Neuroscience and Leadership: The Promise of Insights

From the page: “… Helping and inspiring others

Leaders should be coaches in helping to motivate and inspire those around them (Boyatzis, Smith & Blaize, 2006). But not any old form of coaching will help. Coaching others with compassion, that is, toward the Positive Emotional Attractor, appears to activate neural systems that help a person open themselves to new possibilities — to learn and adapt. Meanwhile, the more typical coaching of others to change in imposed ways (i.e., trying to get them to conform to the views of the boss) may create an arousal of the SNS and puts the person in a defensive posture. This moves a person toward the Negative Emotional Attractor and to being more closed to possibilities. We decided to test this difference.

In a study, sophomores were coached with each approach (Boyatzis, Jack, Cesaro, Khawaja & Passarelli, 2010). On the basis of two 30 minutes coaching sessions, one to the PEA (asking a person about their future dreams) and the other to the NEA (asking them how they are handling their courses and whether they are doing all of their homework), we found dramatic differences in neural activation. Using an fMRI to track neural activity, it showed significant differences in activation as a result of these two approaches to coaching. We found activation of the orbito-frontal cortex and nucleus accumbens to be positively related to PEA coaching. This also activated a part of the visual cortex in which a person can imagine and visualize something. These are associated with PNS arousal. Meanwhile, the NEA seemed to activate the Anterior Cingulate Cortex and Medial Prefrontal Cortex, both regions known for self-consciousness and reflections while feeling guilt.

These results were consistent with those from Jack, Dawson, Ciccia, Cesaro, Barry, Snyder & Begany (2010) showing that there is a network of brain regions activated when engaged in social activities (formerly called the Default Motor Network in the neuroscience literature). There is a dramatically different network that is activated when you are engaged in analytics or trying to solve a non-social problem. They showed that these two networks suppress each other. That is, when you are busy thinking about budgets, financial analysis, or product specifications, you will have turned off the parts of your brain that are key to social functioning — and visa versa!

Possible implications

If you believe that leadership involves inspiring others and motivating them to be their best and develop, learn, adapt and innovate, then activating the parts of their brain that will help requires arousing what we have called the Positive Emotional Attractor. To arouse the PEA, these studies are suggesting that we need to: (1) be social; and (2) engage the person in positive, hopeful contemplation of a desired future. The latter might also be stimulated when discussing core values and the purpose of the organization or project. All too often, people in leadership positions begin conversations about the financials or metrics and dashboard measures of the desired performance. These findings suggest that while important, this sequence confuses people and actually results in them closing down cognitively, emotionally and perceptually. If you want them to open their minds, you need to discuss the purpose of the activity (not merely the goals) and the vision of the organization or clients if a desired future were to occur. THEN, you can lead a discussion about the financials, metrics and measures. But you have made it clear that the measures follow the purpose, they have not become the purpose.

If this sounds like transformational leadership, versus its less effective sibling, transactional leadership, you have made an important connection. But our research shows that you need to arouse the PEA and the NEA to get sustained, desired change. The key appears to be, so far in our research, that you need to: (1) arouse the PEA first; and (2) arouse the PEA sufficiently such that it is about three to six times more frequent in the discussions than the NEA.

Findings such as these may help us to understand, if replicated, how to help others – and how to help us sustain our effectiveness as leaders….”

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