Brain-savvy leading:
the science

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Published by
Jan Hills
July 8, 2015

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Clients we talk to say leadership has never been more important. We believe and our research bears out that understanding how the brain works is one way of helping leaders become more effective. We call this brain-savvy leading. There are a number of elements which make up this type of leading. Some are about how leaders interact with their people, both their followers and their peers, other elements are about how leaders understand themselves.

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The elements

The key elements are:

Work habits: how you work and how aware you are of your brain’s capacity and energy

Social control: the degree to which you can control your emotions and are aware of the triggers

Social connection: how well you can connect and understand yourself and others

Leading others: how you lead and influence others

Mind-set: your beliefs about success and the world view these beliefs create which drive your behaviours at work.

Here we give you an overview of the science as it applies to an individual leader.

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Do you find yourself creative, focused and speeding ahead in the morning and sluggish, making mistakes and flitting from one thing to the next later in the day?

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Work habits

Do you find yourself creative, focused and speeding ahead in the morning and sluggish, making mistakes and flitting from one thing to the next later in the day? It could be your brain has run out of working capacity. Our work habits of long meetings, doing emails early in the day and seeing down time as lazy, all mean we fail to make the most of our brain.

We ran two breakfast club meetings on the topic of what neuroscience is telling us about effective work habits and asked people a bit about how they currently work.

We asked whether people felt they had to work smarter because they had no more hours in the day to work longer. Pretty much everyone said they were maxed out on the number of hours they could work and many people said they must find smarter ways to work.

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The brain science says taking short breaks every 60 to 90 minutes is the best way of managing your brain’s capacity and stay at the peak of your performance and creativity.

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Brain breaks

The brain science says taking short breaks every 60 to 90 minutes is the best way of managing your brain’s capacity and stay at the peak of your performance and creativity. 66% of people said they work like this; but of those 44% said they had to take breaks surreptitiously as it was not acceptable in their company to be seen to ‘rest your brain.’ Given the brain continues to process and solve problems, deepen our understanding of ourselves and others and help us make better ethical decisions during this ‘non work’ time companies are missing out on lots of brain power

Our final poll was on multi-tasking. Three quarters of our participants said they multi-task even though all the science shows that it is not possible to multi-task on cognitive matters, what we are actually doing is quickly switching from one task to another, this slows down processing.

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Brain-savvy leaders adopt work habits which maximise their brains capacity and take advantage of the way the brain processes information during ‘downtime’.

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We keep trying to multi-task because of a cognitive illusion generated in part by dopamine-adrenalin activity so you feel like you are doing well. Part of the problem is that workplace cultures encourage you to multi-task through rules like responding to emails within time limits and keeping the chat box open. The other issue, research has shown, is some people multi-task because it makes work less boring. Check your motivation for multi-tasking and if it is boredom look at our more detailed article on brain habits, it has a section on how to stop being bored at work.

Brain-savvy leaders adopt work habits which maximise their brains capacity and take advantage of the way the brain processes information during ‘downtime’.

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One of the underlying assumptions about success in business is that we have to control ourselves and our emotions.

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Social control

One of the underlying assumptions about success in business is that we have to control ourselves and our emotions. For most of the last century emotion has been a dirty word in organisational culture and the ‘British stiff upper lip’ is seen as the pinnacle of control, irrespective of your nationality.

Social Control has at its heart the ability to understand your emotions and what triggers unhelpful negative emotions and to manage them. As social animals we’re primed to relate and engage, but every social interaction has its stresses and different things can push our “hot buttons” and trigger negative behaviour: a sudden outburst, a harsh comment, a rush of sadness.

What’s happening in the brain is that the prefrontal cortex is taken over by the limbic system, a set of structures in the brain responsible for our emotions and the formation of memories. In extreme cases “going limbic” can result in the amygdala hijacking our thinking brain, resulting in “freezing,” and memory blanks.

Memories and emotions are intrinsically linked, and remembering an experience which has a strong emotional element can activate a limbic response. This might be positive (your first kiss), or negative (an embarrassing incident at work). Emotional control or regulation is about understanding your triggers and avoiding them, or dealing with the consequences in an effective way.

