Role models - Making role modelling an effective leadership development strategy

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Published by
Jan Hills
August 19, 2016

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We know modelling people is an effective way of learning new skills and behaviours. There is a long history of this from children modelling their parents and siblings to apprenticeships.

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Leadership development has adopted role models as the way to breakthrough some of the challenges of passing on requirements to future leaders. The thinking goes ‘if we can point to the role models, tell people who they are and suggest they copy what they do, our leadership problems will be over’. Of course I exaggerate to make the point.

There are a couple of assumptions behind this approach:

  1. Leadership is best learned from recognized leaders. This learning happens through the process of “identification” with the leader as a role model.
  2. The role models can transmit what they do and how they do it to others; that is they can teach it and that teaching others is enough to change their behaviour.

We will take a look at some of the science behind these assumptions and the implications for using role models in business.

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Our brain has developed the ability to understand what another person is thinking, and their goals and motivations, in order to be able to predict, to some extent, other people’s behaviour. In many ways we need to be able to read other people’s minds – and we can.

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Why do people look to role models?

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 connections with others: this is a primary need in the brain.

Our brain has developed the ability to understand what another person is thinking, and their goals and motivations, in order to be able to predict, to some extent, other people’s behaviour. In many ways we need to be able to read other people’s minds – and we can.

We use these skills every day. For example, we make assumptions based on circumstances, gender and appearance, which enable us to cooperate. (“You’re like me, you’re not a threat to me, we can work together…”) This ability is not part of our general ability to think and analyse. We use our prefrontal cortex network for analytical thinking, but a completely different part of the brain – the default network – is used for understanding other people.

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Neuroscientist Matt Lieberman says that our minds are less like hermetically sealed vaults that separate each of us from one another, and more like “Trojan horses”: letting in the beliefs of other people without our realising the extent to which we’re being influenced.

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Thinking about ourselves

This area of the brain also largely manages our thinking about ourselves. If you’re thinking about your favourite sweater, remembering a childhood birthday present, or reflecting on your personality (“Am I lazy, or am I having a relaxing Sunday?”) you will be using this area of your brain.

It’s also the area that enables you to be influenced by others. The more active the medial prefrontal region is when someone is trying to persuade you (for example to adopt a new policy, or lead like them), the more likely you’ll be to do it.

Neuroscientist Matt Lieberman says that our minds are less like hermetically sealed vaults that separate each of us from one another, and more like “Trojan horses”: letting in the beliefs of other people without our realising the extent to which we’re being influenced. It has the effect of ensuring that we have the same kind of beliefs and values as people around us, creating the social harmony we depend on. This is one

This network for mind-reading goes quiet when we’re busy with cognitive kinds of thinking like solving a maths problem or thinking about business strategy. And when we’re engaged in the mind-reading type of thinking we quiet the cognitive circuitry.

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Essentially what we are doing in using a role modelling strategy is creating an in-group with desirable behaviours which we want others to copy. The better those behaviours are seen and obvious the easier it is for others to identify with them.

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In-groups and social reward

The implication here is we are naturally ‘wired’ to understand other people. But there is also another way in which the brain is ‘wired.’ One of the ways our brains manage the vast amounts of data they need to process every day is by putting things into categories. This categorisation in turn influences the way we judge things. The top level of categorisation is in-group or out-group. In-group is friend rather than foe, usually “like me” rather than “different to me”. We store broad representations for our different categories, says David Amodio of New York University.

That first categorisation affects our subsequent processing. We will spend longer looking at the faces of people in our in-group. It will affect how we interpret their bodily movements and how much empathy we have for them in a painful situation. Once we have categorised, we link to other stored information about that category; how similar they are to us, what characterises them, whether these characteristics are positive or negative. These stored characteristic and category links are built up over time through socialisation and culture. They create the expectations we have of people – they’re the lens we see them through.

Essentially what we are doing in using a role modelling strategy is creating an in-group with desirable behaviours which we want others to copy. The better those behaviours are seen and obvious the easier it is for others to identify with them.

So in theory if people identify with the in-group leaders and are aware of what they are doing because they want to be part of a valued group, they will adopt similar behaviours. But there is another factor to consider.

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Dweck’s studies show that people with a growth mind-set work harder, learn from experience and seek to understand from role models.

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Understanding your psychological world view

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has spent her career researching the “mindset” 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.

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 mind-set: “He’s very bright,” “She’s so talented,” “She’s a natural leader,” “He has a gift for languages.”

People coming from this mind-set believe you either have it or you don’t. Employees with this mindset believe their performance is a result of their talents. They’re concerned about their ranking and reputation, and are quick to compare their performance with peers. Dweck has found that people with a fixed mindset see role models as a threat. They are suggesting ways of working that may not match their natural abilities or talents. These employees are less likely to learn from role models and leaders who hold this mind-set are less likely to be willing or able to unbundle how they have been successful.

