Big Ideas

Brain Power

Neuroscience shows that good management is a matter of the mind.

by Minda Zetlin

May 2014

Have you ever gotten tongue-tied, or perhaps found yourself babbling, in the presence of a powerful executive, political leader, or someone you greatly admire? Afterward, you likely felt foolish and unhappy with your own behavior. It just means you have a normally functioning brain.

“Merely encountering someone of higher status creates a threat response,” says Dr. David Rock, DProf, founding director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, an international research organization headquartered in New York, New York. “If you see a celebrity in the street, you have that response.”


It’s something executives need to know, because it will often affect their subordinates as well. Rock says that the slight threat response generated by interaction with senior management makes it uncomfortable for most people to talk to the CEO; it also dulls response time and clouds the mind. Most top executives don’t realize they create this involuntary threat response merely by being present. So they don’t do anything to reduce that effect, and Rock thinks that’s a shame. “Ideally, when executives walk into a room, they should want the people there to be smarter,” Rock says.

This is just one example of how neuroscience can help executives become better leaders, both by better understanding what’s happening in other people’s brains and by working on their own to heighten leadership abilities. It’s well worth the effort, because recent research indicates that great leaders are mostly made, not born.

Leading Behaviors

Studies of identical twins (who share the same genetic makeup) and fraternal twins (who share about half their genetics) have helped researchers pin down how much of leadership ability is innate and how much can be developed. Sean Hannah, PhD, professor of management and the Tylee Wilson chair in business ethics at Wake Forest University School of Business in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, explains that research finds that about one-third of leadership development is preordained through genetics and heredity, psychological constructs like personality, and physiological factors from personal appearance to personal energy level. “That means about two-thirds can be developed,” he says.

The good news is there’s no time limit on that development. “We used to think that the brain worked so that once you reach a certain age you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” says Ann Betz, director of research and learning at the training company BEabove Leadership in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “It turns out many parts of the brain can change and grow throughout life.”

“Neuroscience demonstrates that the brain has unlimited capacity for development and adaptation,” says Alex Vincent, principal, global faculty leader at Knightsbridge Leadership Solutions, a human capital solutions firm headquartered in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. But using that capacity isn’t easy. He says it requires a firm decision and commitment to do the hard work of developing leadership skills.

People, Not Just Goals

For most of today’s top executives, becoming better at leadership means learning “soft” people skills—the area where most fall short, according to Rock. He says his work with the institute has revealed that many leaders are strong at being goal-focused and not very strong at being people-focused—he surveyed 60,000 successful leaders to see how many were good at focusing on both goals and people, and found that only 0.77 percent had both skills. “The two are anticorrelated. Leaders who have many goals tend to be thinking about them all the time, but they don’t activate their people circuitry very often,” Rock says.

I could feel the stress chemicals building up, and I couldn’t even hear anything my boss said to me.”–Ann Betz, Director of Research and Learning, BEabove

Understanding exactly how the brain works can make all the difference, especially in stressful situations when many of us tend to respond in unhelpful ways. For example, Betz recalls being called on the carpet for a meeting that went badly. “I could feel the stress chemicals building up, and I couldn’t even hear anything my boss said to me,” she says. “When we get unexpected negative news, we should know that whatever we do or say in that moment, we’re not going to be at our best. We should stop and wait a little while.”

During moments of stress, she explains, the fight-or-flight response takes over brain function from the prefrontal cortex, our reasoning brain. That can have negative consequences. One of Betz’ coaching clients reported that he had written a “crocodile e-mail” from the reptilian part of his brain, she recalls. “I’m probably going to spend the next week cleaning up after it,” he told her.

This can be solved by putting the prefrontal cortex back in charge by focusing on higher brain functions. For example, when Betz gets a call from an angry client, she will sometimes ask how the person’s values are not being respected in this situation. She says that turning their thoughts to values has an immediate, palpable effect, shifting the conversation away from the limbic system. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which controls anxiety, begins to flow. The person becomes calmer and takes a more rational viewpoint. “I almost see myself as a mad scientist when I do this,” Betz says. “But I know it’s what they need.”

