Getting Ahead: Neuroscience in business leadership

Getting Ahead: Neuroscience in business leadership

[NB: This is a version of an article I have in today’s Sunday Business Post.]

The brain is the most complex structure in the known universe. The brain is responsible for each of us being conscious, being able to think, feel and behave. We also know that the brain is profoundly plastic, and can change as a result of experience. The science of brain and behaviour has fi­rmly established clear linkages and connections between well-being and performance. Exploring these linkages and connections bringing together the latest findings in brain science can practical applications in a business context.

How our brains are wired for status

Humans naturally and spontaneously organise themselves into groups, organisations and institutions. We all more-or-less automatically rank our own status and the status of others within these groups. This should not a surprise – we seek promotions and career advancement; we long to see the teams we support rise up the rankings; we give prizes and other markers of status to exemplary performers. Position on rankings often determines rewards for the individual and the group. These rankings have profound effects on performance within the group – for better and for worse. We will initially examine brain and behaviour in the organisational context by focusing on status (what is it; how we do it; how it inscribed on our brains) and social comparison (why we make comparisons; how comparison and status markers informs, protects and help us fit into organisations). We will examine how the costs and benefits of such status comparisons and will translate these lessons into some aspects of organisation life.

The design of groups and feedback to individuals within groups can dramatically impair or enhance individual and group performance. One important study shows that feedback regarding IQ in a group context can dramatically diminish IQ and individual performance on tasks performed in the group. Furthermore, activity changes are seen in brain areas that support memory and executive function. In other words, the how, where, what and why of feedback provided to individuals while in a group can dramatically reduce their performance. Managers and leaders need to consider very carefully indeed how to give feedback. These data might explain why ‘stack-ranking’ regimes really stink, and are profoundly demotivating and destructive (e.g.:  this, this, this, and this). A complementary study shows  that well-designed groups have a collective intelligence that rises above what you predict from the sum of individual intelligences. The key variables are for group design are: the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.

Next, we focus on two of the most important aspects of occupational life: namely, wellbeing and performance.

What is wellbeing?

Wellbeing is the subjective sense of feeling good and also of functioning effectively both over time and when challenged by circumstance. Wellbeing also includes the idea of being able to experience negative emotions and being able to manage them appropriately. Being able to deploy good coping skills when tested (such as not losing your temper when provoked by an unreasonable colleague) or controlling impulses when confronted with rewards (‘I WILL ignore the dessert option!’), are all central to wellbeing and functioning effectively. An allied concept is that of resilience and stress management – being able to cope and recover from adversity and stress. There has been recent important research (coming out of the US in particular) on building resilience in individuals working in high pressure environments (especially in the military). There are object lessons to draw from this kind of work regarding team building, cohesion etc that will translate to other high pressure environments. Organisations can take steps to institutionalise supporting and developing resilience against the effects of stress.  These in turn can pay off in terms of enhanced staff wellbeing.

What is performance?

Performance is on-the-job execution to a high standard of the work that you are engaged in, bringing to bear your capacities to execute the task. In the performance section we will be examine important factors associated with on-the-job performance, including learning and memory, and other important factors that underpin these such as sleep, self-control, motivation and mindsets/conscientiousness. One of the key findings of recent years is that non-IQ-related factors such as mind-sets and motivation have at least as an important effect on performance as does straightforward measure of intellectual performance. These are referred to as ‘character skills’ because they are trainable, educable and not set in stone. What they require is a cultural and organisational context that supports and expects learning, self-improvement, and which is reasonably risk-tolerant and failure-tolerant. In turn, this should help build elite performance within the organisation. Finally, we will examine how to apply policy lessons and adopt some core strategies (including ‘if-then’ rules).

Behaviour change is hard. Adopting steps and strategies that are well-founded in the science of brain and behaviour can help individuals and organisations to adapt to the demands of the modern world.

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist

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