The New Leader 1 - Insights From Neuroscience - Creating Meaning and Engagement.
Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 11:22AM
Jon Pratlett

The intention of this article is to share with you a summary of a tiny portion of the latest research in neuroscience as it applies to both leadership and culture, and outline some practical ways in which you can apply insights from this field to your leadership and organisation. Many of the competencies that underpin these insights are becoming imperative now, given what is happening around the world.  You can’t afford to wait.

It has been said that people judge their leaders by their behaviour, and the organisation by its systems. Think about that for a moment. If this is even half accurate, then both leadership behaviour and organisational systems require the leader’s attention. Organisational systems are for another article.

Leadership and culture are key foundations for an effective quality management framework and support increased productivity at an organisational and individual level.

A progressive leadership style is essential to fostering a supportive culture in which people’s productivity is developed and is underpinned by specific leadership and culture attributes, which are essential for an organisation to achieve their stated outputs.

“What will the leader of the next decade look like? What competencies will characterise the Quality Manager or Practitioner?”

If you want your people to go the extra mile, be highly engaged, contribute their discretionary effort and take pride in their work, then having a meaningful bigger picture, or vision, that is positive, compelling and relevant is crucial.

You have probably heard the story of the stone-cutter.

In the days of misty towers, distressed maidens and stalwart knights, a young man was walking down a road when he came upon a labourer fiercely pounding away at a stone with hammer and chisel. The lad asked the worker, who looked frustrated and angry, “What are you doing?” The labourer said in a pained voice: “I’m trying to shape this stone and it is back-breaking work.”

The youth continued his journey and soon came upon another man chipping away at a similar stone; he looked neither angry nor happy. “What are you doing?” the young man asked. “I’m shaping a stone for a building.”

The young man went on and before long came upon a third worker who was singing happily. “What are you doing?” the young man asked. The worker smiled and replied, “I’m building a cathedral."

Survey after survey, year in year out, show a high percentage of staff that report not being engaged, or even feeling actively disengaged (Gallup Consulting, 2011). Recent research from Palladium Consulting highlights that people embrace accountability when their job and their role, is clear and has meaning for them.

However, having a clear vision isn’t enough. It needs to be communicated in a way that challenges people but avoids over-challenging them. If you are not engaging your people, then either the vision is off, not relevant or poorly thought through, or it isn’t being communicated effectively. Neuroscience confirms that our brains vary from person to person, and that our attempts to influence, inspire and engage may work for one and yet fail with someone else.

Almost all of the leaders I have worked with find the following statement sobering and a call to actionThe brain is a meaning-maker. It works by association. What does that mean? Well, it has now been well established that “Neurons that fire together, wire together” known as Hebb’s Law.

When an engaged team member is asked “What motivates you to work so hard?” typical responses include “I love my work.” “Few things are more interesting to me than piecing this huge puzzle together.” “I have a lot of freedom to decide how I do it and I love the autonomy.” “ I work with great people, Even when it’s crazy, it’s still fun!”

These positive associations between our job, and being challenged; feeling capable; having autonomy (within limits); and relating well to others, demonstrate that we are engaged and willing to “go the extra mile” on a consistent basis when our basic psychological needs are being met.

When negative associations are made such as “ The work is boring. My leader couldn’t give a damn about us. I’m only here for the money”, it is not hard to predict the level of commitment and outcome.

So when you, as a leader, can consistently explain how the actions of an individual or the team contribute toward the vision, or your meaningful version of it, your staff’s brains are then able to associate the two and, with repetition, the same neurons keep firing together and form neural maps. People are able to associate their work with the vision, and thus make meaning, hopefully positive meaning, from this. An association of “increasing shareholder value” is unlikely to truly engage someone.

Finding an authentic way to help each individual make an appropriate association is part of a leader’s role. You, as their leader, provide the context, the reason, behind what is to be done. It gives people a bigger picture in regard to each piece of work they are given, and therefore it is critical that leaders, in assigning tasks, ensure that putting a task in context is a key element.

Sometimes, as leaders, we have to challenge our teams to do what might seem impossible, given the available resources. The context, makes all the difference in terms of engagement.

If I placed a plank of wood on the ground and said I would give $50 to anyone who walks the length of this plank, who would do it?

Almost everyone will... it's an easy $50!

What if I took this same plank and placed it between 2 buildings, up at the twenty-fifth floor. $50 to anyone who will walk across the plank.

Would you do it? No one will.

Okay... now the other building is on fire and your child is laying unconscious at the other end of that plank and the flames will reach them in just a few moments. Would you go across the plank?

Most of us say yes.

So what is the difference? It's the same danger, the same variables pretty much, but the difference is ... why.

