The modern workplace differs from workplaces of yesteryear. Workplaces are experiencing unprecedented change and a heightened level of stress and anxiety. In lieu of these changes, how can brain science inform leadership development in the modern workplace?

Unprecedented Change

Cognitive dissonance: When continuous change is present, a state of brain chaos – referred to as cognitive dissonance – can occur. In this state, the brain will be tempted to revert to old habits to restore order, and people may become stuck in old ways. As Campbell and colleagues pointed out in Harvard Business Review, even good leaders will make bad decisions if they rely too heavily on the past.

“Transformation culture” strategies: The basic need is to design leadership strategies for a transformation culture and ensure a clear path within the organization. While this may sound like the same old practice, people should learn how to have existential confidence rather than just ordinary confidence based on data and certainty.

Existential confidence: Jim Selman and I have discerned: Existential confidence requires switching from “knowing” to committing to possibilities with a sense that one is sufficient to deliver on the potential present but that is not yet reality. This is a more proactive kind of leadership, where leaders lead from problems worth solving rather than reacting by trying to put out fires every day.

On any given day, there are more fires to put out than we have time for. However, a discerning modern leader will decide which problems are the most pressing, inspiring and worth solving. Navigating unknown landscapes will require skills such as imagination and intuition to develop feasible hypotheses and solutions.

Combine new brain-based competencies with strategy meetings:  Build a capacity for imagination that sets them up for fruitful strategy meetings. Without this capacity for existential confidence, and a structured exploration of possibility and imagination, strategies will be fall short of adaptive and competitive.

Managing Stress in a Modern Workplace    

Talk the talk: For years, I have taught organizations brain-based strategies to reduce stress. For instance, mindfulness, reframing and refocusing can all be applied to mitigate the stresses facing the workforce.

Managing anxiety, depression or addiction in the workplace can be challenging. There’s often not enough time to go through lengthy discussions on these issues, but a simple video series distributed to an entire organization can communicate that the company cares about people getting the help they need as quickly as possible. In the modern workplace, there is an immediate need for stress reduction.

Walk the talk: During my time serving as chief medical officer of a virtual reality (VR) company, we designed brain-based strategies for VR immersion that can reduce anxiety in real time.

For instance, a VR paradigm that uses nature-based scenes can relax the brain’s anxiety processor, as well as scenarios that directly address disengagement habits that can lead to mind wandering and anxiety.

In a modern organization, having a space to reduce stress in the moment is crucial to reducing anxiety and hopelessness while simultaneously increasing engagement. We call our corporate program “Walk the Talk” to imply that it’s not enough for a modern organization to simply talk about stress reduction. We must be able to solve issues with mental health as they arise in the workplace.

Overall, the brain-based message is that we must prepare the brains of leaders in real time. And building a transformation culture with existential confidence and active workplace stress reduction can go a long way.