Walter Mischel’s “Marshmallow Test,” the famous long-term study, is probably still the best-known example of research on emotional control, and demonstrates the close link between self-regulation and later success in life. Pre-school aged children were presented with a marshmallow and it was explained to them that if they could resist eating it for 15 minutes while the researcher was out of the room, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow.

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Brain savvy leaders acknowledge their emotions and know they are necessary for making decisions and general mental health.

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Videos of the tests show the perfect agony of restraint; the most successful children had strategies for distracting themselves from yearning for the immediate treat. Following up with the participants years later, Mischel found that the children who had been able to resist outperformed their peers on several scores including academic results, income and social success.

Brain savvy leaders acknowledge their emotions and know they are necessary for making decisions and general mental health, but they also know how to express them and manage them and to notice and amplify positive emotions and what generates them.

Leaders who are brain-savvy about emotions are also better able to direct attention away from whatever’s immediately attracting them and stay focused on their goals. A study by scientist Evian Gordon has shown that people who have the greatest social control, especially those with good emotional resilience, are also more productive at work. So there’s a clear business case for teaching people these techniques.

Stanford psychologist James Gross has developed a model for emotional regulation, assessing the pros and cons of the different techniques.

Avoidance takes several forms, from not getting into emotional situations by avoiding the person who annoys you, distracting yourself by reading a book, or focusing on something else, such as work. The successful “marshmallow children” employed variations of these techniques.

Suppression embodied in the attitude of British stiff upper lip can be injurious to your health: raising your blood pressure and heart rate. It also uses up more brain energy and fails to deal with the cause of the emotion.

Reappraisal involves looking at the situation in a different light and interpreting events in a more positive way. It can be a successful strategy, dealing with the root cause of the emotion and reducing amygdala activity.

Mindfulness is a meditation technique that has been shown to reduce the reaction to emotional triggers and also has several health and concentration benefits. Taking the time to become more mindful through a meditation practice can have long-term results.

Gross makes the point that all of these techniques require practice, and like a muscle the more we practice the more the ability develops. This occurs whether it is a supportive technique, bringing with it multiple benefits like mindfulness, or a negative technique such as suppression which can have unintended consequences.

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Our well-being depends on connection with others: this is a primary need in the brain. As humans we would be unable to survive and thrive without others. This urge to connect is one of the reasons we have a big brain.

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Social connection

Many of our assumptions about why humans developed a large brain, and particularly a large prefrontal cortex, rest on our abilities in logical, rational processing. But another theory is that we’re shaped by our social interactions and suffer when our social bonds are threatened or broken. Our well-being depends on connection with others: this is a primary need in the brain. As humans we would be unable to survive and thrive without others. This urge to connect is one of the reasons we have a big brain: we use our brain to connect and these connections motivate us to work together and develop rewarding social interactions. And all this has an impact on the way we manage businesses. The brain regions that manage social connection, that is understanding others and being able to predict, to some extent their motivation and responses largely overlap with the brain regions which we use to understand our own thinking and motivation. This has led scientists to predict that having a greater understanding of yourself will help you to understand others and in business these are skills all leaders need.

Zenger has found that the social ability of leaders can have consequences for their success. Looking at data from employees on the leadership effectiveness of their boss Zenger found that great bosses represented 20% of the population, good 60% and bad 20%. These results predicted outcomes like profit, employee satisfaction, turnover and customer satisfaction. Zenger found that when he paired interpersonal or social skills with other skills, it allowed leaders to maximize their effectiveness. If leaders were rated high on task and getting results only 14% of these leaders were in the top 10% of employee’s ratings. However for those leaders that rated high on task and social the number went up to 72%. Essentially social skills improve the value of other competencies. They are a multiplier.

In other research the Management Research group found more than 50% of people rated their bosses and peers as having a high degree of task focus. Less than 1 % were rated high on task and social skills.

Social connection isn’t about going for coffee or enjoying parties. Social connection is the positive feeling you get when you are praised, do something for others, your reputation is enhanced or your trust is returned.

Social connection plays out in business is a number of different ways: it is at the root of engagement, happiness, trust and empathy. It is also an element of team work and can provide rewards which are even more motivating than money.

