Understanding the Neuroscience Behind Great Leadership

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The challenges of the past year have been a rollercoaster for business leaders, as organizations have had to navigate an environment of profound uncertainty and new, complex changes. More than ever, leaders today have leaned on their critical thinking skills. The unfamiliar terrain of today’s operating environment has literally caused people to rewire their brains. Understanding more about how the brain works can help leaders adapt their minds to the latest challenges and build better resilience for themselves and their organizations.

Two elements of neuroscience that have become top of mind for leaders today are emotional regulation (the ability to manage your emotions, especially in a high-pressure environment) and neuroplasticity (the ability to change, adapt, and remap your mind to meet changing circumstances and solve complex problems).

Let’s take a closer look at how these concepts of neuroscience can help drive everyday results for your organization.

Emotional Regulation: The New Must-Have Skill for Leaders

Nobody could have predicted this past year, however, a key factor that contributed to the resilience demonstrated by leaders was their ability to manage their emotions, think clearly, and make important decisions. Emotional regulation also facilitated their ability to support their teams and colleagues and remain connected despite the quick shift to work-from-home.

There are a few key concepts from the field of neuroscience that business leaders can use to understand how their brains work, and how to operate better while dealing with the mix of challenging emotions we experience.

What happens when leaders face new and challenging situations, especially under stress, such as the ones confronted in 2020?

  • Leaders who are feeling uncertainty might have difficulty processing what is going on and often fall back on “fight or flight” responses, causing them to be more aggressive or shut down.
  • Leaders who are feeling stress might make decisions reactively, instead of drawing on sound analysis and critical thinking.
  • Leaders who are feeling fear might react in a way that damages relationships or reduces the likelihood that others will share new ideas in the future.

All of these examples of poor decision-making can be tied back to neuroscience and the ways our brains work at the most fundamental level. When people feel fear, stress, or confusion, they might fail to regulate their emotions, leading to panic-driven decisions. That’s because emotional regulation is a higher-level function, like the “air traffic control” of our brains. When our emotions are regulated, we’re able to assess the situation, analyze new information, and make considered decisions.

Unfortunately, people are not always able to stay in that calm, collected, higher-level brain function. Emotional regulation is challenged every day by corporate fire drills the ever changing market condition.

Hitting the Panic Button: How Leaders Can Counteract Fight or Flight Decisions

When confronted with difficult situations, the amygdala (a more primal, “lower-level” function of our brains) sends out stress hormones – this is like a panic button for our brains, sounding the alarm, triggering our survival response.

If our brain is in “panic mode,” focused on immediate survival, we don’t make the best decisions. When leaders are in fight-or-flight mode, their decision-making is impaired. They have a harder time reacting calmly or dealing creatively with complex situations.

Understanding how our brains operate during our most challenging moments is a valuable tool to raise our awareness and try to hold ourselves back from engaging in counterproductive behaviors. As a colleague once said, “Slow me down when you see my amygdala getting stimulated!”

Neuroplasticity: Remapping the Mind of a Leader for New Discoveries and Challenges

Adaptable mindsets and being able to learn, grow, and evolve to meet new challenges is a must-have characteristic for leaders today. That’s where the concept of “neuroplasticity” comes in. Neuroplasticity is the property of the brain that supports our ability to change throughout our lives. It underpins learning, memory, and changing behaviors.

Brain research suggests that people can proactively “rewire” their brains – and we do that by learning and practicing new behaviors.. “Self-directed neuroplasticity”, a term coined by Amy Brann, author of Make Your Brain Work, is a way of taking intentional action to develop ourselves and remap our minds to meet our biggest challenges.

Better Leadership Through Neuroscience Awareness

Here are three specific suggestions from the field of neuroscience to help business leaders emotionally regulate, perform better under pressure, and keep learning and developing throughout your lives:

  • Recognize when you’re getting stressed or over-stimulated. If you find yourself making impulsive or reactive decisions under stress, recognize that your brain’s “panic alarm” is going off, and you might not be able to make the best decisions. Identify one or two trusted colleagues and give them permission to intervene in those moments and push back on you when necessary, to slow down your reaction. Over time, your self-awareness and emotional regulation will improve and you will be able to get back to a place of normalcy.
  • Get better at observing and noticing. Along with direct feedback from colleagues or a coach, look for immediate feedback from your environment. When trying a new behavior, pay close attention to how the people around you respond with verbal and physical cues. For example, if you are practicing talking less so others can share their ideas, observe how your team members respond when you ask them questions rather than making statements.
  • Use positive reinforcement to rewire your brain. Positive reinforcement accelerates our learning and sustains our behavioral change. It is our tool for “self-directed neuroplasticity.” Create momentum for your desired change by asking team members or colleagues to give you feedback when they see you practicing these new skills. With each piece of positive feedback, your brain will be rewiring your mental map. Another technique that is helpful is journaling. The mere act of writing down (not typing) your observations and reflections, positively reinforces the changes you are making, further accelerating your capacity for change.

Deep transformational change occurs at the emotional level, not the rational level. Understanding and tapping into the emotions that we are experiencing helps leaders be more effective. If you want to learn a new skill or develop a specific behavioral change as a leader, you can take proactive steps to rewire your brain (neuroplasticity), while also understanding how your brain might struggle to react to challenging situations. Harnessing these high-level concepts from neuroscience can help leaders assess the landscape, make better decisions, and build resilience in their minds an