Thursday, November 10, 2011

2011 NeuroLeadership Summit - Day 2 highlights

Rethinking Organizations with the Brain in Mind:
Part 2, Core Theory


How do we create better leaders? 
How can bosses learn to manage better? 

Day two of the 2011 NeuroLeadership Summit in San Francisco started with Matthew Lieberman (UCLA) presenting three fascinating pieces of research.

Firstly, studies are suggesting that for humans, ‘social is our basic operating system'. Secondly, Matt outlined that one of the reasons organizations and the workplace may not be as socially conscious is that most managers and leaders are promoted for utilizing their analytic and strategic thinking skills, which tends to switch off their social neural networks.

Over time, the less we use our social neural networks, the harder it is to switch them back on, and the less human awareness our, Matt talked about how we frequently guess incorrectly when detecting other's motivations and the implications for improvement of this one skill may be far reaching in an organizational context. Matt's lab is now researching how we can improve our ability to predict and understand another's motivation, as this is an integral skill in social awareness.

Language has the power to shape our experiences. 

Lera Boroditsky (Stanford) presented next on the power of language and its ability to shape not only our thinking, but also our emotions. She noted language is a powerful tool in orientating ourselves in the world as well as within organizations. In western societies we think of the past as being behind us, and the future ahead. If we orientate ourselves differently, with the past in front of us and the future behind, and therefore more unknown, how might that change our thinking and planning?

The deeper neuroscience of SCARF 

In the ‘Deeper Neuroscience of SCARF’, Savannah DeVarney and Phil Dixon from Brain Resource proposed that we can understand what goes on when the brain reacts to SCARF-social-threats by studying brains that are ‘stuck’ in danger mode, such is the case in clinical anxiety conditions.

By looking at data from the Brain Resource International Database, we can start to understand what goes on in real time when our brains experience a danger response resulting from Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness or Fairness being threatened.

It was proposed that employee brain training to improve brain health should complement leadership and change-management initiatives, since a healthy brain has the best chance at adapting and regulating when social threats arise.

Goal setting informed by neuroscience

Setting goals is an integral part of most organizations. How is it that we get people in a toward-state and committed to these goals in a workplace setting? Elliot Berkman (Oregon) broke down the elements of goal setting from a neuroscience and social psychological view point touching on motivation, planning, goal setting, social processes and self control. Throughout the session, Ruth Donde from the NeuroLeadership Group helped make meaning of the research and connect the ideas back to organizational practice.

Elliot suggests that languaging of goals is important to give people ownership and tap into individual motivation. Goals sit within a neural hierarchy stretching from the abstract to the concrete, from the why (more values based) to the how (granular actions). Having goals that fit well within your existing hierarchy means you can align and act in concert to achieve the goal.

Whoever leads the goal setting process must be able to mentalize, or have the ability to see another’s viewpoint, matching people’s approach and avoidance biases with appropriate language.

Using the brains natural social tendencies, we can provide opportunities for groups to form around goals. Naming a group, mixing skill sets, and allowing autonomy on how to achieve the goals can provide fertile ground. If tasks are implicitly allocated in the group based on strengths, and if there are initial wins, this can lead to a positive spiral, where mirror neurons add motivation and builds further commitment and commonality within the group.

Finally self-control is a limited resource, and working in concert with other aligned individuals can help preserve this resource for when it is most needed. Self-control is also something that can be strengthened using the brains natural plasticity. Overall this was a session rich with explanations of the underpinning neural process in successful goal setting.

What is the neurobiology of leadership assessments? 

Ann Herman-Nehdi (Herrman Brain) and Mark Schar (Stanford) presented on the neurobiology of leadership assessments noting there is much open ground to cover. They suggested the first piece of the puzzle is to create a common definition of leadership, which doesn’t currently exist. If we are to study leadership assessments from a neurological standpoint we need to agree on what leadership is, what we wish to measure and how we hope to use the data.

At present there are four commonly gauged domains of leadership assessments: personality, behavior, talent/interest and cognition. When it comes to these assessments organizations are looking for statistical validity, reliability, perceived value from the user and observed insights. Neuroscience has a great deal to bring to this field but more research is urgently required.

Reappraisal and mindfulness maybe the keys to adaptive organizations. 

James Gross (Stanford), YuYuan Tang (Dalian), Karen May (Google) discussed techniques for emotional regulation and mindfulness, and looked at how we can apply these within an organization.

Emotional regulation is used everyday in many situations, with varying success and strategies, some with implications for those around you. Suppression is cognitively expensive, raising not only your own blood pressure and heart rate but also for others in the room with you.

Reappraisal and mindfulness may be a more successful strategy. Taking the time to become more mindful through a meditation practice can have long-standing results across many aspects of life and allow you to be ‘in flow'. Facing difficult tasks, priming your brain to test your willpower, might be useful for avoiding distractions and keeping focused.

It is useful to know that emotions can be regulated, and how we go about it matters; we all have the ability to learn to manage emotional challenges. Other fascinating sessions across the day explored questions like the biological validity of leadership assessments, and the deeper neuroscience beneath how we successfully set goals.