Myths about brain - part 1What is Neuroleadership?

Neuroleadership is an emerging field of study focused on bringing neuroscientific knowledge into the areas of cultural transformation, leadership development, management training, education, consulting and coaching. The Neuroleadership movement is intended to help individuals and organisations of all types fulfill their potential through better understanding of how the human brain functions at individual, team and systemic levels.

Neuroleadership is a term coined in 2006 by David Rock. It defines the field of study and exploration of leadership development and human performance improvement as seen through the lens of understanding how the brain works.

Neuroscientists are mapping the areas of the brain associated with different activities, actions and messages using functional MRI scans. As they share their data, we are finding scientific evidence that changes our understanding of workplace behaviors and explanations for why some practices work better than others (Rock & Schwartz, 2006). Neuroscience thus enables us to explore the processes within the brain that underlie or influence human decisions, behaviours, and interactions in the workplace including areas such as empathy, social rejection, self-awareness, social factors in economic decision-making, theory of mind, social connection, and emotion regulation – all of which are of significant interest to CEOs, leaders and HR practitioners wishing to understand the process of organisational change, engage people in the business and develop and continuously improve leadership quality.

Developing greater insights into how the brain functions has many applications in the corporate world – for instance, it helps us understand how to:

  • overcome resistance to change.
  • identify the most effective problem solving and decision-making techniques.
  • unleash creativity and innovation in individuals, teams and organisations.
  • lead in a way that get the best out of others.
  • overcome negativity to develop a positive attitude in yourself and others.
  • increase focus and attention.
  • deal with stress in the workplace.
  • motivate and engage  people at work.

This is the first of two articles where neuroleadership challenges some myths and conventional wisdom about how the brain works.

Myth # 1: We Use only 10% of our brains
We’ve been told this one for years, implying that we have huge reserves of untapped mental powers. However, experiments using fMRI scans show that much of the brain is engaged even during simple tasks, and injury to even a small part of the brain can have profound consequences for language, sensory perception, movement or emotion. The brain is highly complex and many parts of the brain connect in order to complete even simple tasks.

True, we have some brain reserves. Autopsy studies show that many people have physical signs of Alzheimer’s disease in their brains even though they were not impaired. Apparently we can lose some brain tissue and still function pretty well. And people score higher on IQ tests if they’re highly motivated, suggesting that we don’t always exercise our minds at 100 percent capacity.

Myth # 2: Once we reach adulthood the structure of the adult brain is fixed and never changes.
One of the legacies of old thinking is that brain is hardwired, like a computer. Whilst the brain is organized in a certain way, with specialised areas, research in neuroplasticity has found that the brain adapts and its structures are flexible. For example, if someone is struck blind the visual cortex does not just go dark. It is quickly taken over by circuits used for audio processing, which enlarge accordingly.[1]

If we stop exercising our mental skills we do not just forget them. Instead the brain space for those skills is turned over to the skills we do actually practice.[2]  The more you use one part of the brain, the larger that part develops and can take over functions not used.

[1] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows, 2010, p.29
[2] Doidge, ibid, p. 59

For instance, we can erode our brain’s capacity for thinking deeply with sustained concentration if we spend large amounts of time scanning, skimming material on the internet and multitasking. The neurons associated with sustained concentration stop firing and the brain space devoted to thinking deeply is taken over by the superficial scanning activity of the brain. [3]

Implications for organisations
Skimming over large volumes of emails that everyone experiences each day may be inhibiting your managers’ ability to focus on what really matters.

  • Review your policy and practice with regard to email usage and ban the widespread use of copying everyone in to emails.
  • Consider investing in meditation or mindfulness to help individuals focus may be right for your organisation.

Myth # 3: As we get older, our brain is ”just not what it used to be”.
It’s true – some cognitive skills do decline as you get older. For instance, children are better at learning new languages than adults. Young adults are faster than older adults to judge whether two objects are the same or different; they can more easily memorize a list of random words, and they are faster to count backward by sevens.

But plenty of mental skills improve with age. Older people know more words and understand subtle linguistic distinctions. They are often better judges of character. They possess wisdom in social situations, get better at regulating their own emotions and finding meaning in their lives.

A small, ancient part of the brain, the hippocampus, actually creates new brain cells all the time. So our brain does not necessarily deteriorate as we get older. However, this process can be compromised, and brain cells die, not just through alcohol consumption but also through exposure to high and prolonged levels of stress, anxiety or long term sleep deprivation.

Implications for organisations
Don’t underestimate your employees in their 50s and 60s – they provide much-needed emotional regulation, wisdom and know-how –skills that are only acquired through age and experience.

There are many sources for stress at work. These stressful conditions not only sacrifice quality of life for the individual, they are also damaging their brain and thereby diminishing their contribution to the organisation. So review the hours employees are expected to work, and look for productivity rather than long hours! Spend time understanding what causes stress at work and develop strategies to manage these factors. Stress management is not just a nice thing to do, it is a business imperative!

[3] Ophir, Eyal et al, “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, August 24, 2009

Myth # 4: I can resist temptation if I really try.
Oscar Wilde famously said “I can resist everything but temptation.” He’s not that far wrong. Every time you concentrate on overcoming a temptation the brain builds stronger and stronger neural circuits around that thought so that thoughts surrounding the temptation or symptom become ingrained. Resisting temptation then takes a lot more energy the next time around. Have you ever tried to lose weight only to find that you are constantly focusing on food, which undermines your efforts?

Implications for organisations
Is your culture one of constantly ruminating over problems at work? Focusing on the negative to try to achieve a positive outcome just leads to more negativity. To break out of this habit, develop a management style that concentrates on recognizing and celebrating accomplishments rather than focusing on the negative. You will generate higher morale in individuals and create workforce of individuals who will want to go the extra mile.

Myth # 5: Instilling fear motivates others to perform
Fear can be a great motivator when you are in a fight or flight situation – fear motivates you to escape a dangerous situation or face up to the conflict.

However, many of us know intuitively that applying fear or intimidation at work doesn’t motivate people or get them to work harder. Yet we still observe some managers using this style. Now neuroscience has the evidence that management through fear and intimidation destroys productivity and leads to a disengaged workforce.

When you instill fear and anxiety in others, you automatically trigger their reflexive “fight or flight” reactions. Blood flow is diverted from the brain to the body in readiness for a fight or flight response and other parts of the brain shut down, including the rational thinking parts of the brain, the ability to logically prioritize, creativity and innovation, recalling memories and accessing experience to make sound judgments.

The brain’s immediate response is to minimise danger. Emotions start to take over and recipients of a fear-related management style enter into a state of self-protection. This can take the forms of not rocking the boat, saying yes even when they have doubts, not challenging or contributing ideas, and not making decisions. These individuals are constantly distracted by scanning the environment for new threats and resist change, which is perceived as a threat. Anxiety can lead to mood disorders and health issues. In the longer term the drive to find reward from work could shape our behaviours to find a new job.

Managers who manage through fear and intimidation therefore sabotage their own efforts at instilling change and increasing productivity and performance of their staff.

Implications in organisations
Develop a culture and embed systems and processes that recognize and reward leaders who combine attributes of trust, empowerment, fairness and recognition with accountability for outcomes.