The new leader: insights from neuroscience

The new leader: insights from neuroscience
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What best describes you?

Advertising and marketing are among the most-pressured industries to work in. But what do the everyday stresses and strains do to your body? And how can industry leaders help?

Sometimes, as a leader, you have to challenge your team to do what might seem impossible. Providing the appropriate context for them can make all the difference in terms of engagement.

If you provide a good enough reason, your team members can achieve things that they may not have thought possible. It all comes down to how strong and relevant that WHY is.

Without context, you might be encouraging them to plough on and do the best they can, or come back to you seeking more information. If they plough on without context, they will probably not provide the outcome you were looking for. This will likely undermine trust, encourage disengagement, and increase the amounts of stress you are both experiencing.

High levels of stress show up in our attitude and behaviour. Neuroscience has demonstrated how contagious such attitudes and behaviour can be. This, known as emotional contagion, spreads rapidly, particularly when coming from a leader. When emotional contagion is negative, it is perceived as a threat. This perception releases cortisol and adrenaline and sets up the fight/flight/freeze response initiated by our limbic system.

Oxygenated blood, the energy source for the brain and necessary for clear thinking, is shunted away from the brain and the digestive and reproductive areas to our arms and legs, readying us for action. This system is highly appropriate from a survival perspective.

Today, we are faced with so many situations that can be interpreted as threatening – being ignored by the boss in a meeting, not making budget, an upcoming performance review, being late for work, poor work/life balance, strain on relationships, interrupted or lack of sleep, poor diet, lack of exercise – that your cortisol and adrenaline levels can remain chronically high.

This can reduce your resilience, in turn heightening your perception of threat, creating a vicious cycle that has been associated with damage to the hippocampus (the area of the brain where new neurons are produced and memories are stored).

Reduced memory function, risky decision making, impaired relationships, poor well-being and a reduced lifespan have all been linked to these chronically high stress levels.

Today’s leaders

It has been said that people judge their leaders by their behaviour, and the organisation by its systems. Think about that for a moment. If this is even half accurate, then both leadership behaviour and organisational systems require the leader’s attention.

A progressive leadership style is essential for a supportive culture in which people’s productivity is developed. But what will the leader of the next decade look like? What competencies will characterise him or her? Here are a few supported by neuroscience.

If you want your people to go the extra mile, be highly engaged and take pride in their work, then having a meaningful vision that is positive, compelling and relevant is crucial.

Survey after survey, year in year out, show a high percentage of staff that report not being engaged, or even feeling actively disengaged.

Recent research from Palladium Consulting shows people embrace accountability when their roles are clear and have meaning. However, a clear vision isn’t enough. It needs to be communicated in a way that challenges people – but avoids over-challenging them. If you are not engaging your people, then the vision is either off, not relevant, poorly thought through, or it isn’t being communicated effectively.

Neuroscience confirms that our brains vary from person to person, and that our attempts to influence, inspire and engage may work for one and yet fail with someone else.

The brain is a meaning-maker. It works by association.

When an engaged team member is asked “What motivates you to work so hard?” typical responses include “I love my work.” “Few things are more interesting to me than piecing this huge puzzle together.” “I have a lot of freedom to decide how I do it and I love the autonomy.” “ I work with great people, Even when it’s chaotic, it’s still fun!”

These positive associations between our job and being challenged, feeling capable, having autonomy (within limits), and relating well to others, demonstrate we are engaged and willing to go the extra mile when our basic psychological needs are being met.

When negative associations are made such as “the work is boring”, “my leader couldn’t give a damn about us” and “I’m only here for the money” it is not hard to predict the level of commitment and outcome.

So when you, as a leader, can consistently explain how the actions of an individual or the team contribute toward the vision, or your meaningful version of it, your staff’s brains are then able to positively associate the two and, with repetition, the same neurons keep firing together and form positive neural maps. People are able to associate their work with the vision, and thus make meaning, hopefully positive meaning, from this. An association of “increasing shareholder value” is unlikely to truly engage someone.

Finding an authentic way to help each individual make an appropriate association is part of a leader’s role. You, as their leader, provide the context, the reason, behind what is to be done. It gives people a bigger picture. Therefore it is critical that leaders, in assigning tasks, put them in context, a shared context.

Take a look at this great advert entitled Bowling Ball, which demonstrates the point.

Jon Pratlett is managing director of management consultancy and coaching business Going For It. He will be running a two-day seminar on Collaborative, Engaging and Influential Leadership – Insights from Neuroscience in Sydney on September 10 and 11. 

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