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Thought Thursdays
Lead in a way that makes brains work best

TT55 web.pngWhat leadership styles enable people to think innovatively and perform at their best?  Recently neuroscience has started to identify the mechanisms that literally cause the creative, innovative, thinking parts of the brain to switch on or off.  This understanding helps leaders to create the conditions where brains can work to best advantage. 

The story starts in 1848, one day Phineas Gage, a railway engineer was working on the line hammering in a steel rod when it lit a spark and ignited a charge hurling the metre-long steel shaft straight through his skull, landing several metres away.

Phineas miraculously was not killed, though he was blinded in one eye. But his personality changed radically. He could not stick to plans and uttered the "grossest profanities", becoming moody and unemployable. This incident indicated that there was a link between the brain and the personality, and Phineas became the first – and most famous subject – in the annals of neuroscience.

In recent years, with MRI scanning, we can now study which parts of the brain fire off under different conditions, and we can work non-intrusively with healthy subjects. This has led to a rapid acceleration in our understanding of the brain.

Brain scientists have realised that, to put it simply, we have three brains – the survival, emotional and thinking brains. Of these, the survival or reptile brain is the most ancient. As its name suggests, the function of the survival brain is to identify and respond to threats. When the survival brain is triggered, it releases stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol), which stimulate the fight, flight or freeze response.

At the same time these brain chemicals cause the thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) to shut down – a process called the amygdala hijack. The problem with this response is that under stress – when we need to be at our most creative and innovative – our thinking brain closes down. 

To understand the amygdala hijack we need to consider a bit of evolutionary theory.  Millions of years ago the survival response obviously had adaptive advantages.  When we lived under threat of attack from wild animals and we did not respond quickly and powerfully to threat, we would – to put it simply – end up as lunch! So the absolutely appropriate response to threat – back then – was fight, flight or freeze.

But why is this relevant now? We need to understand that humankind has survived, not through tooth and claw or muscle power, but through being a social animal. A single human might not survive against a predator, but a tribe of humans even with crude weapons and a bit of human cunning is a formidable opponent.

Also, because humans have a large brain, it takes years to grow to maturity. Humans have one of the longest development periods of any mammal. The human infant is defenceless and vulnerable for years and relies for its survival on the support and social bonds with parents and the rest of the tribe. 

Because social bonds are so important, they have literally been hard-wired into our brains. Researchers have shown that if we suffer 'social pain', such as when we face social hurts, such as loss of status or rejection or a breakdown in the relationship with the group, this registers in the same areas of the brain as physical pain. This would have made sense millions of years ago when we needed the protection and cooperation of the tribe to survive.

However, David Rock , author or Your Brain at Work , has shown that the brain responds to social threat in the same way today as it responded to physical threats millions of years ago.  Now the threats are not about being thrown out of the security of a cave but the loss of security of losing a job, not uncertainty about making the next kill, but the uncertainty of being able to respond to competitive threats, not about losing status in the tribe, but the threat of demotion.  All of these modern threats trigger the same ancient stress response survival programming.

Rock formulated these insights as the SCARF model.  This mnemonic indicates the 5 social pains that stimulate the amygdala hijack. 
These relate to threats to:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness
So what are the implications for leaders today seeking to create cultures that are creative, innovative and productive?  These are some examples of what leaders can do to be mindful of the SCARF factors:

  • Protect status, e.g. make feedback meetings appreciative rather than threatening and shaming, be mindful that changing job titles may impact perceived status, avoid bullying and coercion that damage self-esteem
  • Encourage certainty, e.g. there may be a reluctance to communicate confidential information during difficult or uncertain times, but it’s best to be as transparent as possible so that people know where they stand
  • Build autonomy e.g. rather than having autocratic or coercive leadership styles or micro-managing empower through coaching and mentoring 
  • Nurture relatedness, e.g. be aware during organisational changes or mergers that social bonds may be fractured and it’s important to rebuild relationships through get togethers or team events
  • Ensure fairness, e.g. make sure that rewards and performance reviews are seen to be fair and equitable
More than a decade ago Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence showed how positive leadership styles such as coaching and visionary approaches produced much better and more sustainable results than fear based styles such as coerciveness and pace setting.  Indeed, Goleman showed that leadership style has a 70% impact on culture, and culture influences the performance of teams by some 30%. Brain research is now helping us to understand the science behind these statistics and why fear-based styles that trigger the stress response don’t work .

Leaders need to understand their role in creating positive workplaces where brains can work optimally. They achieve this by adopting empowering leadership styles and by avoiding the triggering of SCARF responses. And by doing so, they are rewarded with employees who are better able to think – and who are more innovative, productive and happier.




Ron Hyams MA (Cambridge) is part of the virtual faculty of USB Executive Development, where he facilitates on the Senior Management Development Programme and Executive  Development Programme . His fields of expertise are coaching, leadership and personal mastery.





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