David Rock Delivers the Low-down on Effective NeuroLeadership

Tuesday, January 28, 2014 - 09:32

Dr David Rock

Australian native Dr David Rock turned the traits of traditional leadership upside down in 2006 when he coined the term NeuroLeadership and preached its benefits to anybody who’d listen.

Now based in Manhattan, the former Sydney-sider is a highly sought-after speaker with a following that generates massive interest wherever he goes. He spoke to Australian Institute of Management Media and Communications Manager Grant Stockwell AFAIM in preparation for his exclusive presentation at AIM Brisbane on Monday 3 March.

Q: In layman’s terms what is NeuroLeadership?

A: It’s the study of leadership and leadership development from the perspective of what happens in the brain. It’s looking at what happens when we try to influence others or motivate others; what happens in our brain as a leader and about really getting into the biology of all things leadership.

Q: When did you first discover the benefits of NeuroLeadership?

I coined the term in 2006 but I had already been bringing insights of neuroscience into leadership since 2002. The first conference around NeuroLeadership happened in 2007 and since then we’ve staged eight international conferences, we’ve published an academic journal and really built a framework for thinking about the neuroscience of leadership that is now being adopted in a lot of the organisations that we work with.

Q: What led you down the career path of neuroscience and NeuroLeadership?

A: I had been in leadership development for a long time and I noticed that building the self-awareness and social awareness of leaders was a really tough process and it became really clear that the more research we had on the issue the better we’d be. I’d read some many books on leadership and they all delivered the same message. I just became really curious about looking at leadership from a biological perspective and I knew if we could understand that biology we could create better leaders.

Q: One of your most important achievements was uncovering the SCARF Model – what is it and how does it work?

A: The SCARF Model emerged out of writing my most recent book, Your Brain at Work. It describes a pattern that I discovered through writing that book and doing the research for it. I noticed that lots of the neuroscientists I was speaking to were all saying the same thing about the social nature of the brain. What I found was that there were a few recurring themes, things that matter to the brain more than we’d previously realised.

One major factor is our sense of fairness and how much importance our brain places on that. SCARF stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness – five key areas native academic studies have shown to create surprisingly strong threat or reward responses in people.

Q: Why are effective Neuroleadership skills so important to a chief executive or general manager of an organisation?

A: You might not know it yet but if you’re a senior executive in an organisation one of your jobs is probably trying to make the team start to think smarter. The more you understand the brain the more effective you will become at improving people’s thinking.

Q: You have spoken at length about your disbelief in the traditional performance review practice that many managers and organisations across the world facilitate with their staff. What is your alternative method of measuring and monitoring staff performance?

A: There is no one-size fits all to that question. We do know as a general rule that only about 14 per cent of companies are actually happy with that performance review system because they underestimate how hard it is to get people to have difficult conversations. These companies have also underestimated the threat-response from ranking and rating people, it takes all the honesty out of the conversation.

We think that you can improve performance by minimising the threat factor in the traditional performance review process. The guiding principle is you cannot be a judge and a coach at the same time – it rarely works.


Dr David Rock's latest book, Your Brain at Work, is available from Management Books. Additional titles include Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming at Work and Coaching with the Brain in Mind: Foundations for Practice.