How to Use Neuroscience to Develop Successful Leadership Styles

To be a successful leader, train your brain to slow down, prioritize, and read the environment.

LLG has an exciting new partnership to announce. We’re now blogging for Emergenetics International. Here’s our first post:

Leaders can enhance their ideal leadership styles by becoming more perceptive of the brain’s thought process and, as a result, better able to regulate it. Read about one leader below who could have benefited from this:

Isabelle sits in her office. She’s writing a report that’s due in 30 minutes. She watches the minutes tick by on her computer’s clock. The phone rings. Bob wants to crunch the quarterly numbers with her. His needs aren’t as pressing as her deadline, but this deserves her full attention. Bob launches in and promises to only take five minutes. She’s already put him off a few times, so she acquiesces. Just then, an email from her boss arrives, and she opens it. “Wait, what did you say, Bob?” As he repeats his explanation, Isabelle skims the email to assess if it’s relevant to her upcoming deadline – the one in 17 minutes that will affect her spending power next quarter.

She hangs up feeling slightly uneasy because she missed some details in their conversation. It’s not the kind of leadership she promotes and, feeling guilty, she convinces herself to think about it later. Thirteen minutes to deadline. Isabelle’s shoulders and stomach are tense. She realizes that she has skipped lunch. The ideas aren’t flowing; in fact, they’re harder to access. Her work-life balance is askew; she often feels overwhelmed by juggling her job, family needs and children’s schedules. Her eyes land on a postcard her sister sent from Aruba. She’s so tired. Will sheever get to lie on the beach?

Back to the report. Her analysis is part of what she and her boss will use to predict advertising spending for the next quarter. She knows she can’t fudge this – her division is larger than most and important to the bottom line.

Suddenly, Isabelle hears laughter and smells freshly popped popcorn coming from the kitchen down the hall. Usually, she is flexible and will join the office staff if she can. She enjoys their company, but not today. She flies out of her chair and races down the hall. She slams the kitchen door shut without speaking to anyone and storms back to her office.

Five minutes left. Can she pound out this report?

One of my favorite neuroscientists, Evian Gordon, PhD (University of Sydney Medical School and founding director of the Brain Dynamic Center), has developed the largest fully standardized international database on the human brain. He describes a universal and dynamic four-part thought process we all use called the 1-2-4 model. It looks like this:

The brain has one overarching organizing principle – to assess whether we’re safe or threatened at any moment. Our brains are biased against negativity, which affects our perceptions of others and vice versa. Think about how Isabelle reacted to her situation. She was unable to thoughtfully respond because she didn’t exercise clear boundaries for herself and her relationship to her environment. Her rude response will now have potentially large ramifications because she lacked the ability to prioritize and simplify. Moreover, she might be making decisions that are inaccurate, potentially affecting the health of the company.

We process information in two ways: non-conscious and conscious. Our brains scan the environment every one-fifth of one second to pick up on cues. The brain reacts to these cues without our conscious awareness. In Isabelle’s case, she started her day in a state of overwhelm. This set into motion a type of processing that put the brain on high alert and thinking at a disadvantage. Concentration and focus are affected, which made Isabelle hyper aware of her environment rather than the task at hand. She needed to analyze, assess and extrapolate in her report but wasn’t able to in her current state of mind. Ideally, we want to be aware of our surroundings, but not a victim to them.

Finally, there are four parts to the thinking process: Emotion (non-conscious), feeling, thinking, and self-regulation (conscious). In Isabelle’s example, once she became a victim to her environment she temporarily lost the ability to regulate her responses to it. Isabelle isn’t alone. Leaders like her often stumble with the challenges of everyday life. I see many leaders try to make quick decisions without taking the time to reflect. This type of pattern has a snowball effect and results in forgetfulness, lapses in concentration and self-modulation–none of which fall under the kind of leadership styles anyone wants to put forward. It impacts decision-making and has a trickle-down effect on business and relationships. In order to self-regulate with accuracy, leaders must learn to slow down, prioritize and become adept at reading their environment.

