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Can neuroscience help us to be better business leaders?

Posted on 01/05/2014, 10:41

Economists tell us that any business enterprise, whatever its size, is operating in a highly competitive, global market. Sociologists tell us that in the UK we face a demographic time bomb predicting a return to the ‘war for talent’ of the turn of the last century. Manufacturers are suggesting that we are short of engineers for future growth. Psychologists remind us that effective businesses utilise their human capital in ways that get more discretionary effort from their staff.

So, the implications for each of our businesses is that employee productivity, return on capital employed and potential for innovation, are factors that must be managed differently in a volatile and unpredictable while expanding marketplace. But do staff welcome business activities which might introduce change? Neuroscience is bringing a new dimension to people management. Brain imaging technology such as fMRI, EEG and CAT scan is showing that change is hard for people, so understanding what it takes to grow and improve has to be taken seriously. Leadership neuroscience is showing that what drives behaviour depends on many different regions in the brain working together in a network. The neural processes that facilitate high quality thinking and decision making are affected by the social interactions that support them. When you think of the following:

What motivates people?

How do we function?

How do we work best in teams?

What are we capable of?

What are our limitations?

We are delving into areas of the brain which will respond either positively or negatively to our interventions. The process called neuroplasticity is ‘the constant rewiring of neural connections in the brain in response to experience. What we are learning is that social interactions are the most powerful of those experiences’ (Prof Nikolas Rose). David Rock, author of ‘Your brain at work’ argues that interactions at work cause a ‘toward (reward)’ or ‘away from (threat)’ response in individuals. Fairness is a perfect example of how team members respond toward or away from their team or project leader. Of course, we can never say that life or work is always fair, but unless managers recognise the brain response to their leading, they will fail to get the best from their people. In supporting their teams, managers can help their staff to:

Be more productive

Handle pressure more efficiently

Collaborate better with others, and

Facilitate change in others effectively

when they understand better the functioning of the brain. Treating staff fairly in social interactions is a cornerstone of leadership adding to the principle of empowering individuals and supporting them in their development. If command and control was a feature of 20th century management, bringing knowledge about brain functioning into leadership will be a defining quality of the better business leader.

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