We live in a time of constant change, constant transformation, and the expectation that we will adopt the latest technologies every day. How does this world relate to trends in health management, digitization, and human brain performance? Are we, the change agents, digital pioneers, and project managers of the world, expecting too much from people and treating them more like machines than humans?
We need to simplify the complexity of the human brain in order to answer this question adequately. Though the brain is perpetually in conflict not only between further development and change but also the fear of new things. Self-confidence and security are paramount in today’s society. However, how do these two things fit together? Do you resist the power of change? Furthermore, our brain strives to conserve energy. That’s why doing nothing is often so appealing to us. We do not have to be helpless victims of the situation; we can choose between states.
Additionally, to the general situation of a person, the mindset also plays a decisive role, and no: we cannot simply adapt the mindset of people according to our needs. Nowadays, it is often said that we are in search of “growth mindsets”, i.e. a mindset that is dynamic and adaptive to situations. However, is that the right approach? What about other mindset types? There is a need to give each mindset the space and focus it deserves. As an example, it makes sense to include someone with a fearful-realistic-mindset in the risk assessment of projects, since this ensures that a mindset that is only interested in speed will not minimize it. There are many different roles within a company, and I am a firm believer to this day that there is a place for every mindset. Nobody should have to bend or act against their values. We need diversity!
The question that comes to mind is: Can neuroleadership be a good starting point to solve this complex double alignment of the brain and diversity of mindsets within an organization? Neuroleadership focuses on our emotions, which makes it different from other theories. The emotional component of our being is so powerful that it can control our actions, our motivation, and, therefore, the success and failure of our actions. We all realize that making someone happy is much more complex than just providing them with a paycheck at the end of the month. As the name implies, neuroleadership advocates a brain-directed-person view in contrast to the classic homo economicus, in which cognition is overlaid by emotions and affects. It is our brain that directs us throughout our daily lives.
Neuroleadership is primarily based on the assumption that there are four brain systems that determine success and failure of actions:
Systems are naturally interconnected and mutually dependent. A lot of interesting things can be extracted if you look at them individually and in the perspective of employee motivation.
The memory system also plays a significant role in employee leadership, since it can provide skills that could be useful in the future. Therefore, the brain is constantly predicting what information will arrive next and preparing responses to it. It does this by drawing on experience. The responses are constantly reviewed, adjusted, and replaced. The value of a wealth of experience for a company becomes clear once you realize this. Great managers can utilize this to their advantage quite effectively. The decision-making system ultimately determines whether the employee can also translate motivation into action, i.e. implement the plan, if he or she feels motivated and is up to a new interesting task.
When you look closely at the theory of neuroleadership, you’ll recognize many already known facts, but also many brand-new ideas. There are certain impulses that can be taken away from people: Leaders should always be aware of how our brain reacts to criticism, rejection, ignorance, boredom, and stress and inhibits motivation. It has significant potential, but it is also fraught with risk. As a consequence, the relationship between manager and employee plays a crucial role in an employee’s motivation and commitment to work, as well as their ability to perform. Therefore companies should perhaps pay even more attention to ensuring that the manager and employee have a good fit in the future. In addition, they should ensure that the manager has a good portfolio to support employee development: Open communication at eye level, honest feedback, predictability, emotionality, and trust.
Ideally, we ought to pay greater attention to our brains’ needs, especially in our everyday working lives. This is because we assume anyway that our brains are generally responsible for our successes or failures. Managers should beware of how easily and quickly they can block their employees’ performance without their own knowledge and influence.
Personally, I believe that the concept of neuroleadership complements existing methods. This concept is certainly not for everyone. It offers, however, the possibility to focus on the peculiarities of the human brain, and thus, in certain circumstances, to manage change in a more targeted manner. Knowing the characteristics and the capabilities of the brain permits us to respond very adaptively to changes and to focus on the individual employee.
How does that look like in practice?
I have had about ten different managers in my career so far. I have experienced once what it is like to be led by emotions and neuronal connections of the brain. In the situation, I didn’t see it that way. However, if you understand the concept, it becomes obvious if you have already experienced this style of leadership, at least to some extent. That person may not intentionally lead this way; it could simply be in the character of the person. How exactly did that look like? I was initially neutral about this leader and the team: I didn’t know the person well, but I knew this individual was supposed to be tough. As a result, I was cautious during my first conversation with this manager. While being respectful and appreciative, I did not allow the manager to peer behind the scenes. The manager should have been interested in breaking me down and getting beyond the facade, as anyone would expect. However, in this case, that didn’t happen. Instead, I was treated with patience. There was not too much pressure – not too high expectations of a too personal bond. Gradually, I realized this executive was very different from anyone I had ever met before. I have never understood the person’s perception of not being empathic, which to this day is absolutely ridiculous to me. But what happened then? During a situation that arose, we had an emotional and serious conversation. I saw very clearly from the questions and comments of the leader that even though I wasn’t 100% honest and hid my character, it was recognized and understood. During the conversation, I felt so comfortable and safe that I didn’t understand it afterwards. I basically laid out my experiences working under a lousy manager, talked about my responsibilities towards colleagues, and bemoaned the lamentable challenges I was facing. Doesn’t sound pleasant, does it? Nevertheless, the way the leader responded to my fears automatically turned them into courage and drive, and I finally felt comfortable again with the job, the changes, and the environment. During this conversation, all neural systems and their interconnections were discussed, and I was given the opportunity to evaluate my own values and ideas about how to move forward! During or after this conversation, it seemed like a lot of serotonins was released, simply by triggering the right emotions. As one of the most important happiness hormones, serotonin plays a significant role in many processes. Our perception of pain, sleep patterns, and emotional states are all affected by this hormone.
When neuroleadership is used effectively, as here, people will feel valued without too much effort. People can accept themselves for who they are, find their voice, and rise above! Be careful: If applied incorrectly or excessively, the opposite can also occur.
My learning could be your learning:
- The human brain does not always behave harmoniously: the desire for change and the fear of change are constantly at odds with each other.
- There are many different types of mindsets, and instead of forcing employees into the same direction, the right approach must be found for each one.
- Neuroleadership addresses the brains of employees and of oneself: Though not an all-encompassing concept, it can be used as a supplement to build awareness of potential blockages.
You would like to learn more? Check the following books/articles:
Neuroleadership – Grundlagen, Konzepte, Beispiele: Erkenntnisse der Neurowissenschaften für die Mitarbeiterführung Gebundene Ausgabe – 26.02.2014, Theo Peters & Theo Peters
Neuroleadership. Führen unter Berücksichtigung neurowissenschaftlicher Erkenntnisse – 16.06.2021, Jürgen Florack