Know Your Brain, Grow Your Leadership

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By Marcia Ruben, PhD, PCC

I have been learning about and teaching basic neuroscience principles for the past three and a half years. I use a brain-based coaching approach in my executive coaching practice. I have come to appreciate how much a basic working knowledge of our brains can help leaders function more effectively.

We all have finely tuned brains, exquisitely developed to quickly detect threats and also seek rewards. In fact, as our brains scan our environment every one-fifth of a  second, it is reassuring to know that we have five times as many circuits to pick up threats than rewards. It is especially comforting to know this when we are potentially faced with physical danger. When I am out and about and alone in a new and strange area, I am glad that my brain will alert me in a nanosecond if I need to call 911, run, or scream. I also know that cortisol will course through my body, signaling distress. And when someone gives me wonderfully positive feedback, my brain experiences this as a reward and I receive a dopamine rush.

One of the most important insights from the intersection of neuroscience and leadership is that a leader’s job is to create a psychologically safe enough environment so that employees feel empowered to express ideas and fully participate.

This same finely tuned brain is also helpful at work. We are social creatures and need other people. We want to feel safe. When we feel rewarded we are more creative, learn more, and contribute more. On the other hand, because we are so attuned, our brains can pick up the slightest negative facial expression that signals a threat. A number of research studies show that when people are shown a series of facial expressions, ranging from happy to angry, they much more quickly and accurately pick up those with even subtle angry expressions.

So, think about your organization as a network of executives, middle managers, and employees with finely tuned brains.

Each individual within this network is constantly and non-consciously scanning for threats and rewards. How do you know if your company is an environment more prone to rewards (hits of dopamine) than threats (blasts of cortisol)? If people are routinely coming up with new and innovative ideas,  praised for good work, and meetings are fun, productive, and everyone gets a chance to talk and be heard, there is a good chance that your network of finely tuned brains is working well.

On the other hand, if individuals engage in finger-pointing, blame, backstabbing, and worse, it is likely that some are creating threats at a biological level and others are shutting down.

One of the most important insights from the intersection of neuroscience and leadership is that a leader’s job is to create a psychologically safe enough environment so that employees feel empowered to express ideas and fully participate. On the other hand, there has to be enough productive stress so that deadlines are met, people stretch, and the company as a whole experiences success.

To what extent is your network of finely tuned brains aligned and working well in your company? How productive is your brain? Thanks to breakthroughs in the field of neuroscience It is now possible to optimize your leadership team. Learn more about the first and only scientifically validated brain assessment: MyBrainSolutions.

This article previously appeared on Marcia Ruben’s Leadership Tangles blog.

More About Marcia Ruben, Ph.D.

Marcia Ruben, Ph.D., began teaching full-time at Golden Gate University in 2012 and was appointed to the Chair of the Management Department at GGU in 2014. She was awarded the Judith E. Browning Award for Outstanding Teaching in 2015. She was awarded the 2016-2018 Russell T. Sharpe Research Professorship. In 2017, she was promoted to an Associate Professor. Marcia continues a private executive leadership development practice. Marcia earned the Certified Management Consultant designation from the Institute of Management Consultants USA in 2002. She is also an accredited executive coach and completed a year-long evidence-based coaching certification program. Marcia earned the Professional Certified Coach (PCC) designation from the International Coach Federation in 2010. Marcia earned her Ph.D. in Human and Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University. She earned an M.A. in Human and Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University and an M.S. in Counseling from California State University, Hayward. Marcia graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. from University of California, Berkeley. She has co-authored several articles that are recognized as thought-leaders in the change management and coaching industry. Her article, Untangling Conflicting Organizational Agendas: Applying Emotional Regulation, SCARF, and Other Neuroleadership Principles to a Case Study, was published in the 2015 Neuroleadership Journal.


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