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Leaders need to develop people, not just drive them: David Rock

Interview with, CEO, NeuroLeadership Group

Masoom Gupte  |  Mumbai 

One of the good things about leaders is that they are bull headed and driven; they see things even though other people can't see them yet, David Rock tells Masoom Gupte

You've been credited with coining the term Neuroleadership. What exactly does it mean?

Neuroscience has been used for studying different functions. Like neuroeconomics is about mapping the brain activity in conjunction with financial decision-making, neuromarketing is about the brain and advertising and marketing. Neuroleadership is about the brain and creating vision, developing strategy, execution, getting people on board and, of course, the big one is winning performance and developing talent.

What is the methodology used to link brain activity to develop these leadership-related areas as mentioned by you?
Let me tell you what we are not doing first. We don't put leaders into brain capsules to see how their brains work. What we are doing is, using the research and data that have emerged with respect to the subject. In the last 10 years, there have been major breakthroughs in data about activities that are at the heart of what leaders do. And there are thousands of studies that are now coming out every year that explain the behavioural reasons, based on brain activity, behind the experiences that already exist and that is partially an art. And this is taking on science.

The science is more about the human thought on leadership. And the science that we are really dealing with is about how do you use these insights to, say, build trust or create vision or inspire people. This can be a very difficult task - something they don't teach in business schools.

Could you give an example of how neuro research helped you develop insights that find application at the workplace?
One of the biggest surprises from research has been that social pain and physical pain are treated by the brain in exactly the same way. By social pain I mean feeling isolated or lonely or feeling that someone is attacking our status. Or, for instance, someone is giving you feedback and you think it is unfair. Each of these situations is treated in the brain exactly the same way if someone was subjecting you to physical pain.

This explains why performance is universally so poor and why giving feedback is such a challenge. This insight can therefore help in many ways. For one, you can explain what went wrong. Let's say you give someone feedback and there is a huge argument. After this research you can explain what went wrong (like what led to the argument) or, even better, if you've studied the research you can understand during the process of giving feedback itself whether you have accidentally upset the person. You can see that the person is experiencing a biological response and you can act on intervening. The best use of the research is to use its predictive power. Feedback session should be done in such a way that it doesn't create social pain.

Across geographies, cultural differences will result in varying perceptions for social or physical pains. Is there any cross-applications of the learnings?
We've in fact published a paper on the neuroscience of cultural differences. Many of these differences are very deep, driven by a combination of factors like genetics as well as the physical structure of the brain and environment. There are plenty of differences and yet there are quite a few things that are universal. Like when you give birth, there may be differences for each birth. A lot of leadership too is very biological. Like learning to give a talk to inspire people or to connect with people is a biological event. Trusting someone is also a biological event. Each of this is accompanied by very specific brain activity.

Here, how we build trust in India is different from that in the US. But how we trust and the impact of trust is still very consistent. What we are saying is that globally the cultural differences are huge and yet there are a lot of similarities. In particular, learning is also a biological experience.

One of the key takeaways here is that the brain is so complex that we have to avoid categorising. The flipside to your question is that we must avoid categorising. We really need to focus more on the individual differences. That is necessary for brain research.

Use of neuroscience in management

Dr David Rock is credited with first coining the term 'NeuroLeadership' in an article that was carried in Strategy + Business, the magazine published by consultancy firm, Booz & Company. But, his is surely not the only example where neuroscience and management principles have crossed paths. Many others are mapping brain activity today, to study its impact on various aspects of management. Some of them are:

* NeuroEcomomics is the application of neuroscientific methods to analyse and understand economically relevant behaviour such as evaluating monetary decisions, categorising risks and rewards and interactions among economic factors

* NeuroAccounting uses the measurement of brain activity during economic decision-making. This can prove useful in evaluating the desirability of new policies that run contrary to long-established principles

* NeuroMarketing is the application of neuroscientific methods to analyse and understand human behaviour in relation to markets and marketing exchanges. For example, how humans create, store, recall and relate to information such as brands in everyday life

* NeuroEthics is the investigation of altruism in neuroeconomics research, which suggests that cooperation is linked to activation of reward areas in the brain

Is leadership style a matter of identifying your own niche and sticking to it or evolving with time?
Consider a leader in a family business where external conditions have been stable for a long time. He might think one way. But when there is a major technology change or suddenly the entire industry changes, the leadership style required may be of a different kind. Effective leadership is thus adaptive leadership; it evolves through changing conditions. One of the good things about leaders is that they are bull headed and driven. They see things even though other people can't see them yet. But when they need to adapt, that becomes a weakness. They may not respond to feedback. They may not be self aware. People who've spent their entire careers focused on goals often fail to develop their people circuitry. They fail to see the signs for the need to adapt their leadership styles to changing circumstances. Most leaders you know are not very good at reading the social situations. In particular, the generation of leaders coming through very technical backgrounds such as engineering.

What do you think, is the most important characteristic of leadership today?
I think there is no one correct leadership style. It depends on the industry, the people, the kind of work that needs to be done. For instance, if you are in a creative industry, a lot of autonomy being given to the leader will be good. If you are in the government or you are a regulator, the leadership style needs to be a bit more driving.

Today everyone has to invent their way through a lot of changes - technology changes, product changes, geographical changes etc. Everyone needs to be very creative. And in a time of a lot of changes people need a lot of autonomy and support to create, more than they need to be driven. Many leaders, who have grown up learning about driving people, often have trouble developing people. The need to develop people and help them learn to grow is universal today. And I think one of the most important needs of our times.

First Published: Sun, March 10 2013. 20:08 IST