Thoughts and behavior weave together like a tapestry to create a picture people experience of us. (And remember, the brain holds onto negative thoughts longer than positive ones.) Leaders need to understand how their thought process interacts with their behavioral choices to create unintended messages. In fact, I would argue that it’s most important to focus on behavior because it’s all one has to indicate intention. I advise leaders to give behavior language such as, “I’m overwhelmed and need to shut my door in order to meet a deadline.” Or, “You all know how I save deadlines until the last minute, which can make me look a little nuts…” These simple statements give others a window into their actions and help avoid potentially damaging feelings. The goal is to use clear communication to adaptively manage emotion, feeling and thinking so that the prefrontal cortex can step in and effectively regulate actions.

Brain awareness is both profound and subtle because it’s personal. The same is true for the Emergenetics Profile, which I use with individuals and teams on a regular basis. I’ve found that like the 1-2-4 model, it integrates the understanding of thought and behavior, opening its subject to the nature of perception. As you use the Profile, think about it from this perspective – What does the Profile reveal about your unique potential? Where could you give language to your behavior so that people better understand your motivations? And what are your desired leadership styles? When done right, leadership is a life-long learning process andEmergenetics is a foundational tool that helps people deepen that journey.

The Neuroscience Behind Attitude – Why Growth Mindset Is Critical for Organizational Growth

This blog post originally appeared at Integrated People Solutions.

Recently I worked with two corporate directors, Steve and Gary. Both hold senior level management positions, have worked for a similar number of years and have obtained impressive degrees from notable universities. Both work hard for their organization and attain solid results. However, a while back when the company started an organizational change mandate, an interesting thing happened. Gary’s behavior began to fall short of expectations. It impacted his team and their focus, productivity and attitude. For some reason, Steve didn’t show the same behavior traits, and neither did his team. Why?

It all comes down to mindset. Mindset impacts business relationships, and ultimately the success of an organization’s culture and the bottom line. Gary works hard to show his successes. He’s very good at outlining what needs to happen, but he’s not very interested in promoting his people or making them look good. He sees the world one way and it rarely changes. Steve, on the other hand, is a natural coach who believes that he shines when his people do well. He’s happy taking a backseat to them. He doesn’t tell people what to do and instead asks questions to lead them to the best conclusion. He understands that leaders often fall short because they don’t fully understand or see the ramifications of their decisions. He’s always looking for ways to develop their perspective.

Mindset is an idea about our intelligence and talent. People with a fixed mindset, like Gary, believe that traits are given or “fixed,” and that talent alone fosters success. On the other hand, people with a growth mindset, like Steve, believe that their basic abilities are simply a launching pad for growth and development. People with growth mindsets love to learn. And, more importantly, they show resilience, which is critical to success.

Carol Dweck, Ph.D., is a world-renowned researcher in the field of motivation at Stanford University, and she developed this concept. She says:

· Intellect and talent don’t guarantee success. They stand in its way.

· Praising doesn’t foster self-esteem and accomplishment. It jeopardizes them.

· Teaching a simple concept about the brain raises productivity.

Remember Enron? Did it fall apart because of mindset paralysis? It’s possible. Many companies are driven to hire talent, because it’s seen as the secret sauce that creates success for the organization. In Enron’s case, this strategy backfired because they became myopically focused on being talented and behaving in an extraordinary manner. As a result, their fixed mindset blinded them to collaboration, innovation and external market changes.

Cultures are made up of people, and overbearing and critical leaders are instrumental to creating a closed mindset among their team members. They can force their teams into fixed mentalities that prevent learning and growth. As a result, team members will worry about being judged and about what the boss thinks, rather than customers and the marketplace.

Let’s go back to Gary for a moment. Without realizing it, he’s being an overbearing leader. It’s his operating set point. This was harder to see prior to the change because he was working in an environment that he knew how to navigate and control; one that praised his successes. Moreover, he got away with never being wrong. Now he consistently operates outside his comfort zone. His constant need to be right, to govern and control how work is accomplished and his manipulation of messages to his boss all create undue stress for his people. In his case, one of his most talented business line managers only remained in her position for two years before resigning. No matter what she did to improve the organization, she was always made to be wrong. In addition, Gary comes to work every day feeling uncomfortable and trying to force everyone else to ease his pain by playing by his rules. His people feel intimidated into supporting him while at the same time pulled by the company’s new direction.

