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Can Understanding Your Brain Make You A Better Leader?

BY Dr. Paige Williams

Do you feel like a natural born leader? Or are you, like most of us, piecing together your leadership skills by observing great and not-so-great leaders in your network? While there is no doubt some people seem to have the ‘x-factor’ of leadership, for the rest of us, leadership skills are hard won – usually through trial and error.  But what if there was a more scientific way to understand how to bring out the best in others?

“What we are coming to understand is that there’s a lot of information that’s not available to our own consciousness in terms of what we’re thinking and feeling, and the processes that are driving our behavior,” explained Michael Platt, Director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative when we spoke with him recently. “And so the tools of neuroscience, the insights, the knowledge that we’re gaining can help us to get a better grasp on human behavior and human nature.”

So, what is neuroscience teaching us about being better leaders?

“Firstly, our brains are wired to connect. We actually have a social brain network that manages our connection with others, so if we can dial into that we can improve the relationships between ourselves and the people we lead,” explained Michael. “We also tend to be afraid of uncertainty, as our brains interpret it that our model of the world is not quite right”

What does that mean for us in the workplace?

When you experience uncertainty, your brain processes this as a message that your ‘model’ or understanding of the world isn’t accurate and needs adjusting.  This ‘inaccuracy’ is seen as a threat, which can lead to you avoiding uncertainty at all costs in your decision-making, even if that means missing out on a potentially positive outcome.

Understanding this can help us better navigate tricky accountability conversations or giving and receiving feedback. The brain sees these conversations as a ‘social occasion’ and therefore it looks for cues that the situation is safe. For these conversations to go well, it’s important you are honest, engaged, genuine and sincere.  Authenticity is crucial, as our brains are capable of picking up even the smallest of clues that the person we’re talking with isn’t interested in what we’re saying.  By being mindful to genuinely listen, you will ensure your conversation is as effective as possible.

Here are some other ways that Michael suggested we can harness our brains to help us and the people we lead feel well and do well at work:

  • Intentionally focus on the positive – Be mindful about the information you pay attention to, as this gets privileged access to the decision-making parts of the brain. As a leader, you can help your people focus on the positive by deliberately crafting your communication.  Doing so will support their wellbeing as their brains make more optimistic predictions about the world and help them to make decisions that encourage moving forward rather than being based on fear, which encourages retreat.
  • Flex your leadership style – Whilst it can be challenging for your sense of control and certainty to ‘let go’, taking a more ‘invite-and-inquire’ approach will reap benefits for you and your team. Can you provide your people with greater autonomy to increase engagement and boost motivation?  Are there ways you can increase their freedom of choice so they will be more motivated to participate?
  • Combat ‘Zoom fatigue’ – Working remotely has seen many people staring at the computer screen for months to interact with their workmates and this makes processing social cues even harder for the brain. While this isn’t ideal, you can make sure you have the basics right to allow for the best connection with your team possible.  Do you have your camera set up so you look directly at it?  Are you able to put away any distractions, including emails, chat pop-ups and your phone?  Are there little ways you can let people know via zoom that you’re paying attention – perhaps a short message after the meeting, or circle back in, in your next email?  While these actions won’t compensate for the loss of in-person cues, they can go a long way to helping you remain connected to your colleagues during a time of physical distancing.

How can you lead yourself and others with the brain in mind?

To discover more evidence-based practices to help people thrive at work, check out the Making Positive Psychology Work Podcast.

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