Leading others

There is probably no one in the business world who isn’t engaged in some type of change whether that’s a large change programme or small shifts in policy or practice. In business today people need to understand change; how it impacts them personally and how it impacts others and they need to be able to successfully make change happen without a significant dip in productivity and employee engagement. A number of pieces of neuroscience point to how people respond to change. We have pulled these together into one model we call CORE. We’ve developed our CORE model as a quick and easy way to help you understand and manage potential responses in yourself and in other people when influencing, suggesting change or building a relationship. It’s based on research which has identified that people experience threat, or reward, in four key areas at work and in social situations generally. Understanding when a threat might be triggered (and how it could be avoided or minimised), and when a sense of reward can be created in each of these social elements is essential for leaders managing themselves and their teams and working with colleagues.

The CORE model

The four areas of human social experience where threat or reward responses are felt are:

Certainty: our confidence that we know what the future holds

Options: the extent to which we feel we have choices

Reputation: our relative importance to others (our social ranking)

Equity: our sense of fairness

These four elements activate either the “primary reward” or the “primary threat” circuitry of our brains. For example, a perceived threat to our sense of equity activates similar brain networks to a physical threat to ourselves. In the same way, a perceived increase to our reputation activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary reward. The reaction happens automatically and instantaneously and triggers our response before we’ve even had a chance to consider it rationally. You can learn more about CORE by watching our short video or reading the guides and articles on our web site.

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Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has spent her career researching learning, and in particular exploring the “mind-set” for success. She describes a mindset as someone’s entire psychological world, where everything has a different meaning depending on their beliefs.

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Mind-set

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has spent her career researching learning, and in particular exploring the “mind-set” for success. She describes a mindset as someone’s entire psychological world, where everything has a different meaning depending on their beliefs. Her studies show that people tend to have one of two sets of beliefs that create their mindset about work, learning and their own abilities. One is a growth mind-set and the other is a fixed mind-set.

Characteristics of a Fixed mind-set

Dweck describes people who hold a belief that talent, ability and intelligence are something you are born with as having a “fixed mind-set.” And you’ll notice that much of our language about ability and performance is framed by this mindset: “He’s very bright,” “She’s so talented,” “She’s a natural leader,” “He has a gift for languages.”

If you hold this mind-set you probably believe you either have the talent and natural ability to do a role or you just weren’t born with them. And there are a range of behaviours which reflect this world view. For example its probably important to you to get things right, the first time and to be seen as competent and good at what you do. You probably also tend to avoid getting into a role or task which is new to you or requires you to draw on new skills and abilities. You want to show case what you can do and not be exposed to situations where you need skills that you know are a new or weak. You also like to avoid mistakes and may even be inclined to cover them up.

In studies, Dweck has found that people with a fixed mind-set say, “The main thing I want when I do my work is to show how good I am at it.” If this is you, you probably seek out roles that match your demonstrated abilities, where you know you can shine.

One of the down sides of this mind-set, Dweck has found is that it can mean you actually exhibit less persistence and less ability to learn from experience. Your mental framework provides no mechanisms for dealing with setbacks and it can mean you are reluctant to take on tricky assignments. And your readiness to change jobs can be less about enthusiasm for a new challenge than an unwillingness to persist with current problems when your performance may show up as less than excellent.

It’s challenging to hold this mind-set in times of change as that feels threatening.

Characteristics of a Growth mind-set

If you are someone with a growth mind-set you probably believe that talent, abilities and intellect can be developed. Typically the number-one rule is learn, learn, learn: you probably even seek out opportunities to learn something new, try out a new skill or understand how someone else tackles a similar role.

People with a growth mind-set say things like, “It’s much more important for me to have a challenge than to be rated the best person.” They do care about rankings, but they care even more about having an interesting, challenging role where they’re going to be getting into new areas and working with good people. For you it’s not just about intelligence and talents; even if you have those traits in abundance, for you they are the start point rather than the end point. Mistakes are part of learning; deficiencies are part of being human and indicate you need to work harder; you like to find out what you can do to learn, who you can learn from and where the testing opportunities are.

Dweck’s studies show that people with a growth mind-set push themselves to work harder, learn from experience and are willing to take more risks to achieve results. After a test, they’re the ones grabbing the paper and saying, “Hang on, where did I go wrong?” (a trait demonstrated in one of Dweck’s experiments).

You can read more about the consequence of each mind-set and how to change mind-sets in in our article ‘Talent mindset: what do you believe about your abilities’.

If you would like a brief summary about brain-savvy leading watch our animated video.

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