In studies, researchers have found that people with growth mindsets make better negotiators. They’re more easily able to push beyond obstacles and to reach win-win solutions. Moreover, managers with a growth mindset are more observant about their employees’ improvement. They don’t remain stuck in an impression that can limit them, and their employees see these managers as offering better coaching and employee development.

Managers with a growth mindset, like Steve, foster a culture of coaching which, in turn, creates opportunities for insight and innovation. Steve has been an ongoing client of mine for three years. We work together to offer growth strategies that open his employees’ minds to the possibilities they’re creating in their jobs. Not all of them will become leaders, but in Steve’s eyes all of them are leaders in their sphere of influence. He manages the most productive division of the organization, and his efforts to promote and build his people have made him a valued member of the executive team.

Gary remains a valued member of the organization, but he’s tested his relationships in the company. I was asked to work with Gary, and we’re focused on changing his mindset from one that is fixed to one that’s open. To do this, he is learning how skills, abilities and talent evolve throughout life. I want him to work to his talents and practice to his weaknesses. This focuses him on the process rather than the ultimate outcome of being the best all the time. We both believe he will succeed and, because the science says it’s possible to learn a new mindset, he’s optimistic. Stay tuned.

I have known Sophia Kristjansson for several years now. She is also one of Integrated People Solutions iPeople partners as well. Her recent blog post hits several solid points home that are common with many of the leaders we place through our executive search work here at Integrated People Solutions.

The Neuroscience of Change – The Power of Mental Force

A 4-Step Focused Process for Change and Creating New Habits

Happy New Year!

(Originally appeared at Emergenetics International.)

Everything feels fresh, new and possible in January, and this tends to be when many ponder their expectations for the upcoming year. Yet it’s well established that once we get back to our regular lives after the holiday indulgences, we forget what we wanted to achieve. The gym membership sits idle; the weight loss plan falls to the bottom of the list; the new approach to work-life balance is forgotten. Do we no longer want to improve our lives? Or do we have too much going on to focus on the change we want to create? Habits are hard to shift, even when doing so can be the difference between life and death. Studies show that only one in nine patients who have undergone coronary bypass surgery will actually adopt healthier day-to-day habits. They too settle back into the well-worn path of life even though they know it’s probably not in their best interests.

This is a story about change and the power of mental force. We all have the ability to harness it; the trick is knowing how. This month, we examine it from the individual perspective. We look at the neural connections that drive behavior and discuss a powerful 4-step approach to achieve change. Next month, I’ll address it from an organizational perspective. Companies across the globe are faced with the reality that behavior throughout their organizations must change in order to achieve ongoing success. We’ll discuss how leaders can lay the foundation of behavioral change for their people.

How do individuals handle change? I recently was privy to a fascinating conversation between a research fellow and his mentor. The two men sat face to face, one was in his late 20s and a post-doctoral researcher from MIT. Across from him was his mentor, a clean-cut, articulate professor who was trying hard to explain why the post-doc needed to change his approach with his colleagues. The researcher had been stroked for his brilliance – he knew more about the research topic than his colleagues. However, his ability to partner with the team wasn’t going well. He was failing because he wanted everything to go his way. The mentor was open, sitting forward and eager to prove his point, which he repeated more than once: “If you don’t change your chances for tenure will greatly diminish because your reputation will precede you. You will be seen as a hard person to work with.” The post-doc was obviously skeptical – legs and arms crossed, furrowed brow, and argued logically. He was clearly uncomfortable as the mentor charted his soft skills on an x/y axis.

Here’s the problem: change is painful. This is because of the interplay between working memory and focused attention. Working memory is considered a holding area where new information can be compared to known information already stored in the brain. To perform a rational comparison of new to old, the brain engages the prefrontal cortex — the brain’s center for rational thinking — which is energy-intensive and can only hold a limited amount of information at a time. It fatigues easily. The brain is also wired to recognize environmental errors – perceived differences between an expected outcome and the actual outcome. When the brain perceives a contradiction, intense neural firing takes place in an area of the brain connected to the fear center. This, in turn, engages the fear circuitry of the brain and can start an anger or fear response that is highly counterproductive to any change process.

