3 Ways Neuroscience Can Help You Become a Better Leader

Authored by

NLI Staff
Understanding neuroscience can help leaders be more effective at the individual, team, and organizational levels.

Key Points:

  • Neuroscience helps explain core functions of the brain that are common to us all.
  • These processes include how the brain perceives social threat, encodes new information, and generates insights.
  • Understanding neuroscience can help leaders be more effective at the individual, team, and organizational levels.

As a leader, wouldn’t it be great if every employee’s brain came with an instruction manual — a detailed guide specifying how they think, what motivates them, how to communicate seamlessly, and the best way to change their behavior? 

In reality, the complexities of the human brain — molded by genetic, biological, and environmental influences — are so vast that we can never hope to fully understand another’s mind, not even those we know best. However, neuroscience can help explain core functions of the brain, such as how it perceives threats and rewards, encodes new information, and generates insights. 

Leaders who understand these common processes can become more effective at individual, team, and organizational levels. At the individual level, neuroscience can help deepen interpersonal skills to make leaders more effective at understanding and motivating employees moment-to-moment. At the team level, neuroscience helps create a common language for teams to communicate better. And at the organizational level, neuroscience can help leaders design powerful new strategies for learning and change. Let’s examine each one.

Individual level: What are they thinking?

A knowledge of neuroscience can help you communicate more effectively, resolve conflicts, and create conditions for employees to have insights. And although you’ll never know exactly what an individual employee’s thinking, neuroscience provides insights into thought processes and motivations that can help you become a more effective leader.

The organizing principle of the human brain is to minimize threat while maximizing reward. To keep us alive, the brain evolved powerful mechanisms to quickly detect and avoid physical threats. It also seeks out rewards, but as a matter of survival, the brain reacts more strongly to threats than rewards.

Most modern workplaces are relatively devoid of physical threats; what triggers us are social threats. That’s why even the thought of feedback conversations or performance reviews is stress-provoking for many employees. Even if they know they’re doing a great job, feelings of threat and avoidance are probably stronger than hopes of reward. 

Understanding this, imagine starting a feedback conversation by saying, “I really value your opinion. Before we start talking about your work, is there anything I could be doing better as a leader?” You’d be sending status and relatedness rewards instead of threats — making the entire conversation more productive for both parties.

An unexpected “Got a minute?” text from a leader can send an employee’s thoughts spiraling into anxiety and doom: “Did I do something wrong?” “Am I getting laid off?” As a leader, think about how your interactions with employees could be threatening and be intentional with offsetting rewards. For example, you could increase an employee’s certainty by adding a sentence of explanation to that ambiguous text: “I’d like your opinion on next quarter’s budget.”

Team level: One language to lead them all

Teams can struggle with collaboration if they don’t have a way to quickly communicate their individual ideas, needs, and threats. A common language — a shared set of terminology that helps people communicate more effectively in the workplace — helps teams collaborate better and adapt faster in real time.

A common language can serve many purposes, for instance, helping employees communicate threats and rewards, recognizing and mitigating biases, or evaluating the quality of new ideas or insights. 

Let’s say your team is trying to decide between two candidates for an open position. You’re leaning toward the candidate who has less experience but seems like a better “personality fit” for the team. When someone points out that the team might be operating with a similarity bias (preferring someone like you over someone different), you decide to set their personality aside and focus on qualifications. 

For a common language to be effective, it must be sticky, meaningful, and coherent. “Sticky” means short and easy to recall, so the brain doesn’t have to struggle to remember it. If your common language is too long and complex for employees to remember, they can’t use it in their day-to-day work. In contrast, short phrases or acronyms trigger people to automatically think and behave in terms of the team’s goals (a process called nonconscious priming) without draining their limited cognitive capacity

Employees also need to perceive the principles underlying a common language as meaningful, or important enough to act upon, and coherent — it must fit in with and complement an employee’s existing knowledge, as well as the company’s principles and actions. 

Organizational level: Changing how companies learn

Upskilling, whether in technical know-how or soft skills such as empathy and bias mitigation, is critical for the growth and innovation of any organization. But changing employee behavior — especially on a company-wide scale — is difficult. Many organizations have a string of failed change initiatives that seemed successful at their conclusion, but weeks later, employees have already fallen back into old habits. 

The reason most change initiatives fail is they don’t consider how the brain works. People learn best when the hippocampus — a part of the brain responsible for embedding new information into long-term memory — is strongly activated. This only happens under certain conditions

First, the material must be compelling enough that it engages the learner’s full attention, and it must connect new information to the learner’s existing thoughts, experiences, and knowledge. In addition, the learning should trigger emotion and be spaced over time, both of which enhance the encoding of memories. And finally, social interaction makes the brain encode information more deeply, recall it more easily, and act upon it more often.

Learning programs that include these elements are more likely to spark insights — those “aha” moments when connections suddenly become apparent, leading to breakthroughs in understanding. People not only remember strong insights for a long time, they also feel highly motivated to act upon them. Using these principles, NLI has created virtual learning experiences that are more effective at driving behavior change than in-person learning.

Human brains will never come with instruction manuals, but lessons from neuroscience can help leaders be more effective at the individual, team, and organizational levels. By tapping into motivations we all share, improving communication with a common language, and creating conditions for maximal learning, you’ll help employees bring their best brains to work.

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