NeuroLeadership is a term coined in 2006 by David Rock. It defines the field of study and exploration that involves looking at leadership development and human performance improvement through the lens of understanding how the brain works.
A recent article by Jena McGregor, in The Business Week July 23, 2007 said: “At Emory, researchers asked 16 executives to respond to PowerPoint slides about moral quandaries, such as acting on privileged information, while inside an MRI machine. They found that managers weighing ethical dilemmas use the part of their brain associated with early memories, which could mean moral thinking is formed early in life.”
Scientists have discovered that our brain is a connection machine. Our thoughts, memories, skills, and attributes are vast sets of connections or “maps” joined together via complex chemical and physical pathways. So when we process any new idea we create a map of that idea in our mind, and then compare it subconsciously in a fraction of a second to our existing maps. If we can find solid enough links between the new idea and our current maps, if we can find the connections, we create a new map that becomes part of who we are.
Creating a new map takes up a lot of resources. Our brain needs to do a lot of comparing, associating, and matching any new idea with our existing maps. However, the creation of a new map releases substantial energy along with various neurotransmitters, and even changes the brain waves occurring. This is the stage when sudden spurt of gamma band activity is relaesed. There is a sudden, strong motivation for action. So it explains the job of the leaders to help people make their new connections.
Jena further points out “ Business school professors at Arizona State University and Emory University are working with neuroscientists to use electroencephalograph (EEG) machines and fMRIs to study the brain waves or images of executives rather than those of traditional undergraduates”
A lot of people in the companies are now being paid to think. Yet the management models we are applying to our workforces are still those of the process era. W e have not yet taught our leaders and managers how to improve thinking, they need to do so with extremely knowledgeable individuals. The increasing education and independence of employees is an important issue. Yet we have not yet reinvented our management models.
The new generations coming into management positions have different needs from their predecessors. They need leaders who help them fulfill their potential at work.
Leaders who improve their thinking.
[Rock and Schwartz] have been […] applying broader themes from neuroscience to leadership rather than trying to map individual managers’ brains. One of their main ideas emphasizes that mindful, focused attention on new management practices, rather than on old habits, can rewire the brain.(Jena Mc Gregor)
Science has shown us that we can change the way we think, and that’s not as hard as we’ve been assuming. Changing a habit, now that’s hard, but leaving it where it is and creating a whole new habit-that turns out to be far more achievable.
In the workplace context this insight says that if a manager is trying to improve an executive’s performance, then working out what’s wrong with their thinking is not going to be very productive stating the need for a whole new approach.
An exciting new domain within neuroscience called neuroplasticity found that the brain had a remarkable ability to repair itself when things went wrong. Scientists noticed that the brain was capable of creating new connections on a massive scale, at any stage of life, and this in response to anything new that was learned, such as learning to play an instrument. If we want to hardwire a new behavior we just need to give our new mental map enough attention over enough time to ensure it becomes embedded in our brain. We do this by making links to different parts of the brain so that the web of links thickens and spreads out.
Again in the workplace, to improve people’s performance, our job is to help them find new ways to approach situations that leaves their existing wiring where it is, and allows for the development and ultimately the hard wiring of new habits. This also means we need them to focus on solutions rather than problems. The need to `fix` behaviors and become fascinated with identifying and growing people’s strengths, an entirely other discipline. It is often seen that if the focus is on just improving thinking, rather than trying to understand or unravel it, the conversations are surprisingly quick and simple.
Jim Smalley, director of training and leadership development, has been working with Rock to school managers. One insight: Focus on just three goals to “quiet all the background noise in the brain,” says Smalley. The brain, they’re reminded, can hold only a few ideas at a time in its working memory.
The working memory vs. hard wiring: David and Schwartz compare the working memory to a stage used for understanding, making decisions, and remembering. However the challenges are that it has limited capacity, is easily distracted and is energy intensive. They call it the spotlight of attention.
Jeffery Schwartz says “An important and well verified law in quantum mechanics called Quantum Zeno Effect turns out to be the key to understanding how focused attention can systematically re-wire the brain…..If you pay enough attention to a certain set of brain connections, it keeps this relevant circuitry stable, open and dynamically alive, enabling it to eventually becoming a part of the brain’s hard wiring.