- Managing Me
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“Neuro-leadership” is a fast-growing field. Broadly speaking, it’s an approach to leadership that is influenced by and based upon the newest area of brain science – neuroscience.
New-York based Australian, David Rock, founder of NeuroLeadership Group, is a trainer and researcher who has seen interest in neuro-leadership quickly grow. There are now 150 research projects on the issue running in 150 companies globally.
The basis of most neuro-leadership theory is that, to achieve superior results, executives and leaders can adjust their leadership style based on research that suggests the brain:
But is this true?
Rock, who is visiting Australia for a seminar at the Australian Institute of Management, (NSW & ACT) in January, is already a convert and an enthusiast, but the field of neuroscience is a young one. There are sceptics.
To assuage their doubts and investigate the data, Rock has co-founded the NeuroLeadership Institute in New York. “We have 360 students doing degrees up to masters level in programs that we have built – certified education programs in the neuroscience of leadership,” he tells LeadingCompany. “We are collaborating with the big industry group, the American Society of Training and Development and with other major industry bodies across the US.”
Rock says there are several major factors driving interest in neuro-leadership. “There is more and more pressure to improve the quality of leadership,” he says. “In the US, we see the downside of poor quality leadership in the political stalemates, in the ethical breaches that bring down whole companies, and in statistics about everyday management that show 65% of people would prefer a new boss over a raise.”
The second factor is the sudden increase in the availability of research about the brain, Rock says. “A growing number of big universities have invested in programs studying everyday situations in the brain. There is an explosion of labs, particularly in the US, studying social interactions such as persuasion, empathy and attitudes. There are around 70 labs here studying those issues.
“In addition, there has been nothing significantly new in the leadership development and organisation field for some decades. It is a combination of these factors.”
Rock’s theory of neuro-leadership
Rock’s leadership theories focus on the idea of social threats. He believes that leaders often trigger a “threat response” in the way they speak to their reports. That means reports do not to hear what the leader is trying to communicate, because their threat responses take over their rational processes. It also means they cannot think clearly or make the best decisions.
“Leadership is about improving thinking,” he says. “There are about 60,000 books on leadership and no agreed definition, but if we think about developing and executing strategy, on one level that is about improving quality of thinking.
“In the neuro-leadership field, we are about understanding the leadership task from the perspective of the brain.”
Breaking down the ideas
Rock says there are four domains of neuro-leadership:
1.Decision-making and problem-solving.
Neuroscience is a very broad field. There are tens of thousands of researchers in many fields of study, covering the anatomy and physiology of the brain, neurotransmitters, chemistry, brain waves and brain communication, and how the different parts of the brain work together. “There are dozens of sub-domains, and majority of the field is not really relevant to leadership,” says Rock. “They are looking for breakthroughs for drug development from the clinical perspective.”
It is cognitive neuroscience that Rock says can be useful to leaders. This means the processes involved in how we hold information in our minds, how we process the social world, how emotions occur in the brain, and the study of language. “Those areas, particularly the social cognitive and effective are particularly relevant. They are studying the art of persuasion, what is involved in the moment of creativity. There are many studies coming out every week.”
In medium-sized and large companies, communication is often further distorted by corporate structures that get in the way of sharing information such as separate offices or competing divisions and individuals.
Talking down the threat response
Rock says cognitive neuroscience identifies five domains that are constantly and carefully monitored by the brain: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness (SCARF). “Each can be a threat or a reward,” he says. “These five domains are the primary colour of engagement – the key drivers of threat or reward.
“Many managers have evolved strong technical skills but not their ability to read social cues. The higher you go in a company the more important the ability to understand social cues becomes.”
New research suggests that the emotional pain and pleasure triggered by a change in these domains are as real as physical pain or pleasure.
However, the cues that trigger responses can be subtle. “Many managers will spend time trying to give feedback and tell people all the things they are doing wrong and wonder why no one is changing,” says Rock. “They don’t realise they are creating a threat response by attacking people’s status and that is likely to reduce peoples openness to change.
Change, certainty and autonomy
For a manager trained in neuro-leadership, a solution to the feedback conundrum might be to encourage reports to critique their own performance
“This raises their own status through self-disclosure,” says Rock. “You provide some activities or exercises or assessment tools.
“Deploying SCARF particularly relevant to any organisation going through change because change creates a threat in all five domains. The idea is learning to recognise that the pain people experience is real, and to really respect that, and then learning to offset the threats of using knowledge of the SCARF domains by creating rewards wherever you can, for example, by giving a greater sense of certainty or autonomy that reduces the threat.”
For some leaders others, the notion that they are shutting down the ability of their reports to respond to their feedback and to perform to the best of their abilities, is a revelation.
Others have twigged to Rock’s ideas through experience and his SCARF system simply reminds them to focus their attention on this aspect of communication.
Want to know more?
The Australian Institute of Management, NSW & ACT, is presenting a seminar with David Rock, Managing with the Brain in Mind, on January 17, 2013. It is sold out, but there is a waiting list.
Rock will be back in Australia for a NeuroLeadership summit in Sydney from June 19-21.