Growth mind-set

In contrast, people who have a growth mind-set believe that talent, abilities and intellect can be developed. Their number-one rule is learn, learn, learn: they’re the people asking for a mentor, following self-study programmes on their free time and quizzing leaders about their career.

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 these people it is not about intelligence and talents; even if they have those traits in abundance, 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; they find out what they can do to learn, who they can learn from and where the testing opportunities are.

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It is very difficult for others to observe role models and guess what drives the behaviour. Knowing how someone behaves is not enough. You have to also understand why they behave that way.

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Why not just what and how

So there is more to consider than just wheeling out your leadership team. It’s important to be able to point to who you want role modelled and what aspects of their behaviour you want copied and whether the leader can unbundle why they do what they do. But knowing what someone does and successfully adopting that capability is quite a big leap. We have a Success Profile methodology for identifying what the most successful do and how they do it. For example, our work creating Success Profiles across many organisations, in countries all around the world has found that the difference in the success of the most successful is not what or even how they do it but why they do it; the purpose they bring to the role and the beliefs that they hold.

It is very difficult for others to observe role models and guess what drives the behaviour. Knowing how someone behaves is not enough. You have to also understand why they behave that way. The ‘why’ drives the behaviour. Only with the ‘why’ will the behaviour be authentic and thus successful. Time and time again we have seen that acting out the same steps as the role model doesn’t work. People have to believe in what they are doing. This is the true challenge for leadership development. How do you develop leaders who adopt the successful ‘why’ not just the ‘what’?

Our beliefs on this are supported by some of the latest findings in neuroscience:

Work by Matt Lieberman at UCLA has focused on the role of mirror neurons verses the area known as the default system or how we adopt a Theory of Mind or metalizing. This is the area of the brain where we think about ourselves and which largely overlaps with the areas activated when we think about and try to predict the actions of others. For example, when we put ourselves in another’s shoes to understand them. This is essentially what we are asking people to do in role modelling.

Essentially the brain has two systems for understanding others; mirror neurons and the default system ( or sometimes called the mentalizing system). To have two systems is a bit of a puzzle as the brain is a very efficient organ and duplicating a function takes up a lot of brain power and energy. Mirror neurons are quite a new finding and scientists are still learning exactly how they work. Current knowledge indicates mirror neurons are active when we perform a goal directed action and when we see someone else performing the action. Lieberman undertook research to find whether there were differences in how the two brain systems react when we see and think about others’ actions. When we observe a role model for example there are different interpretations:

What she is doing

Why she is doing it, and

How she is doing it

So for example if a senior leader is suggesting a sustainability plan these different aspects might be:

What – drawing up and talking about the plan

Why – improve the company’s environment

How – recycling bottles, paper etc

When we want to model a behaviour, we have to first answer the how question ‘how is this leader behaving?’ This is essentially what we are telling our future leaders to do. To look at how the role models act. However, as we observed above there is more to success and authentic behaviour than how.

Lieberman’s experiment aimed to understand the different brain activity used between these three aspects of an action. The experiment looked at understanding the different brain regions involved in what someone is doing verses why they are doing it verses how they are doing it. He asked people to look at video clips and having established how someone was doing the action, asked them to determine either why the activity was happening or what was happening and observed the activity in the brain. He found that the mirror neuron system is active in some answers and the default system in others.

How activated mirror neuron system in left side of brain

What largely activated the mirror neuron system on the right side of the brain. Lieberman believes this aids the ability to see actions rather than just movement.

Why is answered by the default system, the area which thinks about ourselves and others. This system doesn’t typically come on except when the why question is posed. It is essentially the system for understanding motivation.

This is important as it helps us to understand what we can do to be useful to others which in turn helps us pass on ideas, culture etc. I would suggest that this is the area we need people to be activating in order to understand a role model.

The default system is quick to switch on – Lieberman suggests within a few seconds if we are not focused on cognitive tasks. But to the extent that the default regions are active, the cognitive, analytical regions switch off and versa visa. This suggests that these two modes of thinking compete with each other. Mirror neurons are robust under cognitive load but the default system can’t operate well when people are stressed, undertaking cognitive tasks or trying to process large amounts of information. It takes effort, focus and concentration to understand others’ motivation. When these are lacking the default system does not come on line or does not come on line efficiently.

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This research implies that for a leadership development strategy that includes a dependence on role modelling, work needs to be done to understand not just the what and the how but also the why.

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So leaders who spend a lot of time in rational cognitive thinking may be out of the habit of switching on the default system or at least tuning into it when it is switched on. We all know leaders who take little time or make little effort to understand themselves or others.

