What Brain Science is Rapidly Teaching Us about Leadership

I am incredibly taken by what brain science is discovering about how and why people behave the way they do at their workplace—and the implications this has for how leaders need to profoundly alter their own behavior in response to the findings.

David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz first stirred my thinking in late 2006 with their article, The Neuroscience of Leadership published in May by Strategy and Business. While they shared some intriguing findings, the take-aways for me are:

  • Change is pain. Organizational change is unexpectedly difficult because it provokes sensations of physiological discomfort.
  • Behaviorism doesn’t work. Change efforts based on incentive and threat (the carrot and the stick) rarely succeed in the long run.
  • Humanism is overrated. In practice, the conventional empathic approach of connection and persuasion doesn’t sufficiently engage people.

My thinking up to this point was that if you adequately incentivize the change effort, you pay close attention to the needs of the individual—show empathy, and were effective in your communications skills—good at persuading, and then you could successfully move things forward. Yet these findings based on solid research and rendered in terms that the non-scientist can understand and should not be ignored. Rock is a coach, researcher, author, and developer of the coaching curriculum at NYU; and Schwartz is a UCLA-based psychiatrist and author

Last week on my way to lead a session on Internal Stakeholder Engagement at the National Guild for Community Schools of the Arts, I was reading Rocks’ most recent piece, Managing with the Brain in Mind. In this article,  he moves beyond the brain science findings and offers up a five-component strategy for addressing what people need most when asked to commit to the organization’s future and to the change it demands. He has adopted the acronym SCARF to identify the five fundamental individual needs when such commitment is required:

Status: Understanding the role of status as a core concern can help leaders avoid organizational practices that stir counterproductive threat responses among employees. For example, performance reviews often provoke a threat response; people being reviewed feel that the exercise itself encroaches on their status. This makes 360-degree reviews, unless extremely participative and well-designed, ineffective at generating positive behavioral change. Another common status threat is the custom of offering feedback, a standard practice for both managers and coaches. The mere phrase “Can I give you some advice?” puts people on the defensive because they perceive the person offering advice as claiming superiority. It is the cortisol equivalent of hearing footsteps in the dark.

Certainty: Leaders and managers must thus work to create a perception of certainty to build confident and dedicated teams. Sharing business plans, rationales for change, and accurate maps of an organization’s structure promotes this perception. Giving specifics about organizational restructuring helps people feel more confident about a plan, and articulating how decisions are made increases trust. Transparent practices are the foundation on which the perception of certainty rests.

Autonomy: Leaders who want to support their people’s need for autonomy must give them latitude to make choices, especially when they are part of a team or working with a supervisor. Presenting people with options, or allowing them to organize their own work and set their own hours, provokes a much less stressed response than forcing them to follow rigid instructions and schedules. In 1977, a well-known study of nursing homes by Judith Rodin and Ellen Langer found that residents who were given more control over decision making lived longer and healthier lives than residents in a control group who had everything selected for them. The choices themselves were insignificant; it was the perception of autonomy that mattered.

Relatedness: Leaders who understand this phenomenon (the need to feel connected—a part of) will find many ways to apply it in business. For example, teams of diverse people cannot be thrown together. They must be deliberately put together in a way that minimizes the potential for threat responses. Trust cannot be assumed or mandated, nor can empathy or even goodwill be compelled. These qualities develop only when people’s brains start to recognize former strangers as friends. This requires time and repeated social interaction.

Fairness: In organizations, the perception of unfairness creates an environment in which trust and collaboration cannot flourish. Leaders who play favorites or who appear to reserve privileges for people who are like them arouse a threat response in employees who are outside their circle. The old boys’ network provides an egregious example; those who are not a part of it always perceive their organizations as fundamentally unfair, no matter how many mentoring programs are put in place.

Much about SCARF may seem quite obvious. Yet I urge to read these two articles—in their entirety. Then share your comments. There is now some scientific validation for what we have assumed was helpful (fairness, autonomy, etc.) yet there is so much more that challenges our notions and deeply held working assumptions—especially about the importance of the social nature of our organizations, and how responsive those of us in leadership positions must be


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One thought on “What Brain Science is Rapidly Teaching Us about Leadership

  1. Moxwoopenex January 1, 2010 at 5:49 pm Reply

    Looks like you are a true specialist. Did you study about the theme? lol

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