Applying Neuroscience to Leadership

 Amongst the 60,000 plus published books about ‘leadership’, there is a plethora of models and theories on the subject.  These range from models viewing leadership as: transactional, situational or transformational through to trait-based and behavioural theories, reflections on authenticity and many, many other favoured or unpopular approaches. As the late George Box famously wrote “all models are wrong, but some are useful”.

Speaking of useful, neuroscience is providing some of the latest contributions to thinking about the evolution, development and behaviour of leaders; viewing leadership through the prism of a variety of insights that are being acquired by modern scientific studies of the nervous system.  In recent years, advances have been made in many different branches of neuroscience.  In the field of leadership, neuro-scientific studies are helping us to understand how leaders solve problems, make decisions, interact with colleagues and handle their emotional responses to situations.  

For example, experienced leaders and managers know that feedback, especially about mistakes or poor performance, only ‘lands’ with some people.  The phrase ‘can I give you some feedback?’ must be one of the least popular in the workplace.  Neuroscience teaches us that there are individuals with a ‘fixed’ mind-set who have a heightened neural response to feedback about errors, poor judgement, inappropriate behaviour and the like, and that these reactions are less pronounced for those with more of a ‘growth’ mind-set.  Those with a fixed mind-set also demonstrate lower memory-related neural responses when given information about how to correct their mistakes.  In other words, there is likely to be less learning because the message is less likely to be received by those with a negative mind-set than those with a growth mind-set.  Often these are the people who most need the feedback and advice.   

With the emergence of this field which links emotions to insight, dubbed ‘neuro-leadership’ by David Rock and others, devotees seek to demonstrate that negative emotions inhibit insight.  Pre-frontal cortex brain research has shown that negative emotions trigger connection problems with circuits.  Other neuro-scientific research has shown that unfairness, poor connectedness to others and loneliness all activate negative emotions and these tend to trigger a sense of threat.  The research has also shown that when things are progressing more smoothly, these same functions can also activate the ‘reward’ circuitry of the brain.   

This has led to the popular SCARF® mnemonic which is a brain-based model engineered by neuroscientists for exploring how we collaborate with and influence others.  It helps leaders to reflect on how five key domains of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness, play out in a range of different situations. 

Status is about an individual’s importance relative to others. Certainty is about being in a position to forecast the future.  Autonomy is about control over events.  Relatedness is about feeling safe and connected with others – and as friend rather than foe.  And Fairness is about a perception of fair play between people.   

Awareness of the SCARF® model helps individuals to both minimise the threats and maximize the rewards that exist in the day-to-day.  For leaders, the SCARF® model provides a useful framework not only for building self-awareness, but also better awareness of others.  Leaders can easily affect the five SCARF® domains in a negative way:

  • too much direction and not enough positive feedback affect others’ feelings about status
  • poor communication about expectations impacts certainty
  • micro-management impacts autonomy
  • keeping too much ‘distance’ in the workplace affects relatedness
  • lack of openness about motives or transparency impacts perceptions of fairness 

Memories are stored in a deep part of the brain – the amygdalae – and negative social or work experiences will fire certain neural pathways to do with survival, which in turn ‘decommission’ access to the thinking part of the brain.   

On the other hand, leaders who provide clear goals and set expectations, allow you to make your own decisions, trust you, and are fair, will make you feel better about yourself.  You will probably work harder for them as you will feel rewarded by the relationship itself. 

If you want to understand more about the neuroscience of leadership, please contact Clive Watkins at [email protected]

Posted in Management.