Neuroleadership – Making change happen

Embracing neuroleadership, which this author describes as art of synchronizing the science of the brain with leadership behaviors, offers the best hope for effecting real change in a leader and within an organization. That’s because understanding neuroleadership helps us understand the impact that our emotions and behaviours – and the behaviours of those around us – has on our success and failure. Readers will learn the how easy it is to weave the principles of neuroleadership into organizational learning and development.

It is early 2006 and  I am getting ready to launch a brand new leadership training program at the global management consulting firm where I work. As I sit at my desk and think through the flow of the week, I realize that I have just made a decision. Most of the decision is still a sub-conscious one at this point, but my inner voice is guiding me to rethink the nature of the program I have been thinking about. The risk is big, but the potential impact will be huge. We will go beyond the conventional programs of the past. Instead of teaching a leadership framework, we will teach people about the impact that their emotions, long-established habits, and the behavior of those around them have on their success and failure. We’re going to teach them how to “go limbic” – to move out of the cerebral, intellectual zone and be challenged at a physical and emotional level. Making this change is significant because it leads staff members to become the kind of people who can collaborate easily with each other and with clients. “We’re going to teach them how to get real,” I say to myself. “They’re going to have to stop role playing in these sessions, and do something authentic in order to discover the leader within themselves.”

The decision I have just described was an important one. It marked the time when, sub-consciously, I tapped into the field of neuroscience and its application for leadership and people development. In every session I’ve designed or led since then, the ideas of neuroleadership (as this fledgling field is called) have been part of the underlying rationale: behaviorism (incentives) don’t work. Humanism (compassionate listening) is overrated. The only thing that consistently works is the habitual adoption and practice of new behaviors in such a way that they become reinforced in neural pathways and become part of the second nature of each individual, and finally the entire enterprise. Neuroleadership for me is the art of synchronizing the science of the brain with leadership behaviors.

Four years and 30-plus programs after that epiphany, the data speak loudly. The concept of neuroleadership works. In our firm, this concept has evolved into an ongoing principle: To teach people a few fundamentals about their thinking and emotions, based on some “brain rules” grounded in neuroscience research. We no longer teach them complex sets of new behaviors & skills, ungrounded in any theory other than opinions about “what works,”  each time they enter a class-room. Participants like this new approach. They understand it and they ask for more of it.

The value of neuroleadership

In organizations, where most people believe that numbers and facts are key for making decisions, and where rational substantiation conveys legitimacy, neuroleadership is a very effective tool for instilling more capable behavior. Building awareness of the scientific underpinnings of human behavior – drawing on neuroscience, brain-scans, and other data –– opens the door for change. In particular, focused attention is the key to initiate change. The principles of neuroleadership encourage people to focus attention on the practices that will genuinely make a difference and to explore new territories for change and growth. It is especially helpful when your staff read their first articles about how emotions are involved in decision making, even when using complex ROI-calculations. At this point, the beginning, the door to learning something new is wide open.

The concepts that have been most important for our firm – and for our training – mostly follow the AGES-learning model (Davachi/ Kiefer/ Rock/ Rock ). They focus on:

  • Attention: Creating an atmosphere and culture of rigorous attention to learning and the moment – driven by the training set-up, strong facilitators and challenging case studies.
  • Generation: Constantly asking coaches and training participants to re-use and re-phrase the learning concepts in their own words, combined with unique stories, thus allowing them to make their own connection to the learned content.
  • Emotions: Leveraging the power of emotions through experiential learning, which deepens the hard wiring of new learning.
  • Spacing: Reducing classroom time to a minimum and instead spreading out the content over a couple of days and weeks.

We also use elements of the SCARF model (invented by David Rock) to explain daily situations in business, such as feedback, selling, presenting and conflict handling. This allows participants to memorize just one model that explains the essentials of neuroleadership theory, which in turn explain how to be more effective when interacting with other human beings.

