What neuroscience can teach us about leadership

Use stories and foster collaboration to light up your team’s potential

Inspire your team to do great work with storytelling and a forward-looking mentality.

Leadership is always about people, so being a leader is rarely predictable or mechanical. To drive performance in a team, a leader needs to both motivate individual workers and ensure that the goals of the wider organisation are met. It’s challenging, but research in an unusual area of science could give you a comparative advantage. Here are some ways neuroscience and psychology can help you become a more effective leader.

BETTER COACHING

One of the most salient findings from psychology is that the way an event, decision or order is framed can have a big impact on the way we act. A recent study, for example, tested two different leadership approaches on a group of undergraduate students. Using more traditional coaching strategies, one group was asked questions about problems they might have experienced, and were encouraged to come up with solutions. Examples included “what are the challenges you have faced recently?” and “how do you think you can improve your performance?”. Another group was asked forward-looking questions instead, with subjects encouraged to reveal where they saw themselves in, say, ten years’ time, or what they thought would be the ideal outcome of a problem.
Brain scans of the students showed that the positive approach had lit up areas of the brain involved with visual processing, motivation and feelings of emotional safety. Though this does not mean the traditional strategy of encouraging employees to find problems and fix them doesn’t work, leaders that follow a positive coaching style may be able to unlock people’s motivation and performance more effectively.

THE VALUE OF STORIES

Effective leaders can also benefit from the power of storytelling to drive their teams to better performance. A well-constructed narrative can change attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours.
For example, we now know that “people are substantially more motivated by their organisation’s transcendent purpose (how it improves lives) than by its transactional purpose (how it sells goods and services),” according to Paul J Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont University. This can be effectively communicated, for example, through stories that show how an employee’s effort helped solve a problem for a specific customer.
Another effective way to communicate a sense of purpose is by telling the organisation’s own story, their version of a foundational myth. As Zak recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review, these stories “provide guidance for daily decision-making as well as the motivation that comes with the conviction that the organisation’s work must go on”.

LEAD BY EXAMPLE

Neuroscience also legitimises a very simple and obvious way for leaders to build trust: appearing to be trustworthy.
Studies have shown that the brain immediately determines the trustworthiness of a person. It happens very fast, because a person’s actions fire so-called mirror neurons and prompt a reaction that corresponds to the observed behaviour. Take the example of a public speech: if the speaker is excited, the audience will be too. If the speaker is nervous, the audience will respond correspondingly. And this is the case in business environments as well.
Leaders’ emotions will have a big impact on their team, so they should be careful about how they are perceived. As researchers Daniel Goleman and Richard E Boyatzis say, “the way to develop your social circuitry is to undertake the hard work of changing your behaviour”.

Remember, remember

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