If you provide a good enough reason, your team members really can achieve things that they may not have thought possible. It all comes down to how strong and relevant that WHY is.

In over two decades of being involved in developing leaders, I have found that context, is often missing, or is thin at best, in many task assignments.

Without providing the ‘why’ or the context, you may consciously or unconsconsciously be encouraging your team members to:

 a. become dependent on you because you are withholding vital  information, without which they cannot satisfactorily complete their work.

 b. reduce their autonomy and motivating them not to think for themselves.

 c. contribute to their stress levels unnecessarily, impairing their judgement in the process.

Without context, you might be encouraging them to either “plow on”, and do the best they can, or come back to you seeking more information. If they plow on without context, they will probably not provide the outcome you were looking for. This could result in either poor work quality, rework, extra cost and having to performance manage them. This will likely undermine trust, encourage disengagement, and increase the amounts of stress you are both experiencing.

High levels of stress show up in our attitude and behaviors, as I am sure you have experienced. Neuroscience has demonstrated how contagious such attitudes and behaviours can be. This, known as emotional contagion in the literature, spreads rapidly, particularly when coming from a leader due to their perceived importance. When emotional contagion is negative, it is perceived as a threat; this perception, whether consciously or non-consciously, releases cortisol and adrenaline and sets up the fight/flight/freeze response initiated by our limbic system.

Oxygenated blood, the energy source for the brain and necessary for clear thinking, is automatically shunted away from the neo-cortex as well as the digestive and reproductive areas to our arms and legs, readying us for action. This system is highly appropriate from a survival perspective. Confronted by a hungry tiger, it prompts us to respond rapidly and provides our muscles with the energy with which to do that. If we survive, cortisol levels return to normal.

However, today, we are faced with so many situations that can be interpreted as threatening—being ignored by the boss in a meeting; not making budget; an upcoming performance review; being late for work; poor work/life balance; strain on relationships; interrupted or lack of sleep; poor diet; lack of exercise etc.—that our cortisol and adrenaline levels can remain chronically high.

This can reduce our resilience, in turn heightening our perception of threat, creating a vicious cycle that has been associated with damage to the hippocampus, where new neurons are produced (through neurogenesis) and memories are stored.

Reduced memory function, risky decision making, impaired relationships, poor well-being and a reduced lifespan have all been linked to these chronically high stress levels. Given the growing number of research findings confirming such negative health outcomes, organisations will need to address such matters to mitigate potential liability claims in the future. Think asbestos and James Hardy Industries.

By understanding your mind, you increase your capacity to change your brain. By better understanding the minds of others, you increase your capacity to support, influence and engage others.” Let's start with the mind. The mind is the director and is active, focusing attention and making decisions (not in all people!). The brain receives input from the senses and puts out a call - the mind decides what to listen to.

Neuroscientist Dr Gordon, one of the wise elders of neuroscience, distilled hundreds of theories of brain operation into this one model, that he termed “Brain 1-2-4” (Gordon et al., 2008).

Dr Gordon explains this in terms of the brain working off one key principle: it wants to minimize danger and maximize reward.

It has two modes of operation, Non-Conscious and Conscious, with most of its operations occurring at the non-conscious level, which is far quicker and more energy efficient than its conscious mode.

It involves four methods of processing: “Emotion, Thinking, Feeling and Self Regulation”.  You can view Dr Gordon explaining the model in his own words at It runs for 8 minutes.

Emotion occurs automatically (non-consciously) by basic signals of danger and reward (feedforward), e.g. a car backfires and you jump.  At around 200 milliseconds (1/5th second) thinking and feeling emerge in conscious awareness providing “feedback” from the body and brain. You might notice your heart thumping or your palms sweating. Thinking allows for the initiation of voluntary actions and selective attention to significant input, which can then be communicated to longer-term memory. Long-term memory confirms “It’s OK. It was just a car backfiring!” The new-generation leaders will have learned explicit emotional regulation strategies that enable them to have effective control over their emotions.

“What seems likely to prove essential is having a rich palette of emotion regulatory response options that can be flexibly employed, with a clear appreciation of the relative costs and benefits of using any given regulatory strategy in a particular situation” (Gross, 2002, p.289).

A systemic exploration of key strategies with which to make up this rich palette of emotion regulation response options, with a case study, follows in Article 2.

Interested in learning more? Jon Pratlett is a high performance coach and leadership specialist. He facilitates workshops, on-line training, one-on-one and senior executive team coaching, applying the latest neuroscience findings, amongst other insights, to personal, team and organisation effectiveness.

Email to set up a meeting to learn more.


Article originally appeared on Leading with the Brain in Mind (
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