Reducing the anxiety you create and minimising the biases that can creep into the boardroom are two areas where neuroscience can contribute, writes Dr David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute.
Neuro leadership is a term I coined in 2007, and it’s very simply the science of leadership, in particular the neuroscience of leadership. It’s looking at what happens in our brains as leaders when we’re trying to do things like solve problems, make decisions, influence people, drive change — and also what happens in the minds of other people when we’re trying to do that.
It’s a very basic science in that you’re looking at the actual processes in the brain during leadership tasks with the purpose of developing better leadership strategies — and better leaders overall.
One of the real benefits of looking at the brain for leadership activities is it tells us how to do things like drive change, particularly culture change. The more you understand the brain, especially other people’s brains, the more effective your change strategy can be.
Research is confirming things we already know, but there are some surprises. Certainly, brain research says keep things simple, because people are cognitively taxed. We have to make things much simpler, but we also have to make things much stickier. If you’re trying to drive a culture change, then the effectiveness of that change correlates to how many times a week people remember what you want them to do differently. That comes down directly to how easy it is to recall your ideas. Making your ideas easy to recall under pressure means people are more likely to use them.
Another element is how brain research helps us understand what happens when people feel like someone’s trying to change them. You get pushback — and there are insights into how to offset that pushback and how to make your ideas more compelling, as opposed to trying to force them on people.
The research suggests different ways of making your ideas compelling. One idea is to generate moments of insight. Instead of telling people what to do, how do you create environments, situations or conversations where people have insights about the change you want to happen? Insight drives behaviour change and fundamentally changes the brain.
The enemy of good thinking in the boardroom
Two situations happen in boardrooms where neuroscience could help. The first is when we accidentally create a threat response in other people. Threat responses are the enemy of good thinking. Particularly when people experience a moderate-to-strong threat response, they become reactive — reflexive, not reflective. They make poor decisions. Understanding the brain helps you predict ahead of time what might upset people and how you might balance that. We don’t know what’s going to happen in a meeting tomorrow. As you understand the science and explore your approach to that meeting tomorrow, you will design it differently. One of the variables is to minimise how anxious people become and, in particular, make sure things don’t feel unfair, nobody feels attacked and people feel they have some element of control in the process. These are some of the things the brain craves.
The second area is a big one — reducing bias. We were able to organise the 100-plus biases into five categories based on how the brain actually creates them. It turns out to be incredibly helpful for a board member or senior leader to be able to call out, in real time, when they are seeing a bias, without having to remember 100 or more biases.
Communication mistakes leaders make
With senior leaders, board members, CEOs and line managers, there’s often a big difference between intent and impact. The intent might be to keep things simple and not provide information they’re unsure about, but it might leave people with dozens of questions. There is often a big gap between what we’re trying to do and how it lands.
One helpful framework in that space is the SCARF model — status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. It describes the five things happening in our brain when we’re receiving communication.
The senior leader might be providing a snippet of information, but people are left with uncertainty, feeling no control and perhaps like they’re not being treated as adults. Compare this to being more thorough and digging in. People will now feel their status is respected and feel more certainty and more autonomy.
Generally, senior leaders are more optimistic and less anxious than people further down in the organisation. Someone who is optimistic and not too anxious needs to imagine how someone who is stressed might receive this, and take extra care to communicate more thoughtfully. Many people are still struggling with social interactions after a few years of the intense [pandemic] experience we have all just had. Understanding that other people are in a different place is important for leaders. Consider how you communicate in such a way that people feel you care, have thought of all the perspectives and are putting in some effort.
The Five Biggest Biases That Affect Decision-Making
We prefer what is like us over what is different. Overcoming a similarity bias requires finding common ground with people who appear different.
We prefer to act quickly rather than take time. Expedience biases crop up when we are reviewing employees and rely solely on one data point or recommendation. The fix is to develop a step-by-step process/approach that makes it easy to gather more information.
We take our perception to be the objective truth. We need to build systems for others to check our thinking, share their perspectives and help us to reframe the situation at hand.
We prefer what’s closer over what’s farther away. Mitigate this with systems that acknowledge important figures outside our immediate proximity — such as calling on colleagues working remotely first in a meeting before discussing the issue with everyone in the room.
We protect against loss more than we seek out gain. This can slow decision-making and hold back healthy forms of risk taking. Mitigate the bias by putting distance between you and the decision, making the event less emotionally tied to yourself.
This is an edited version of a conversation with the AICD. Access the video here.
Dr David Rock is the co-founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute. He is the author of Your Brain at Work.
This article first appeared under the headline ‘Strategic Thinking’ in the June 2023 issue of Company Director magazine.
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