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Written by Natacha Wilson

How can we become better leaders with neuroscience?

As a development consultant in leadership, I am always looking for new ways to help and support the teams and organisations I work with. Like  you, I seek to understand and apply the latest development in my field as well as identify other perspectives and approaches. 

Supporting interdisciplinary teams has helped me increase my curiosity and seek new knowledge that can be applied in leadership development. Today, I will be sharing what applied neuroscience has to offer for leaders.  

In my long-lasting search, I came across a great programme led by Richard Boyaris which focused on “Coaching with Compassion”.  The underpinning of this course was based on applied neuroscience with the aim of boosting a strengths-based development approach.

Instead of leading or coaching for compliance and trying to “fix people” by looking at their deficiencies, what is missing and needs to be learnt, we explored the opportunities to work with people with compassion and positivity. This approach opens a realm of possibilities and encourages a positive and growth mindset with powerful results.

I am fascinated by our human capacity to create, innovate, and lead change. What does it take to be a twenty first century leader in a VUCA world and how I can I support current and future leaders’ development? So, I dug further into applied neuroscience and what it has to offer.

I decided to gain an accreditation from the Neuroleadership Institute, and I embarked on full year of learning and discovery through the Brain-Based Coaching programme. This consisted of well-structured webinars, cutting-edge, research-based tools, coaching practices, and valuable mentoring.

The programme helped me develop my understanding of the neuroscience behind insight-driven coaching conversations, goal setting, and habit-building.

Here are some of my learnings and how I apply my knowledge in my work for the benefit of my clients.  

What is neuroscience and how does this apply to leaders?

Neuroscience, also known as Neural Science, is the study of how the nervous system develops, its structure, and what it does. Neuroscientists focus on the brain and its impact on behaviour and cognitive functions.

You may have heard about neuroplasticity and our ability to learn and change throughout our life. Many studies have shown this ability for the brain to develop and learn. As an example, Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has led experiments in collaboration with the Dalai Lama on effects of meditation on the brain. His results suggest that meditation may lead to change in the physical structure of brain regions associated with attentionanxietydepressionfearanger, and compassion as well as the ability of the body to heal itself.

From a leadership development perspective, neuroscience gives us a deeper understanding of how people’s brains work and how this affects our learning, thinking and ability to change. Amy Brann, in her book Neuroscience for Coaches, provides extensive knowledge on key principles of neuroscience and its applications for leaders and coaches.

Understanding our responses and behaviours

Neuroscientists help us understand the different parts of the brain and their roles. The most “famous” brain area which you may have heard of is the amygdala . It is part of the ‘limbic system’, involved in our emotional responses which drive many of our behaviours.

The amygdala kicks in when we deal with real/perceived threats. Understanding our triggers and what takes us into our unhelpful stress zone, is a crucial step for self-awareness. We can then work on ways to adapt our behaviours for a given situation and move from “reacting” to “responding”. We can also help others by understanding their triggers and encouraging more positive behaviours and responses.

In contrast, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), is equivalent to the decision maker of the brain. It is responsible for our high-level thinking, attention, and ability to plan and make decisions. Recent studies have shown that our PFC is impaired by high-level of stress, which in turn, impacts our ability to be at our best. This new learning can help us adapt our working environments, daily routines, and the overall culture of our organisation to help people increase their performance and impact.

Responding to complexity by creating new connections and thoughts

You might have heard of growth mindsets or fixed mindsets, which were made popular by Carol Dweck. Mindsets, sometimes referred to as mindframes, are like using different types of lenses to look at a situation. They help us come up with different conclusions and solutions. By understanding the brain and its functions, leaders can adapt their mindsets (Yeager et al 2016), increase their self-awareness and adapt their responses.

I use this knowledge in my leadership programmes and when I facilitate strategy days. Encouraging participants to apply different mindsets boosts creative thinking and supports new collaborations that may not have been identified with a more traditional approach. Leaders need to tap into their creative energy to be able to visualise the future they want to create and engage with others.

Learning how we best connect and inter-relate with one another

Understanding the true drivers of human social behaviour is becoming ever more important. In our inter-connected world, we need to work across sectors and functions to boost innovation and solve challenges. This means that our ability to relate to others and increase our interpersonal skills and engage with diverse stakeholders, is paramount.

Social neuroscience explores the biological foundations of the way we relate to each other and to ourselves. It impacts many leadership areas which include emotional regulation, mindfulness, attitudes, stereotyping, empathy, social pain, status, fairness, collaboration, connectedness, persuasion, morality, compassion, deception, trust, and goal pursuit.

To help us build these connections, I use a powerful framework, developed by David Rock, based on key principles of Neuroleadership, which provides five domains of human social experience:

  1. Status
  2. Certainty
  3. Autonomy
  4. Relatedness
  5. Fairness.

Status is about relative importance to others. Certainty concerns being able to predict the future. Autonomy provides a sense of control over events. Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe. And fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people. Working with these domains, helps us understand what we need to do to be at our best and get more attuned to others’ preferences.

Applied neuroscience for leadership is a fast-moving field and I am keen to keep learning and bring this new knowledge to my clients. In addition, the world in which we are operating seems to be moving at a faster pace, forcing us to adapt and increase our agility in our personal and private lives. Please share your comments below and tell me how you are navigating these changes and share your leadership journey. If you are interested in my work and approach, go to my connect page and book a session for an initial conversation.

 

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About Natacha Wilson

Natacha Wilson, founder of Cambridge Insights, is a learning and development consultant and coach. She creates tailored development programmes, which combine 21st century skills, mindsets, and wisdom, to boost leadership capabilities and nurture innovative cultures. Her mission is to support transformational leaders and  “leaders in the making” increase their postive impact, solve global challenges and create a greater world.

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