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The neuroscience of leadership

Kalpana Sinha 

An understanding of leadership and its connection with the brain can help drive efficiency.

Those of you who paid rapt attention in the biology class in school would remember that neurotransmitters are chemicals located and released in the brain to allow an impulse from one nerve cell to pass to another.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. Anything that produces a positive response in a human being stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain. This positive feeling also creates the anticipation of pleasure the next time the stimulus is introduced, and establishes a bio-feedback reward system.

Dopamine is also what makes us more likely to opt for instant gratification, rather than waiting for a more beneficial reward. For example, indulging in the chocolate cake the day after you have resolved to go on a diet, or buying the latest smartphone on day one of the release instead of waiting for prices to go down.

Low levels of dopamine are indicated by a wide variety of diseases and disorders, such as simple anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

In my work, one of the continuous challenges I face is building manager capability. Managers who look after their people build an engaged workforce. It is not the annual review “pat on the back” but the continuous reinforcement of strengths and employee contribution that help an employee feel that someone “cares” for him and his career. A manager who is seen as nurturing often goes a long way. Dopamine is a very real human need, people at the workplace need to feel that the organisation is invested in them and their careers. Gallup research says, “Employees who report they’re not adequately recognised at work are three times more likely to say they will quit in the next year.”

The question is how do you keep dopamine levels of your employee at a level that they come to work every morning feeling excited about the next contribution they will make? One strategy that has been used successfully is job sculpting. It is a personalised way of extending your current job to have assignments and deliverables that play to one’s optimal skill and challenge levels. It is the art of forging a customised career path in order to increase the chance of retaining talented people. These assignments are reviewed periodically and rewarded based on the goals achieved. It is, therefore, important that managers continuously think of ways to keep employee dopamine levels at the optimal — including unexpected rewards (that creates a bigger dopamine rush) in order to build a committed and engaged workforce.

Leadership transitions
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the very front of the brain, located right beneath the forehead. It is responsible for the executive functions, which include mediating conflicting thoughts, making choices between right and wrong or good and bad, predicting future events and governing social control like losing temper or getting overly flustered. It is the brain centre that primarily anchors one’s sentience, human general intelligence and personality.

In his book titled Your Brain at Work, David Rock explains the prefontal cortex to be like the “stage with a director”. At any given point in time there are a limited number of actors who can be on stage for the audience to see them clearly and focus on what they are doing. If the director loses control and allows too many actors on stage, the stage will become chaotic. The whole focus here is to keep making your director stronger so that you are clear about who will stay on and who will stay off stage at any point of time.

When we work with senior leaders who need to manage a transition (moving to a senior role/new business/new country) we need to help them build a very strong “director” and help them understand that the stage cannot be overcrowded at any point in time to effectively manage this transition. In any transition, there has to be an ending and a beginning (allowing new actors with new scripts onto the stage and ensuring that old actors are off stage). The other important aspect in a transition is the first 90 days. A leader has to be focused on his deliverables to earn his or her credibility — which means the director not just ensures that the stage is optimal and the actors are the right number but decisions on who to keep on and off stage at what time, when to pay close attention to something that needs more focus, when to take a step back and reflect to see what impact he/she may be having, or what one needs to “unlearn” in this new environment.

Therefore, the 90-day transition plan must build in aspects to help a leader strengthen focus, impact and give enough reflection time to help become successful.

Task priorities
The relationship between pressure and performance is explained in the “Inverted-U”. The Inverted-U relationship focuses on a leader’s performance of a task. When there is little pressure to carry out an important task, there is little incentive to focus energy and attention on it. This is particularly the case when there may be other, more urgent, or more interesting tasks competing for attention. In busy organisations, senior leaders have to be very principled and focused to carry out an important task.

I have a wonderful example of a senior leader in my organisation; let’s call him Eric. When sitting down to talk with Eric, you wait for a moment while he closes his laptop, sets his phone to silent and settles in his chair. You have his full attention. This is an important and symbolic gesture. As general manager, Eric has just been through dozens of presentations and hundreds of slides as part of the mid-year review. The people that impress Eric know their business, and they also know tertiary businesses. Finding the time to dig in to other businesses is overwhelming, but Eric offers a great counterpoint: “Be present in meetings”. At times, we’re all guilty of cracking our laptop open in meetings and wading through emails. But that disconnects you from the meeting itself… and you lose a great opportunity to learn from other presenters and to understand their business problems.

If you’re not fully present in a meeting, it forces one-dimensional commentary. Eric illustrates his point by explaining, “I’ve worked with people who are heads-down in email and only surface to offer random comments specific to their projects. Don’t be so predictable that your only comments and questions relate to your area of the business.”

The lesson here is that Eric is a high-potential employee and has been rated to be in the top 4 per cent in a 90,000-people organisation every year consistently for the last 17 years. He is credited for coming up with innovative solutions and products that cut across synergies of different businesses. It is a great example of how a simple principle like be present can enhance your performance tremendously.

Creating a neural network
“Cells that fire together wire together” means that synapses or unions between neurons get solidified the more often the respective neurons “talk” to each other. In our brains, neurons connect to other neurons to form a neural network. Each connecting point is associated with a thought or memory. The brain builds up all its concepts by the law of associative memory. Ideas, thoughts and feelings are all constructed and interconnected within this neural network, and have a possible relationship with one another. If you practice something over and over again, those nerve cells have a long-term relationship. For example, a famous experiment proved that boys who mentally rehearsed shooting baskets improved more than the boys who actually practiced.

Last week, I was moderating a panel discussion at a women’s conference. This panel was a large one with three speakers whom I knew and three who were new to me. They were senior professionals. Since the topic was “advantage women” and there were 700 women in the audience, I knew it had to be managed really well for it to have true impact. As a part of the preparation, I first researched a set of questions that I would ask the members on the panel based on what I thought the audience may want to hear, then I researched the bios of the three new people and looked for their photographs (I needed a face to the name), after which I tried to connect questions to each individual who I thought may have the best set of experiences in answering the question. In my mind, I rehearsed the flow — the introductions, fun elements, serious elements, expressions on the faces of each panel member, how I would move from one panelist to the other seamlessly and how I would wrap up. I went through that a few times for a few days until I felt well prepared and “felt” a sense of satisfaction at the end of the session.

This, I think is a great example of creating a neural network — where I could rehearse the process, feel the emotions in my body and help make a seemingly challenging task successful with great ease. From my experience of coaching hundreds of executives successfully, there are some common traits of those who do project executive presence: They radiate confidence, poise and authority; they know how to connect with others; and, most importantly, they build on their own strengths and are genuine. I think “building a neural network” as a strategy will be very effective for leaders who struggle with building executive presence.

Kalpana Sinha is director, people and organisation capability, Microsoft India (R&D)

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First Published: Mon, January 03 2011. 00:20 IST