The Neuroscience of Leadership


This is what I've been preaching about for a long time now. The findings of neuroscience will have significant impacts on business, in particular management. The article raises more questions than it provides answers, but then again that is the current state of neuroscience research. Here is an example that criticizes employee performance management based on methods from the outdated field of behaviorism.

Performance management training manuals on administering annual appraisals often counsel managers to "deliver constructive performance feedback." Translated from the jargon, this means, "Politely tell people what they are doing wrong." Though colored by humanist intent, this approach is, in its own way, as mechanistic as behaviorism. It assumes that if people receive correct information about what they are doing wrong, and the right incentives are in place, they will automatically change.

But the human brain can behave like a 2-year-old: Tell it what to do and it automatically pushes back. Partly this phenomenon is a function of homeostasis (the natural movement of any organism toward equilibrium and away from change), but it also reflects the fact that brains are pattern-making organs with an innate desire to create novel connections. When people solve a problem themselves, the brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters like adrenaline. This phenomenon provides a scientific basis for some of the practices of leadership coaching. Rather than lecturing and providing solutions, effective coaches ask pertinent questions and support their clients in working out solutions on their own.

I already see problems with this approach. Managers want canned answers to give employees. They don't actually want to sit and…listen (YIKES). The next thing you know, someone will expect full blown honest communication throughout the organization, claiming that it helps circumvent the cognitive biases that come with every human brain. And if that happens, how will people be able to blame someone else when things go wrong? The whole corporate structure will fall apart if people are judged on real results.

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Also check out Johnnie's analysis of the article.