Neuroleadership has the potential to replace the engineering-driven, mechanistic approach to  managing talents with a more effective, humane way. When looking at “company values,” competency models, leadership frameworks, or sales cycle flows, it’s easy to get the impression that this mechanistic approach is driving the entire industry. However, the approach ignores what brain research tells us about how people learn and work together.

One example is the concept of employee engagement and motivation. How many organizations still believe that the “carrot-stick-approach” (often based on the size of a bonus) is the one factor which attracts and retains top talents? Science knows that intrinsic motivation is a key driver of performance. It’s also true that the entire value systems of younger generations have dramatically changed. These are two factors which could be addressed using a “brain-based” approach for leading organizations, teams and inviduals. As a consequence, complex competency models and performance review procedures could be reduced. Given the fact that only 30 percent of the 360°-performance reviews lead to higher performance implies that a closer look into the field of neuroscience, and a smart and lean transfer into daily business, could be worthwhile.

The recipe for successfully building neuroleadership into organizational learning and development is as easy as cooking a meal for friends you have invited to a dinner party. But it requires proper planning.

Get an appetite for it

You will recognize the value of neuroleadership when you expose yourself to its principles and see how they could help improve your conventional approaches to management development. One good way to do this is to attend a program where the instructor is using elements of neuroleadership, or a conference related to the ideas. You can also conduct some of the business experiments described by leading experts such as David Rock and Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz. Many of these experiments can be carried out with your team or in a training program. They include memorizing words or word-association activities that demonstrate the uniqueness of one’s brain, and the potential impact of divided attention.  These are the special moments when you get the key into the door and find yourself wanting to unlock it in order to start changing behaviors.

Get the ingredients

The ingredients for a perfect meal are key – as they are for a good change program. One of the most important ingredients is the program design, together with the selection of an appropriate facilitator. It makes sense to bring on board somebody who has a strong reputation in the market and who understands the relevance of neuroleadership for business. As well, think about the materials used. There are a few scientific articles that are highly relevant for business and that can be read by people who are not scientists. One example is a book about “brain rules” by John Medina.

Cook it

Cooking the meal requires patience and sensitivity. You need to know what you should throw into the pot first. A good mix of “supporters” and “critical” customers among the participants seems to be ideal. It is helpful to have people with experience and long service to your organization, so that they can be part of the transformation process and recognize the big shift in their thinking. Another tip is to avoid trying to be convincing and instead give rational explanations for why you are following this approach. The key is to enable people to develop their own insights without telling them about your intention. In other words, if they love the intervention and they cannot tell you right away why, it has been done very well.

Serve & enjoy it

Define clear performance goals for individuals. Most likely, you will start with a pilot program, where, from the very first minute you will need to monitor the progress people are making. For example, conduct five-minute, problem-solving conversational exercises and check in on the number of insights generated in them. If your design is right, you can achieve 300-800 percent performance improvement within 48 hours . As participants start to see what they could do differently, they will start to challenge the status quo. For instance , at coffee breaks they will begin to discuss how they could be more effective in daily business. This is the moment when you will enjoy the meal that you have created.

Digest it and prepare for the next dinner

Review the meal. Expand your measurement of progress by checking in regularly on how well individuals are meeting the performance goals defined in the previous program. Keep track of responses to engagement surveys of your employees. ROI-studies on training may show results, but don’t  forget that the value of  a dinner is determined by quality, not just quantity. Maintain the momentum of the great dinner experience and start to plan how you will inject the neuroleadership concept into other procedures and programs in your organization. These could include:

  • How to provide feedback in a way that improves performance
  • How to increase your sales effectiveness
  • How to claim value in negotiations
  • How to motivate and engage your top talent

Neuroleadership has the potential to replace complex competency models, assessment procedures and training roadmaps with a few simple but key principles. It has the potential to bring the intention in line with the tools used in HR functions: How to attract and retain top talents and improve their performance. It is an approach which works and it is based on strengths instead of fear – an approach which could turn out to be quite simple but highly effective. And it is an approach which continues to develop and evolve, generating further questions and reinforcing close collaboration between science and business to answer these questions.