Even though all leaders are not created equal, their daily responsibilities are pretty consistent, including:

  • Making decisions with authority
  • Juggling and resolving conflicts
  • Giving more than receiving feedback
  • Negotiating time and resource constraints
  • Needing to prove one’s self-worth in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world

Why focus on this partial list? For starters, people don’t leave organizations; they leave bosses. Given the unpredictability of our VUCA world, the words of Rob Cross (“The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations”) resonate: “Organizations with a good people plan are more likely to succeed.” Another reason is that any one of these leadership needs poses a cognitive juggernaut that could derail even leadership paragons.

The integration of fMRI technology with human development theory yields powerful leadership insights. For instance, because social pain registers in the same part of the brain as physical pain, how managers deliver feedback can have demonstrable impacts on employee health and productivity. Another example is that strengthening the brain’s braking system can improve focus and attention. These findings are important because they enable us to visualize how to perform better and be better.

Here are three brain-savvy practices to help develop better leaders – a brain-based visualization of how to lead more effectively.

Intend to reward.

When speaking directly to someone about their work, the slightest whisper of a negative comment can overpower the highest praise. Even the so-called “***t sandwich” (nice thing, then negative thing, then nice thing) won’t mitigate this reaction. Our skittish, highly sensitive limbic system constantly scans the environment for friend versus foe, safety versus danger, and good versus bad. In reaction, the brain opens to the prospect of a reward and hunkers down to resist perceived peril. David Rock’s groundbreaking SCARF Model offers an excellent explanation of the brain’s reaction to threats and rewards.

We often judge doctors by their bedside manner. While the great ones can’t necessarily control how the body will react or the gravity of the information they need to share, they can make even the sickest patients feel better. How? They express an authentic desire to understand what’s going on. They ask the questions and let the patient explain. In other words, even the person in the know needs to learn from those they manage. When everyone learns, everyone gains.

Avoid gut instincts.

Most leaders were raised to “trust their guts.” Honed and cultivated through years of experience, our intuition is often our most trusted advisor. Yet neuroscience reveals a very different picture. Daniel Kahneman (“Thinking Fast and Slow”) and others have pointed out that our “gut instincts” offer nothing more – nor less – than familiarity. In fact, 90 percent of our actions are powered by finely cultivated and curated brain maps and patterns.

The certainty of those hardwired habits prevents decision gridlock. To the brain, familiarity breeds consent. So think of your “gut” as neither clarity nor insight but a good guess or unconscious brain domination. This leads us to the third brain-savvy way leaders can continuously hone their leadership practices…

Slow down!

In most organizations, speed equals efficiency, and efficiency equals productivity. A historical glimpse at decision-makers from Lincoln to Churchill and Roosevelt, however, disproves this logic. The building blocks of discussion, data and information, reflection, and sleep pave the pathway to good decisions.

Our brains sometimes fool us into thinking that the faster and more decisive we are, the smarter and more effective we are. Leaders tend to use that self-confidence to react, to lean in. However, research shows that the act of choosing – deliberately, consciously and with input from others – actively engages key parts of the brain. This active, simultaneous engagement of our cognition, empathy, self-regulation and memory circuitry powers better decisions. Kahneman calls this System 2 thinking. Granted, conscious thinking takes concentrated effort – and a bit more time. But it is worth it.

The strongest leaders will admit that they harbor more questions than answers and live with the accompanying uncertainty and ambiguity. If you have a vision and seek to inspire others to follow it, then you qualify as a leader. In the leadership equation, the number of people you lead must be greater than one. Since that includes most of us in some way, shape or form, we might as well be brain-savvy about it.

Jenifer Marshall Lippincott is a San Francisco-based leadership and learning strategist who helps organizations learn how to continuously learn. She is also a brain-based facilitator for the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of 7 Things Your Teen Won’t Tell You (And How to Talk About Them Anyway) (Random House, 2005, 2011), a book on brain-savvy parenting.

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