Prior to 1990, when scientists wanted to directly observe how the brain works, they had to open up people’s skulls and attach electrodes to their brains. Guess what – it was really hard to find people to sign up for that kind of experimentation. So a lot of what we “knew” about how the brain functioned was guesswork. Then in 1990, the invention of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) made it possible for scientists to study how the brain works while leaving people’s skulls intact. The field of neuropsychology exploded and has become one of the most exciting, fast-paced areas of science. 

Unfortunately, while a lot of serious science was going on, pop culture seized on some of the findings in ways that were often over-simplified and highly inaccurate. One of my pet peeves is when people talk about being “left-brained” or “right-brained.” I always want to respond with, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” because anyone who is dependent on half of his or her brain would be incapacitated. People with normal brain function use both halves.

Brain functions and how they translate to leadership

I was very pleased to read a recent article that summarized “the seven brain dynamics that consultants should care about.” [1]  As I read this carefully researched article, it seemed to me that not only consultants but also business leaders should know about these findings. So here goes:

FindingBusiness Leadership Implication
The brain’s main job is to keep us alive. When a person feels unsafe, the amygdala is triggered.  This interferes with people’s ability to think, make decisions, act appropriately, respond emotionally, learn, and feel motivated.   Don’t threaten your people. Create a climate of safety to optimize performance.
Emotions happen fast, often before people are aware of them. Once they are conscious, people can regulate their responses.Increase your ability to recognize and manage your feelings so you can maintain your focus.
Because it is threat-focused, the brain remembers negative stimuli more than positive.When you offer feedback, people focus on and remember the negatives. It takes about six positive comments to offset the impact of one negative.  Build a culture of appreciation. 
Stress triggers the limbic system. The more active the limbic system, the less active the PFC, or prefrontal cortex (the location of rational, complex thought). Most business success is based on high-quality thinking. Maximize people’s ability to think by reducing stress.
Brains are wired to connect with other people.  When people experience “social pain” (rejection and exclusion), their cognitive abilities are compromised as much as when they feel physical pain.Sexism and other forms of intolerance are wide-spread in many workplaces. Reducing and eliminating those behaviors will result in better brainwork.
The PFC uses up a lot of energy. The brain saves energy by defaulting to mental shortcuts.  Sometimes these are useful, but sometimes they lead to errors.Challenge your automatic responses. Think, “How could I be wrong about this?”
Brains are “plastic.” They can change and learn. When you decide to adopt a new habit, practice it often so it becomes “hard-wired.”

Business leaders don’t have to be neuropsychologists. But a thoughtful understanding of how the brain works provides solid guidance for good business leadership.

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[1] (Hambley C.  CONNECT©: A brain-friendly model for leaders and organizations.  Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, Vol 72(3), Sep 2020, 168-197)

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