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The Neuroscience of Leadership

The Neuroscience of Leadership

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Published by: Mohammed Sufiyan Khan on May 02, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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01/11/2014

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Mike is the CEO of a multinational pharmaceutical
company, and he’s in trouble. With the patents onseveral key drugs due to expiresoon, his businessdesperately needs to become more entrepreneurial, par-ticularly in its ability to form internal and external part-nerships to reduce time-to-market. Yet his organizationhas a silo mentality,with highly competitive teamssecretly working against one another. How can Mikechange the way thousands of people at his company think and behave every day?Businesses everywhere face this kind of problem:Success isntpossible without changing the day-to-day behavior of people throughout the company. But chang-ing behavior is hard, even for individuals, and even when newhabits can mean the difference between lifeand death. In many studies of patients who have under-gone coronary bypass surgery, only one in nine people,on average, adopts healthier day-to-day habits. The oth-ers’lives areat significantly greater risk unless they exer-cise and lose weight, and they clearly see the value of changing their behavior. But they don’t follow through.Sowhat about changing the way a whole organizationbehaves? The consistently poor track record in this areatells us it’s a challenging aspiration at best.During the last two decades, scientists have gainedanew, far more accurate view of human nature andbehavior change because of the integration of psychol-ogy (the study of the human mind and human behav-ior) and neuroscience (the study of the anatomy andphysiology of the brain). Imaging technologies such asfunctional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) andpositron emission tomography (PET), along with brain
Breakthroughs in brain researchexplain how to make organizationaltransformation succeed.
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by David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz
TheNeuroscienceofLeadership
 
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 wave analysis technologies such as quantitative electro-encephalography (QEEG), have revealed hithertounseen neural connections in the living human brain. Advanced computer analysis of these connections hashelped researchers develop an increasing body of theo-retical work linking the brain (the physical organ) withthe mind (the human consciousness that thinks, feels,acts, and perceives).The implications of this new research are particular-ly relevant for organizational leaders. Itis nowclear thathuman behavior in the workplace doesn’t work the way many executives think it does. That in turn helpsexplain why many leadership efforts and organizationalchange initiatives fall flat. And it also helps explain thesuccess of companies like Toyota and SpringfieldRemanufacturing Corporation, whose shop-floor ormeeting-room practices resonate deeply with the innatepredispositions of the human brain.Managers who understand the recent break-throughs in cognitive science can lead and influencemindful change: organizational transformation thattakes into account the physiological nature of the brain,and the ways in which it predisposes people to resistsome forms of leadership and accept others. This doesnot imply that management — of change or anythingelse — is a science. There is a great deal of art and craftin it. But several conclusions about organizationalchange can be drawn that make the art and craft farmore effective. These conclusions would have been con-sidered counterintuitiveor downright wrong only a few years ago. For example:
Change is pain.
Organizational change is unex-pectedly difficult because it provokes sensations of phys-iological discomfort.
Behaviorism doesn’t work.
Change efforts basedon incentive and threat (the carrot and the stick) rarely succeed in the long run.
Humanism is overrated.
Inpractice, the conven-tional empathic approach of connection and persuasiondoesn’t sufficiently engage people.
Focus is power.
The act of paying attention cre-ates chemical and physical changes in the brain.
Expectation shapes reality.
People’s preconcep-tions haveasignificant impact on what they perceive.
Attention density shapes identity.
Repeated,purposeful, and focused attention can lead to long-last-ing personal evolution.
Change Is Pain
“Why do people resist change so stubbornly, even whenit’s in their own interest?” wonder CEOs like Mike.Changing the way others go about their work is harderthan he has expected. New advances in neuroscienceprovide insight into why change can be so difficult, andthereareseveral key findings.The first has to do with the nature of human mem-ory and its relationship to conscious attention. Workingmemorythe brains“holding area,” wherepercep-tions and ideas can first be compared to other informa-tion — is frequently engaged when people encountersomething new. When you see a new product on asupermarket shelf and rationally compare its benefits toaproduct you already use, it’s your working memory that takes in the newinformation and matches it againstthe old. This kind of memory activates the prefrontalcortex, an energy-intensive part of the brain.The basal ganglia, on the other hand, areinvokedby routine, familiar activity, like putting an often-
David Rock
(davidrock@workplacecoaching.com) is theauthor of
Quiet Leadership: SixSteps to TransformingPerformance at Work
(Collins,2006) and
Personal Best
(Simon & Schuster, 2001) andthe co-creator of the manage-ment coaching curriculum atNew York University’s Schoolof Continuing and ProfessionalStudies.
Jeffrey Schwartz
(jmschwar@ucla.edu) is aresearch psychiatrist at theSchool of Medicine at theUniversity of California at LosAngeles. His books include
The Mind and the Brain
(withSharon Begley, Regan Books,2002) and the bestseller
BrainLock: Free Yourself fromObsessive-Compulsive Behavior 
(Regan Books, 1997).

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