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Top five barriers to effective leadership


Neuroscience can help take the guesswork out of leadership. Amy Brann looks at the main barriers to effective leadership.

For decades leadership skills have been based on trial and error. For example, we all know a John Smith who thinks that it is important to keep people in their place, for them to know who is boss and to teach them not to expect too much from him.

Maybe you are fortunate enough to also know a Joe Bloggs who believes that valuing his team is vital for success, rewarding people regularly helps the business to grow and communication is important. Most people aren’t keen on John, but many love Joe.

Just to keep us on our toes though, you occasionally get a Chris Wood, an exceptional leader who people love, but is described as rude and arrogant, and people start to conclude that his style maybe does work after all.

The field of leadership can be filled with guess work and while observation can be brilliant and to be encouraged, knowing what is actually going on can certainly save some time. So how do you know what really is to be avoided in leadership? Surely we can’t just open up someone’s head when they are being led, jump inside and have a good look around. Well, not quite but we can get surprisingly close to that.

Recent neuroscience studies tell us that these five mortal leadership sins are to be avoided at all costs:

  1. Diminishing or threatening status.
  2. Thoughtlessly giving rewards.
  3. Reducing certainty.
  4. Sitting in your ivory tower all day.
  5. Being unfair.

Diminishing or threatening status

A person’s status is a significant driver for them. In fact, a small rise in our status activates our reward circuits. Activated reward circuits are a very good thing for motivation, loyalty, learning, effectiveness . . . and the list goes on. Unfortunately, speaking to your boss generally activates a status threat response, which has a list of unhelpful side effects. People are very sensitive to their own status and invest a lot of time and energy, often unconsciously, trying to defend it or build it up.

Leader action:

  • As a leader you want to neutralise the threat response, so share something of yourself with your team so they can see you as a human person, rather than a threat. (Trust me, that they will still respect you.)
  • Teach people to improve their status by competing against themselves. This is an underground tip, which works because the brain doesn’t distinguish whether your status is improving against others or against yourself.

Thoughtlessly giving rewards

Rewards are fantastic and most leaders know that. But when you think about it . . . why are the rewards being given? What outcomes were they designed to serve? Were they meant to aid learning, increase motivation, increase accuracy, increase loyalty, or one of the many other benefits rewards bring?

The tricky thing is that people with certain other stuff going on for them don’t actually register rewards. This means that a financial bonus (a common form of reward) isn’t going to do what it was designed to do in many circumstances.

Leader action:

As a leader you want to change these situations bedore giving any form of reward, if you want the individual to register the reward and for you to get the benefit from it.

  • A lonely person.
  • A stressed person.
  • A person in conflict.
  • An anxious person.

Reducing certainty

Leaders need to increase the level of certainty their followers experience. A lack of certainty can spark interest, but most often it sparks stress. People feel threatened and this impedes learning, relating and achieving. Confusion compounds this stress.

Leader action:

  • Take every opportunity to increase people’s certainty.
  • Give them a plan for a meeting, then stick to it.
  • Update them regularly on the direction that the company is heading.
  • Let them know about the bad stuff, but also tell them your plan for sorting it out.

Sitting in your ivory tower

Granted not many leaders have an actual ivory tower today, but the principle is the same. Being unavailable often leads to people not knowing you well. When people don’t really know you they will find it very difficult to trust you.

Leader action:

  • The brain loves connection and loves to play so hold parties, they don’t have to be expensive, just use excuses to get people together and connect to people.
  • Do small things that builds people’s trust in you, like hearing a colleague’s child is sick and saying you read an article on Echinacea for children and then actually finding the article and giving it to the person. The impact that small but genuine act can have is huge.
  • Ask people for their input and listen – this has the bonus of raising their status because they feel valued enough to be heard.

Being unfair

Fairness is like a primary need, without it people can feel threatened. One study showed some of the power of unfairness by illustrating that men don’t experience empathy with someone in pain who has been unfair.

Leader action:

  • Maintain transparency (it helps if you are genuinely fair).
  • Punish unfairness (the brain interprets this as a reward).
  • Encourage others to be open about anything they think is unfair so you have an opportunity to address it.

Amy Brann is head researcher at the training company Synaptic Potential. She is passionate about helping professionals achieve more by understanding how their brain and mind actually works. Keep in touch with Amy on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

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