Play to your strengths

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Published by
Jan Hills
September 12, 2016

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Our ability to understand others is a unique human skill. The brain circuitries through which we do this are the same areas that enable us to think about ourselves.

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In many organisations people get promoted to leadership roles because they are good at their technical job. Be that a store manager, scientist, banker or engineer. This is an approach that can be difficult for the individual and the organization. We hear many bemoan that they took their best technical person and created a poor leader. So what can science tell us about why this happens and what can be done about it?

One of the leaders of social neuroscience is Matt Lieberman who runs the social neuroscience lab at UCLA. Lieberman’s research suggests that leaders who are poor at managing and understanding social interactions are doing even more damage than we may have thought in organisations. But it may not be their fault. Essentially our ability to understand others is a unique human skill. The brain circuitries through which we do this are the same areas that enable us to think about ourselves. Scientists call this Theory of Mind or metalizing, horrid word! Neuro-scientists believe that the better we are at understanding ourselves the better we will also be at understanding others. But, this brain circuitry reacts a bit like a see-saw. When we are thinking about ourselves or others and activating the metalizing circuits we close down much of the rational, executive functioning pre frontal cortex. So it is not possible to be creating business strategy, for example and thinking about the impact of that strategy on others.

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Organisation policies that promote those who are good technically and then do little to develop self-awareness and people skills exacerbate this habit of favouring one part of the brain over the other.

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Not a problem we might think, we can always do these things sequentially. But the brain is hard wired to look for easy ways to work, ways that reduce the energy and effort needed. So much of what we do becomes routine or habit. If leaders are in the habit of thinking about analytical and strategic problems and less used to thinking about how they impact people it is much harder to switch between the two brain circuits.

Organisation policies that promote those who are good technically and then do little to develop self-awareness and people skills exacerbate this habit of favouring one part of the brain over the other.

Add to this research that suggests that our ability to understand others and to predict their reaction to events is poor. Lieberman found that when people know something themselves, like being able to recognise a tune or know the capitals of obscure countries they are poor at predicting whether others will also know the information. Only 2.5% of people accurately predict what others know.

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The success factors are always about the leaders’ beliefs and attitude to the organisation or to people. They tend not to be technical abilities but the mind-set and skills that the leaders use to deploy their technical abilities.

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So what can we do to off-set this in business? Well at one level it is deceptively simple. Have a more balanced understanding of what really makes the biggest difference to success. The attributes which really differentiate the best performance. We use our Success Profile methodology to help organisations find just the right mix of attributes. We usually find that there are four to five success factors that are essential to the success of the highest performing leaders. The success factors are always about the leaders’ beliefs and attitude to the organisation or to people. They tend not to be technical abilities but the mind-set and skills that the leaders use to deploy their technical abilities. They are of course subtly different in each organisation but understanding them can enable organization to identify, develop and hires those people who are most skilled at switching between the two types of brain circuitry. Our leadership development approach then uses what we know about how the brain learns and changes to help leaders become more adept at switching between the two circuits. Lieberman is also researching the best ways to train people to do just that, we may just be one step ahead of the science!

 

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