Let’s go back to the MIT researcher. He received information that directly contradicted evaluations of his prior success. Until now, he’d been lauded for his academic achievements. Now he was being evaluated on his emotional intelligence, and he was failing. The contradiction was causing him mental stress because he couldn’t parse the two. The new information had no relationship to the way he’d been trained. His non-verbal communication showed that he was starting to shut down by looking over his mentor’s shoulder and rarely establishing eye contact.

To further complicate things, humans love to do what’s easiest and the brain plays a vital role in this. Well-habituated tasks (tasks performed again and again) are stored in the basal ganglia located deep in the brain’s core. The basal ganglia employs less energy than the prefrontal cortex and can function exceptionally well without applying conscious thought in a routine activity. (In other words, we don’t need a lot of awareness to perform a habituated task.) The post-doc was doing what he’d always done: relying on his smarts to get work done. If someone on his team didn’t agree with him, he’d just brush him aside. He did this without even thinking about it.

Forcing change is worthless. The individual must buy into the need to change and be responsible for making it happen. With clients, I liken it to the process of building a bridge one step at a time while standing on the precipice. It’s scary and exhausting, and focus on the goal is key. If we can train our thoughts to override the old habits, we can achieve long-lasting change.

In his book, The Mind & The Brain, Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D., discusses studies he conducted on OCD patients to help them overcome their biologically engrained habits. He used an effective 4-step process with the study subjects that I have adapted and used successfully with clients over the past few years. I partner it with the Emergenetics profile. The Emergenetics profile is most often a foundation to the coaching process because it’s unique to each person and opens the door to change in a non-threatening manner.

The 4-Step Focused Process of Change
First, let’s spin out a scenario with the post-doc. Let’s say he has agreed to change his approach with his teammates because he wants to be successful in his new position and eventually become tenured. But he admits that when the team doesn’t agree with him, he gets nervous and wants to force a conclusion. He tends to problem solve alone and by the time he enters a team meeting, he’s worked out the entire project in a logical manner and knows exactly what each step will yield. However, before he can learn to lead, he must teach himself new ways of working with people. Here are the four steps he’ll follow through the change process.

Step 1: Relabel the thought. Call it what it is, and depersonalize it. The post-doc doesn’t have to act on his thoughts. When the urge to control comes up, he can tell himself, “That’s my need to control, and it’s only a thought.” Or, “We won’t derail the project just because I’m listening to an idea. It’s only my fear of collaboration talking.”

Step 2: Reattribute the thought. Take control of it. The post-doc could say, “This thought is my brain playing an old, well-known tape that is no longer useful to me.” Or, “The stress I’m feeling in my back is really just a reaction to my need to control. It’s a reaction, it’s not me.” With this realization, the post-doc will start to recognize the entire emotional process he goes through when he resists others’ ideas. I’ve found this step to be revealing because it raises self-awareness.

Step 3: Refocus the thought. Interrupt the pattern. This is the workhorse step to changing the habit. The brain has a way of reminding us when we’re not attending to the script. When the urge to act becomes strong, acknowledge it and then focus on a pre-planned idea. That way there are no surprises. Let’s say the post-doc is becoming anxious because a meeting is going too long and too many ideas are swirling around the table. He becomes super focused on time and no longer listens. This is a danger zone. While he’s aware of his reaction, he can shift to his pre-planned recovery cues: take a deep breath or take a quick break. The process takes weeks, maybe months, but with focus the fear will dissipate because each time a person goes through this kind of reaction he becomes more aware of the pitfalls and learns how to manage around them.

Step 4: Revalue the thought. Achieve objectivity. Eventually, the intensity of the thoughts will change and the post-doc will become an impartial spectator with his thoughts. He’ll be able to see his reactions for what they are – and choose what to engage in.

This is focused neuroplasticity in action. Like this researcher, we’re hired to think, but our success is driven by our ability to work with each other. Even the smartest among us don’t escape this truth. Those who will excel at their careers are the ones who are open to change and who have the fortitude to drive through it in a focused manner. I believe that once we appreciate the way the brain is wired, we can empower ourselves to adopt behaviors that are more brain friendly, such as the one above. This will help us better achieve our goals in life – whether they’re on our New Year’s resolution list or not.