A neuroscience lens helps leaders understand how they can create an environment in which people are able to do their best thinking, and the organization is able to produce its best results – in health care or otherwise.

This blog post is a primer for Patty Fahy’s session, “The Executive Brain,” slated for Friday morning of VITAL2015, our annual conference held later this month in San Diego. Join us in person for more on this and other essential insights. 

The Executive Brain

  • When the VP’s new responsibilities were announced, they didn’t match up with the agreement the VP had made with the CEO. When asked about the discrepancy, the CEO said: “The head of human resources and I discussed it and this is where we landed.”
  • The COO interrupted the marketing director’s report to the executive committee and said, “I don’t think any of you guys have a clue about our market.”
  • The corporate attorney, the chief financial officer, and the head of accounting could be heard laughing it up with the CEO behind closed doors. The rest of the team and the admin staff called it the “Friday Frat Pack.”

 Small potatoes in the world of executive teams, right? If you haven’t witnessed or perpetrated worse affronts, you are probably an individual contributor (or a saint). However, each of the vignettes above demonstrate a loss of leadership effectiveness. With a neuroscience lens, we can dissect these and other scenarios and ultimately create an awareness that fosters potential.

The human brain is wired to react to threat or reward. Said another way, an organizing principle of the brain is motivation based on threat or reward whether it involves pain, pleasure, food, sex or — important for this discussion — social interactions.

Humans are disproportionately reactive to threat compared to reward. This accounts for the commonly cited 4:1 ratio of positives vs. criticism required to maintain even a neutral environment. David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and social motivator guru, says: “We run away from threat, and we walk toward reward.”

Explained with more biological science, the limbic system triggers a powerful neurochemical response to threat. “Amygdala hijack” describes the flood of emotion that can overwhelm the brain when threatened. The highly developed but fragile prefrontal cortex (PFC) can be unplugged by automatic emotional responses to threat.  Why does this matter? The delicate PFC does most of the work listed in our job descriptions. It doesn’t take much to degrade PFC functions such as planning, strategizing, memorizing, calculating, inhibiting, recalling, and prioritizing.

Social Motivators at Work

What are some of the social motivators that can be threatened or rewarded at work?

Clarity. People need to understand circumstances, expectations, and to be able to predict what could happen next. In the first scenario above, the VP and CEO had agreed on one thing, but the CEO took a different action.

Autonomy.  Control over self and control over one’s environment is of profound importance in keeping the PFC plugged in and functioning at its best. As leaders, we experience the reward of autonomy, but don’t translate our own experience into making sure that autonomy is preserved for others at work. In the first scenario, the VP’s autonomy is threatened when her role is changed without including her in the decision.

Respect. We monitor how others are treating us and how we size up compared to others. I once heard a speaker say, “Respect is like oxygen. We don’t notice it until there’s a shortage — and then we can think of little else.” If you question whether the PFC gets unplugged, consider cubicle rage. Think about an employee after a high-profile insult whose work is derailed as he attempts to enroll others in his outrage. A boss who criticizes people in public poses a mighty threat to safety. In the second example above, the marketing director may have appeared none the worse for wear, but safety, trust and loyalty took a hit.  The target of public criticism or unfair treatment experiences a threat reaction — but so do the witnesses. Since trust and loyalty are important for excellent organizational results, leadership actions that build trust are the aim.

Belonging. A sense of connection, or tribe, which is the foundation of trust, is a social motivator that can transform organizational culture.  The “Friday Frat Pack,” a version of the old boys’ club, alienates swaths of people who recognize they do not fit with the in crowd.

Applying the neuroscience

Leaders can manage their emotional impact on their team and organization by using behaviors that increase safety and decrease threat. It is important to abandon the myths of tough leadership and rewrite the criteria commonly used for evaluation and promotion.

Executives familiar with the power of social motivators will not only model behaviors that allow people to do their best thinking — they’ll make sure that they hold the rest of their leadership team to the same expectations.