Leaders who aim to improve themselves and their teams traditionally embrace management methods and HR principles. But they’re often missing a critical tool: a deeper understanding of the human brain.
David Rock, CEO and co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global neuroscience-backed consultancy that advises over half of the Fortune 100 companies, including Microsoft and Adobe, on leadership strategies, management skills, and diversity, equity, and inclusion, defines this tool as “neuroleadership”.
Rock shares the scoop on what exactly neuroleadership is and how you can use it to become a better leader, improve your team and organisation, and drive more success.
How brain science can make better leaders
From debunking assumptions about remote work models to providing goal-setting tips and deconstructing ways to navigate politically charged work conflicts, here are some fascinating insights about using brain science to create better workplaces, according to Rock:
What is neuroleadership?
It’s the process of making organisations more human through science-backed principles. Bringing a more concrete, research-based approach to growing soft skills resonates with business leaders and makes any change initiative more effective.
A lot of people, particularly consultancies, try to put academic research at an intersection point with corporate thinking. We put brain science at that intersection, and help leaders understand what’s happening ‘behind the scenes’ with their people and processes.
How did you coin the term ‘neuroleadership’?
Back in 2006, we noted that human behaviour in the workplace doesn’t work the way many executives think it does, which is why so many leadership efforts and organisational change initiatives fall flat.
At the same time, we were seeing success stories of companies like Toyota and Springfield ReManufacturing Corporation, whose shop floor or meeting room practices resonate deeply with the innate predispositions of the human brain.
Thus, the term helped us capture the idea that managers who understand the recent breakthroughs in cognitive science can lead and influence mindful change.
Of course, this does not imply that management — of change or anything else — is a science. There is a great deal of art and craft in it. But several conclusions about organisational change can be drawn that make the art and craft far more effective. These conclusions would have been considered counter-intuitive or downright wrong only a few years ago.
We saw this recently with the “Where does someone work?” discussions. The models seemed to be on-premise, remote, and hybrid. Assumptions were flying everywhere about productivity and innovation if more employees were remote than in-person. Managers and executives were very concerned.
It turned out to be a lot of assumptions and flawed debates, and brain science (plus 2020 anecdotes) showed that people could easily be productive in a remote or hybrid setting, and culture wouldn’t suffer.
Neuroleadership is partially about flipping conventional managerial thinking on its head by using what we know about brains and motivation.
What are the benefits of embracing neuroleadership versus more traditional management approaches?
Everyone has a brain, whether you work in Peru or Denver or Western Europe.
It’s a much more logical framing for work issues than some of the traditional management approaches, because it standardises what we know about people and how they react to situations — what’s firing in their cortex and what’s not.
We also commonly say at NLI that “if you have a brain, you have bias”. Coming at it from a brain angle allows for an explicit discussion of those biases, whereas a lot of traditional management approaches acknowledge bias and agree it’s a bad thing contextually but don’t endeavour to really do much about it.
We try to help leaders understand what makes their people tick, their reactions to events at work, their communication styles, and the importance of autonomy and fairness.
Ultimately, we’re building a richer language for leadership. This language helps leaders be more accurate at predicting and improving human interactions.
In the way that accounting provides a language for studying complex systems in a whole new way, your leadership language provides a pathway for understanding the complex systems of human interactions. This language gives you more access to improving the way we create, the way we collaborate, the way we influence each other.
What are some examples of the ways neuroleadership can help individuals at work?
We deployed a team-based inclusivity training — it’s rooted in finding common ground among diverse co-workers, as well as creating clarity around information presented to employees — to 178 managers at a major energy company. Thirty days after the training, 95 per cent of those managers reported being more inclusive with their teams, bringing more people into decisions, listening to a wider variety of ideas, and the like.
We’ve also developed solutions around navigating through crises — hello, 2020 and 2021 — and have seen success there, as well. After 30 days at one company, 92 per cent of managers reported more productivity and efficiency and noted their ability to work through stressors and crises had evolved dramatically.
We also help leaders understand how to tackle political and charged topics in the modern climate, like mandated vaccinations. There’s obviously a deeply ideological angle to mandated vaccinations, and there are concerns all over about what it means if we go down that route.
We heard from many CEOs and [chief human resources officers] that it was a concern of theirs — they thought they needed to do it, but they didn’t know how to activate the process — so we worked with them to remove the political rancor from the discussion.
We wanted to help them help their employees see the value in vaccination, and move past simple belief structure to evaluating facts and information. We toned down the screaming and focused on the science of reducing bias, and helped CEOs roll out a plan that did societal good without alienating a percentage of employees. Our approach to reducing bias — and vaccine hesitancy is almost entirely rooted in bias — is called the SEEDS model.
What are your best goal-setting tips using neuroleadership principles?
A well-formed goal needs to have a will and a way connected in the context of a goal hierarchy, but our brains can’t focus on both at the same time. The best we can do is to start at the top and work our way down by asking how we can get there.
Ultimately, you’ll eventually reach a task you can easily accomplish.
So, you start there while also trying to be mindful of the connection between the levels of hierarchy so you can readily go back to the ultimate goal at hand. For example, if you get stuck on a task, move back up the hierarchy by asking why you’re stuck.
Or, alternatively, if you are frustrated about why you’re not achieving a goal — whether it is delivering your PowerPoint presentation on deadline to a conference organiser, writing your presentation in a loud office with many distractions, or getting ahead of the batters by throwing strikes — you can move down the hierarchy and ask how. Addressing a key ‘how’ can get you unstuck, moving you toward your ‘why’.
Leaders can play a crucial role in goal-setting by identifying when employees are stuck at one level in the hierarchy and helping them shift gears. For a pitcher, the coach might have to remind him that the goal is to record the out and not necessarily throw the perfect pitch. One brain may be forced to choose a will or a way, but two can have both.
How are you hoping to see organisations embrace neuroleadership in the next few years?
There’s a big opportunity right now because the world of work is shifting so much.
Leaders need new approaches to hybrid work, and, honestly, workplaces are going to be very contentious for a year or more, with differing beliefs on vaccines, health, politics, and more.
There’s a lot of opportunity, from the core things we’ve always focused on, like feedback and performance and culture, to new elements of work that managers and executives are increasingly worried about, such as de-escalation and effective hybrid work.
This article was originally published on The Ladders.