and retain talent.

Is there research that indicates the most effective way to introduce change in an organization?
Although there is no applied research that has directly tested different approaches, neuroscience has identified the building blocks needed for successful change, and even the order in which these blocks should be put in place.

The first and most important step is to get people’s undivided attention. The portion of the brain dedicated to learning and comprehension, the prefrontal cortex, requires concentration to process new information. Most people have the mental capacity to focus on only one new idea at a time. Therefore, it’s imperative that leaders find ways to get employees out of their daily routine — for example, at an off-site meeting with no computers or other distractions — to encourage them to focus on the information being presented. What matters most is the quality and quantity of attention paid to a new idea.

Once leaders have created an environment that enables them to command an employee’s complete attention, the second step is to create a compelling vision of what will occur when their new idea has been implemented. Cognitive scientists are finding that people’s expectations and attitudes, known as mental maps, play a central role in their perception of the world around them. To facilitate change, leaders must encourage moments of insight that allow people to change their attitudes and expectations. These moments can occur at training programs or at other venues where new information is being presented, and they are of critical importance. During the moment of insight, cognitive scientists believe, the brain is undergoing a complex set of new neural connections that can help the brain enhance its mental resources and overcome resistance to change.

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  1. John J. Ratey, A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain (Vintage, 2002): Readable summary of current thinking about the biology of thought, change, and learning. Click here.
  2. David Rock, Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work (Collins, 2006): One of this article’s authors on the essentials of coaching. Click here. 
  3. David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” s+b, Summer 2006: Advances in brain research can help organizations successfully adapt to change. Click here. 
  4. Jeffrey Schwartz, Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior (Regan Books, 1997): OCD function and cure illuminate many leadership issues. Click here. 
  5. Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (Regan Books, 2002): Rewiring connections, and the underlying neuroscience. Click here.
  6. The First Global NeuroLeadership Summit Web site: Information about the inaugural conference led by the authors of this article, to be held May 14–16, 2007, in Asolo, Italy. Click here.
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