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Lindsey Byrne

Parkwood Learning


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Neuroscience and leadership: is your brain preventing you from being a better leader?


A leadership training course may show you how to behave in critical situations, but when the pressure is on at work your brain’s natural behaviour will dominate how you react. Can this be overcome?

There’s a fundamental difference between management and leadership. Management is process-oriented; it’s about setting objectives, delegating, giving feedback, assessing performance and utilising resources effectively. Leadership is about establishing a vision, inspiring others and taking them with you on a journey.

In reality, you need both. Good leaders are managers and good managers are leaders. The problem for most organisations is how to develop their leaders.

Managers usually learn about leadership on a training course. Key leadership behaviours will be explained, planned for and practised in the room. These will all seem perfectly obvious and reasonable.

But when a pressure situation arises back in the workplace – when the stakes are high, where emotions are heightened or when they encounter an opposing view – they may fail to apply the required behaviour. Later, they may reassess the situation and realise that they should’ve behaved differently. But next time a similar situation arises, they’ll do just what they did before.

The individual is not to blame here. This is our natural brain behaviour and is how our brains are wired. If we understand this, we can start to make some progress.

How our brains are wired

If you see a tiger and it scares you, you’ll run away. The next time you see a tiger, you won’t think about what to do, you’ll simply run.

Two parts of our brain control this response: the amygdala (where memories, particularly those based on strong emotions are processed) and the basal ganglia (which deals with routine behaviours and habits).

So, in any difficult moment, the emotion hits us first and this prompts us to behave ‘automatically’ in a way that has become our habit. These responses are natural, fast and energy efficient, so we act accordingly.

By engaging the prefrontal cortex we can avoid the patterns that cause us to react without thinking.

Another important part of the brain is the prefrontal cortex. This is where we process complex ideas, so it is vital for good leadership and strategic thinking. Unfortunately, this is the last place that our brain goes to in a time of crisis.

The prefrontal cortex uses up a great deal of energy, and our body looks to save energy wherever possible. This means that if you get caught up in the emotion of a challenging situation, it’s very likely that your amygdala and basal ganglia will ensure that you keep repeating the same mistakes.

In difficult moments, leaders feel under pressure to act quickly (they worry that not doing so will be perceived as weakness). But when you react quickly, you draw on past habits and that only delivers more of the same result.

Training the brain

The answer to this is to take a moment in order to give your prefrontal cortex time to engage so that it can evaluate a situation fully and make a decision based on the specifics.

By engaging the prefrontal cortex we can avoid the patterns that cause us to react without thinking.

The lesson here is to slow right down when we’re under pressure. Take a deep breath. Ignore the knee-jerk response that your amygdala and basal ganglia will initially propose. Bite your lip if you have to.

Notice and, most importantly, label the emotion you’re feeling (labelling engages the prefrontal cortex and allows you to think rationally). Evaluate the situation and get curious about the specifics of the scenario.

Doing this will help you to act more appropriately and break any ingrained patterns of response. Eventually, after some repetitions, intentionally applying this behaviour will become a habit. You’ll build a new ‘neural pathway’ and this will then become your default response in a pressure situation.

A blueprint for success

This sounds easy but changing ingrained patterns of behaviour is tricky. It takes practise.

The problem with many of today’s leadership courses is that they simply showcase good behaviour. There may be some discussions about best practice in given situations and the participants may leave feeling confident in their ability to lead others. But, under pressure in the workplace, it soon falls apart because they’re battling against what their brains have always told them to do.

This ‘show and tell’ approach to leadership development should ideally be expanded to include more practise, reflection and experiential-led learning - and even realistic simulations of pressure situations.

Introducing better leadership programmes will help your leaders to handle high pressure situations more effectively.

In simulations, the participants can learn to detach themselves from the detail of a situation and slow themselves down so they can consciously build a new neural pathway.

When you run a succession of simulations, the participants can discuss their thinking and their behaviour after each scenario. A skilled facilitator can share observations and provide additional feedback. This type of programme can even be tailored for specific management teams and run in-house to cover some of the real-world challenges facing an organisation.

Most business simulations are run to cover business decision making. But this misses a big opportunity for development. Leaders can benefit if leadership behaviour and feedback are combined and integrated into this process. Good leadership is not just about what decisions are made, it’s also about how they are implemented!

The need for better neuroscientific understanding

The fact that the natural processing of our brains makes it difficult for us to change our habitual behaviour is unacknowledged on some of today’s leadership programmes. That’s why the expected behavioural change sometimes never materialises. Understanding the neuroscience of why we behave the way we do will help leaders to challenge and change their ingrained habits.

Introducing better leadership programmes will help your leaders to handle high pressure situations more effectively. They’ll also become more resilient and better able to cope with their future challenges.

What’s more, including a 360-degree feedback element – and encouraging leaders to share their thoughts and vulnerabilities as well as their aspired behaviour – can promote greater trust amongst your leadership team. That can foster a more supportive and productive work environment.


Author Profile Picture
Lindsey Byrne


Read more from Lindsey Byrne

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