This research implies that for a leadership development strategy that includes a dependence on role modelling, work needs to be done to understand not just the what and the how but also the why. To do that the role models need to be able to describe their purpose and beliefs not just behaviours. It also needs to help leaders balance their attention between cognitive thinking and thinking about others.

Getting leaders to share ‘Why’

When we’re listening to a story the language areas of the brain are activated as well as the areas that relate to elements of the story, for example, visual processing or the emotions. So if a leader is telling an emotional story about their purpose and beliefs the emotions about success and purpose are aroused in the listeners.

What’s more, when people tell stories to other people, stories that shape thinking and pass on wisdom, the brains of their listeners synchronise with the storyteller’s. A Princeton study found that similar brain regions are activated in both listener and the storyteller, including the insula, which is thought to provide emotional context and integrate information, and the frontal cortex, responsible for analytical and control functions.

Even more remarkably, the study also identified a subset of brain regions in which the responses in the listener’s brain preceded the responses in the speaker’s brain. These anticipatory responses suggest that listeners actively predict a storyteller’s words. This may be to compensate for a noisy background, or ambiguous meaning. But the Princeton research found that the more extensive the join-up between a speaker’s brain responses and a listener’s anticipatory brain responses, the better the listener understood the story.

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Habits seem to be in three parts cue, routine and reward. Teaching people how habits work and creating new cues and routines then rewarding success creates change and a return on your learning investment.

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Adopting the role models beliefs and behaviour

The final piece is about people adopting the new behaviours and ways of thinking.

Our brain responds to and encourages us to create patterns, regular ways of doing things. We call these habits. These act as a short cut, you don’t have to work out how to do something like open a door afresh every time. These routines are run by the basal ganglia a part of the brain which is older and which is energy efficient. After a period of time aspects of a job become habit. People get comfortable doing the same tasks, the role is predictable.

One metaphor used to describe a habit is of a neural pathway that has been strengthened through repeated use. You could picture it as a footpath that has been used so often it is now a deep furrow in the ground. The depth of this well-walked rut makes it difficult to get off the pathway – to break the habit. It appears likely that the habit synapses in the brain are strong and more likely to connect up. This footpath metaphor makes intuitive sense; the more you do something the more likely it is to become a habit. But that is not the whole story.

In terms of brain functioning, actions and habits are very different. They use different parts of the brain which respond and work in different ways. Understanding how and why they are different can be helpful in helping others to change theirs too.

Change, whether that’s a new behaviour or new belief or a new way of leading, demands something different and hence new habits must be formed. This is the equivalent of telling the brain something is wrong. This activates the emotional centre, the amygdale and creates a flight or fight response. Whilst the prefrontal cortex can override this primitive brain response this takes a lot of energy and it soon becomes fatigued.

Habits are inflexible and don’t adapt to changing situations. Intentions and goals might change, but habits will stay the same unless you intervene.

Neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner says as much as 70% of what we do is habit, and that includes most of our job. Because habits are semi-automatic we do them without thinking. To try to stop a habit only deepens the neural pathways. It is much better to create a new habit. Habits seem to be in three parts cue, routine and reward. Teaching people how habits work and creating new cues and routines then rewarding success creates change and a return on your learning investment.

People can resist impulsive behaviour if they have a clear personal vision of what the outcome will be.

Do your learning programmes incorporate the habit model? Does post programme embedding support new habits?

So in summary role models can be a valuable assets in leadership development but you need to define who and what behaviour is modelled and make the person and behaviour desirable. Help your role models unbundle why they do what they do; their purpose and beliefs. Use stories to guide people and ensure they know how to create new habits of behaving and thinking.

References

Pascal Molenberghs (September 2013). The neuroscience of in-group bias. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews Volume 37, Issue 8.

Gordon Allport (1979). The Nature of Prejudice. Perseus Books Publishing.

David M. Amodio (2008). The social neuroscience of intergroup relations. European Review of Social Psychology, 19.

David M. Amodio (2012). NeuroLeadership Summit lecture. New York.

Carol Dweck (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House.

Spunt, R. P., Falk, E., & Lieberman, M. D. (2010). Dissociable neural systems support retrieval of “how” and “why” action knowledge. Psychological Science, 21, 1593-1598

Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert, and Uri Hasson vol. 107 no. 32 April 2010 http://www.pnas.org/content/107/32/14425

Saxbe, D.E., Yang, X.-F., Borofsky, L.A. & Immordino-Yang, M.H. (2012). The Embodiment of Emotion: Language use during the feeling of social emotions predicts cortical somatosensory activity. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Kevin Ochsner, quoted at the NeuroLeadership Summit 2010, Boston.

Bayer, U. C., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Achtziger, A. (2010). Staying on track: Planned goal striving is protected from disruptive internal states. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 505–514

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