How Neuroscience is Building Better Leaders - IEDP
  • Behaviour

How Neuroscience is Building Better Leaders

Having a profound effect on the way we manage ourselves and others

Monday 06 October 2014


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Although psychology has informed business for decades, the progress and accessibility of brain scanning techniques in the last 12-15 years means that neuroscience gives tangible, physical data which can be translated into pragmatic tools and techniques to:

  • inform leadership resilience
  • improve your ability to leverage diversity of thinking in teams
  • create the conditions for success in the environment of the organization
  • innovate into the future

Raising awareness of your physical, mental and emotional capital are the keys to unlocking your potential and moving forward from ‘stuck’ leadership patterns and habits through:

  • understanding your brain-body connection
  • focusing attention on inspiring and motivating others by understanding your impact on their brains
  • deliberately practising moving from a fixed to a growth mindset
  • holding yourself accountable to sustainable behaviour change through a coach, peer or form of wearable technology

So how do we do this? Neuroscience infers that it is best to approach big projects in bite-sized chunks. Consider first the physical aspect – creating the conditions in your body to allow your brain to work at its best.

Are you getting 6-8 hours of good quality sleep per night? The brain needs rest to clean and repair itself and then to embed new learning, categorise and store memories and enable creative thinking. If you are jet lagged or fatigued you will not have access to utlitising your maximal IQ the next day – you can probably still function adequately but worth bearing in mind. See the TED talk by Russell Foster on why we sleep.

Are you paying attention to nutrition and hydration not only for the health of your body but for providing adequate resources to your brain? The brain weighs 5% of your body weight but requires 20% of the glucose broken down from a healthy, balanced diet and it can’t store this for later so regular meals and staying hydrated are critical for concentration, good decision-making and overcoming unconscious biases.

Oxygen is the other main resource for the brain, so do you include sufficient aerobic exercise, regular everyday activity or at least deep breathing into your schedule? Mindfulness exercises that focus on the breath can also be helpful here. These all cause release of endorphins that make you feel positive and motivated but only if you really want to do the activity in question. There is a volitional aspect to exercise such that you only encourage neurogenesis - growth of new neurons through BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) - or increased synaptic connection if your brain senses a certain level of desire to carry out that task. This has huge implications personally and as a manager or leader.

When the physical ‘hygiene’ factors are in place your brain can open itself to trusting and enabling others by appreciating that people who think differently to you and each other are hugely beneficial to the way a team functions and also to the bottom line of your business. If you could do everything yourself or created an atmosphere of ‘group think’ the world of work would be a boring place! Feeling that you are indispensable is not only bad for your health but it actually damages profitability and innovation in businesses. Seek out people that are technically strong enough but also have complementary skills in creativity, emotional intelligence or intuitive thinking (see Professor Deborah Ancona’s work at MIT).

With a team in place that can play to their strengths, think outside the box and support each other to take risks even if the outcome is not always perfect, you have the opportunity to move along the scale from a fixed to a growth mindset (see Professor Carol Dweck’s work at Stanford). Fail fast and often, include creativity and empathy for the context of the situation in your risk-taking and learn to feel comfortable holding opposing thoughts in your brain at the same.

Research has shown that the simple act of weighing yourself regularly can help people to lose weight and keep it off so being held accountable is key. The brain is more geared to avoid loss than it is to seek reward so I use my Jawbone wristband, my Muse brain band, my Vision board and my mentor to keep me on track. Find out what works for you and incorporate them into your lifestyle one piece at a time.

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