Focusing on values is only one way to activate GABA. A shift in perspective to look at the bigger picture can have the same effect. So can metacognition—observing your own thoughts—or naming the emotion you’re feeling, which can have an immediate neutralizing effect.

Seeing What Others See

An important leadership skill that can be especially difficult to master is seeing ourselves as others see us. Vince Molinaro, managing director at Knightsbridge, recounts how one of his clients got a revelation from some reflective glass. He was having a meeting that had become very difficult. The conversation was heated, but this executive felt sure he was speaking and behaving in a calm and friendly manner. Then he caught a glimpse of his reflection and saw the hostile scowl on his own face. “He realized what the other person was seeing,” Molinaro says. “It had been happening at a level he wasn’t conscious of.”

This can be especially destructive when dealing with subordinates, when a manager’s hostility, anger, or negative feedback can activate the limbic systems of staff members. “It’s pretty easy to see, when you know what you’re looking for,” Rock says. “When you speak to someone and they’re feeling an overwhelming sense of threat, they’re not listening to you. They’ll pretend to listen, but then ignore what you said.”

What can you do to fix it? Not much, Rock says. “The best time to minimize threat is before it kicks in,” he says. “Once it kicks in, it’s hard to budge. It’s a bit like drinking two double scotches on an empty stomach. Once you’ve drunk them, there’s not much you can do about it for a while.”

Don’t try to completely eliminate threat, he adds, because a manageable amount leads to peak performance. The optimum level of stress releases the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine, which help with concentration, Betz adds. Too little can lead to underperformance, especially in highly intelligent engineers and other technical employees.

The Importance of Feedback

It’s a delicate balance—how can you tell when you’re creating too much or too little stress, and whether you’re being an effective leader in general? You can’t, experts say. So there’s only one way to grow and improve as a leader: Get lots of feedback from others inside and outside your organization.

Of course, that’s what we’re all supposed to be doing already—with 360-degree reviews, which are widely acknowledged as a sound management tool. But there’s a big gap between principle and execution. “There’s a lot of evidence that organizations are really feedback deserts,” Molinaro says. “But our unlimited capacity for growth hinges on that feedback. Humans are wired to get feedback and then use it to improve.”


Percentage of surveyed executives who demonstrated the ability to focus on both business goals and people skills (Source: NeuroLeadership Institute)


Getting useful feedback requires an environment where everyone, even those who report to you, feels comfortable sharing his or her views, both positive and negative. “You have to ask for feedback and make it OK for people to give you the straight goods,” Molinaro says. It’s especially important because subordinates will closely observe what you do in this regard, and will likely mirror it themselves. “If I’m in an environment where my boss doesn’t ask for feedback, or dismisses it when he gets it, or doesn’t act on it, I’ll be likely to do the same,” Molinaro adds.

Developing Leadership Potential

That brings us to another area where today’s top leaders tend to be weak: developing the leadership potential of those who work for them. “If you look at the competencies leaders have, growing talent is usually at the very bottom out of 67 possible management competencies,” Rock says. “The ability to grow people is something leaders are generally terrible at. This may be one reason why engagement is low and innovation is a problem.”

Too often, executives don’t understand the neurological effects of a scolding or a negative performance review. “Brain science says that the way you have that conversation makes a big difference,” says Anje Dodson, vice president of human resources at Oracle. “Most people are really hard on themselves when they goof up. Their internal barometers go off. If your manager also comes in and says, ‘That was a lousy job!’ you’ve just destroyed that potential top person.” Instead, she suggests a different approach. “Ask, ‘How do you think that went? What should we do differently next time?’”

By setting off a threat response, heavily negative feedback can have a profoundly counterproductive effect, she adds. “You want to help people get more productive, more creative, and more innovative. Being negative shuts that down.”

It doesn’t have to stay that way. With feedback to guide the way, you can become a better leader—if you’re willing to practice, and to change ingrained habits. “Particularly among senior leaders, if you’ve had any degree of success, you get into a pattern that works for you,” Molinaro says.

Those patterns form pathways within the brain, he notes. “It happens at a cellular level, and will bring about new behaviors in leaders. Not all leaders have the motivation to do that. Success gets in our way because we think we’ve figured it out and don’t need to change.”

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