The Brain at Work

Saturday, October 1, 2011 - 08:14

David Rock says he never deliberately set out to become a guru in the field of "neuro leadership", it kind of just happened that way. "I didn't set out to create a new field of science or psychology, but the more work we did to bring evidence to support the development of the soft skills of senior people, the more we realised we were on to something big," he said.

As science delves more deeply into the mysteries of the power and physiology of the human brain, there are burgeoning fields in sub-disciplines of neuro-science such as "neuro associative conditioning", "neuro-linguistic programming" and even "neuro marketing" and "neuro economics".

"Neuro leadership", which was coined by Rock, has emerged from this group as a powerful new insight to help the people sitting in the cockpit of every group and organisation.

"When I started out I really didn't predict there would be so much value in the research we were doing. It all came by surprise," Rock told Mt during one of his regular return visits to Australia.

Australian-born, New York-based Rock is the head of a global coaching organisation of 100 full-time employees in 24 countries; 10,000 people have "graduated" from his "neuro leadership" programs and he has built a blog readership of half a million people sufficiently interested in his ideas to follow his latest thoughts and insights.

Rock is also author of four books, including Personal Best (2001), Quiet Leadership (2006) and Coaching with the Brain in Mind (2009). His latest book Your Brain at Work was released in October last year and is a practical guide to using your brain power more effectively and efficiently in daily situations.

All this in an obscure field of behavioural science, which was coined just four years ago, and which is yet to be fully recognised by mainstream academia.

In essence, neuro leadership is based on data collected from brain research, which includes functional magnetic resonance imagery studies and other brain-scanning technologies. Among the many findings emerging from neuro science, research is showing that rather than being a static hard-wired "mega computer", the human brain has the capacity to evolve by making new connections we have the ability to make ourselves.

Not only are we starting to be able to measure the brain's reaction to emotions, stressful situations and change, we may be able to train it to react better. By learning how the brain reacts to making decisions under pressure, solving complex problems and getting a team motivated, the training of leaders can potentially be improved.

In a world where there is immense competition for management programs and methods, what is it about "neuro leadership" that has fired people's imaginations?

Acccording to Rock the attraction is its ability to break new ground in self-awareness, accountability, reflection and insight.

"It is a new way of thinking about leadership and leaders broadly," Rock said.

"One of the big surprises of the latest book [Your Brain at Work] was finding answers to questions we didn't even know about. A whole lot of big 'ahas' [epiphanies] have made life a lot easier.

"By looking at leadership through a biological lens it does open up an amazing array of insights we couldn't have before.

"There are thousands of books on leadership selling on Amazon at the moment and all show the same small set of ideas – either the authors are all plagiarists or leadership challenges are biologically based."

A key pre-occupation with neuro leadership is to understand how we influence others and how people lead.

These skills are considered "soft" but Rock says they are actually among the hardest things a successful leader must acquire – how to motivate, to organise, to get feedback and to structure expectations of teams and organisations.

But if so much of leadership is "brain-based", then one of the logical questions is how much of leadership is nurture and how much is nature?

About 50 per cent is the best guestimate, according to Rock, who says leadership qualities are analogous to piano playing abilities.

"It depends a lot on exactly what you are measuring, but it is like playing the piano – there is a combination of being born with talent plus practice and dedication."

According to the Rock theory, there are four domains where there is a cross-over between neuro-science and leadership: the ability to make decisions and solve problems; the ability to regulate emotions; the ability to influence others; and the ability to facilitate change.

The "Holy Grail" of true behaviour change is self-regulation, according to Rock.

"Self-regulation is the brain's braking system, which enables you to put a brake on behaviour – without that you can't create new behaviour," he said. "In reality you can't really get rid of circuits which have already been established in the brain, all you can do is create new pathways.

"This involves being able to catch yourself when you are about to do the wrong thing and then create a new pathway; to be able to notice the internal and external states of mind."

Strong emotions are an inhibitor to deliberate thinking, but to articulate emotions while at the same time not suppress them allows people to be self-assured and collected under pressure.

Language itself plays an enormous role in this self-regulatory discipline, according to Rock.

"If you have words for a particular experience, you can catch that experience rather than be reduced to an automaton. As you build a language for leading yourself and leading others you are able to catch the wrong behaviour on the sly and ultimately be more adaptive and less automatic," he said.

The Rock mission in developing these new behavioural patterns is not to create a "big ra ra" experience, but to educate people.

"I don't try to be [US self-help superstar] Tony Robbins, no offence to Tony, but I aim for long-term improvement rather than quick solutions that can sometimes fade away," he said.

"I have always been about creating real behaviour change, one-on-one over considerable time.

"However, there are some insights about human functioning which, having been discovered, can make it impossible to go back. For example, the brain can be intrinsically weighted towards the negative.

If you discover that and actually gain some control over your attention to that, you should as a result become more adaptive.

"Our insights do help leaders be more effective by drawing on thousands of studies to identify a pattern. For example, recognising that our ability to focus attention is limited.

"There is a limited amount of high-quality attention to be had every day; it is a limited resource and should be treated as such. Most of us are at the workplace eight hours a day, five days a week, but we did a study of 6000 people who were asked where their best thinking took place, and just 10 per cent said they did their best thinking at work.

"We need to find ways of maximising that resource. We need to understand the meta-cognitive – spending more time thinking about our thinking."

Rock is more than happy to acknowledge some of the scientists he has built his theories on including UCLA researcher Matthew Lieberman, who discovered emotional pain had the same impact inside the brain as physical pain, and that social connectedness (which we get from being mammals) means workplaces cannot be transactional places where people exchange their labour and skills for remuneration.

According to Rock, leaders who understand workplaces have a social context are able to get much more performance out of their employees.

Rewards for the brain

Brain chemistry may be helping our understanding of job satisfaction beyond conventional rewards systems. According to Rock there are five primary rewards, which the brain reacts well to: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness with all the associated adrenaline and dopamine rushes.

Conversely, rejection and exclusion, uncertainty, micro-management, disconnection and discrimination create brain blockages.

Ideas on how to implement primary rewards from Your Brain at Work include:

  • Status: Public recognition of employees' work
  • Certainty: Give employees a better understanding of the big picture
  • Autonomy: Allow employees to make more of their own decisions
  • Relatedness: Allow employees to network with peers and attend conferences
  • Fairness: Allow employees to engage in "community days" to give their time for the charity of their choice