Neuroscience meets leadership
Written by Noel Macnamara
In this blog, I explore the relationship between neuroscience and leadership. The latest research in neuroscience tells us that our neurobiology is what drives our behaviour and defines how we, as leaders, make meaning, solve problems, and carry out tasks with others.
First, a quick refresher on two critical areas of the brain that affect how we think. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the” newest” part of the brain from an evolutionary perspective, located right behind the eyes and is where decision-making, higher-level thought, goal-oriented behaviour, mental flexibility, and emotion control happen. This area is not fully developed until we’re in our early 20s.
Then there is the limbic system, located deeper in our brains, whose goal it is to minimise danger and maximise reward. This is the part of the brain that houses our old habits, and it’s where our emotions come from.
The human brain has developed with deep survival mechanisms that trigger emotional reactions to real or perceived threats, and these threats can include the impacts of the behaviour of others upon us. Leaders in particular can trigger strong reactivity in staff.
The “amygdala moments” or “flight or fight” responses that originate from the limbic system of the brain can be triggered by poorly chosen words or behaviours from others.
Certain behaviours can trigger positive reactions within the social systems of the human brain that can enhance engagement, whilst others can rapidly disengage people and lower morale. Much of this happens subconsciously.
Leaders that engender genuine feelings of safety, fairness, authenticity and openness help to trigger a chemical in the brain known as “oxytocin”. This chemical (amongst other benefits) makes people more receptive to feeling genuine trust towards a leader. The social brain, therefore, prioritises leaders who are not perceived as a threat and who do not trigger feelings of injustice, anger or frustration.
SCARF Model (Rock, 2008)
The SCARF model involves five domains of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.
These five domains activate either the “primary reward” or “primary threat” circuitry (and associated networks) of the brain. For example, a perceived threat to one’s status activates similar brain networks to a threat to one’s life. In the same way, a perceived increase in fairness activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary reward.
At work, a person’s status is determined relative to others around them. It can be increased by praise, recognition, promotion, giving responsibility and sharing important information. It can be diminished by criticism, failure and exclusion from meetings or conversations.
When a person’s status is threatened by being left out it activates the parts of the brain involved in the perception of physical pain. This may be the reason why it’s quite common for a person to develop stomach pain when something goes wrong at work.
Clearly, as leaders, you will only avoid triggering the threat response if they pay attention to maintaining each person’s status in ways that are constructive for the whole team. Bear in mind, individuals who feel their status is threatened may start indulging in behaviour that undermines their colleagues, thereby rebuilding their perception of their own status.
You can support and increase the status of every member of your team if you regularly give positive feedback, keep everyone informed and involved and consult them often.
In an environment like residential care where positive outcomes are difficult to achieve it’s very easy for staff to feel uncertain about the future, so this is an area where leaders can make a big difference.
When we know what to expect, we feel safe. This safety is a reward, and you can maximise it by being clear on what you expect from your team member. This will give direction, and they will feel safe in the knowledge that they on the right track, no matter how uncertain the wider environment is.
Certainty is also created through routine. If you always hold a team meeting on Mondays at 2 pm and you have supervision every 4 weeks on a Thursday at 10 am, people have some certainty to hang on to.
Micromanagement is the biggest threat to autonomy. Try to avoid getting too involved with people’s day-to-day work. Instead, show that you trust their judgment by including them in decision-making processes, and be sure to delegate tasks instead of holding onto them.
Encourage your staff to become more autonomous by allowing them to take on more responsibility, and to use their initiative. Give them the freedom to try out new ideas and make decisions.
A lack of relatedness can leave us feeling isolated and lonely. This can reduce creativity, commitment and collaboration. Combat this by introducing buddy systems or mentoring arrangements. And take particular care to check in regularly with vulnerable team members, such as new staff and those on contract.
When we connect with others, our brains release the hormone oxytocin. The more oxytocin that’s released, the more connected we feel. So, work to build up strong team bonds by scheduling in regular one-on-ones, or by organising a team lunch or team-building event.
If someone believes something to be unfair, it will activate the insular cortex – the region of the brain that is linked to disgust. This results in a powerful threat response. You can minimise the impact of this by being open and honest with the person about what’s going on, and why (insofar as it is appropriate or ethical to do so).
Most importantly, make sure that you treat everyone fairly. Encourage mutual acceptance, and never show favour or exclude people on purpose.
Unfairness will more likely occur where there is a lack of rules, expectations or objectives. Setting up a Team Charter, which clarifies individual goals and roles, team hierarchy, and day-to-day operations, can remedy this. But remember to get your people’s input and approval before you introduce it!
As a leader in Intensive Therapeutic Care, every action you take and every decision you make either supports or undermines the perceived levels of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness in your workplace. By applying the SCARF model in a considered and tailored fashion. As a leader you can respond much more effectively to your team’s fearful or defensive reactions. And by improving collaboration and communication, you will unlock your staffs’ full potential, increase their resilience and availability to the young people they serve.
Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. NeuroLeadership Journal. Issue 1.