4 Key Insights From the 2023 NeuroLeadership Summit

2023 Keynote Speaker panelists (Dr. David Rock, Dean Carter, Michaela Simpson, Deb Bubb, and John Reid-Doddick) in discussion

Authored by

NLI Staff
Some of the world’s brightest science and business leaders convened to share solutions to major workplace challenges, including the RTO debate, DEI, AI disruption, and reskilling.

To decide how you want to change course, you first need to get a sense of where you are. At Recalibrate: The 2023 NeuroLeadership Summit last week, world-class science and business experts took stock of where we stand on major leadership challenges and shared the best ways to move forward. Here are highlights from the four keynote sessions.

1. Smart experimentation is the answer to the RTO debate.

Employers and employees are at odds on several critical issues today, with the return-to-office (RTO) debate at the forefront. Leaders shoulder the seemingly impossible task of reconciling the expectations of executives, managers, and workers. The good news is it’s doable with smart experimentation.

To understand the RTO impasse, it’s important to recognize that everyone has core social needs, summarized in NLI’s SCARF® Model (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness). Right now, all of them are being threatened. For example, 55% of workers struggle with self-worth and mental health, 42% don’t feel cared for by their employers, and only 27% have a healthy relationship with work.

These sobering statistics remind us there’s a well-being crisis in society. Empathy in leadership is more important than ever. In fact, sustainable high performance has empathy, trust, and psychological safety — the belief that you can be candid without fear of punishment — at its heart, said Matt Breitfelder, Global Head of Human Capital at Apollo Global Management.

Leaders need to treat companies like laboratories, testing various ways to make the hybrid model work and engaging in intelligent failures, which Harvard Business School professor Dr. Amy Edmondson defines as undesired results of novel forays into new territories. “We need to team up in psychologically safe environments to experiment thoughtfully, to recreate work, to recalibrate what it means to be excellent, connected, and creative in a fast-changing world,” Edmondson said.

2. A lasting DEI strategy is built on trust and accountability.

Political, social, and economic pressures have driven some businesses to waver on their DEI promises. That said, a good number of companies are holding firm: Sixty-nine percent are planning to invest more in DEI by 2030. The secret to their sustained focus? Trust and accountability.

Building trust starts with establishing a clear and consistent message. Companies must ask deep questions about who they are and who they want to be. This conversation needs to happen regularly and involve everyone in an organization because DEI can’t be the isolated effort of one person or department. The approach must be top-down, bottom-up, and middle-out, said Khalil Smith, Vice President of Inclusion, Diversity, and Engagement at Akamai Technologies. By embedding DEI in their entire operation, companies are less likely to overreact to the news cycle or other concerns.

Accountability will lock all of that work into place. Being open about outcomes and progress fosters transparency and a sense of responsibility over the commitments made, said Lindsay-Rae McIntyre, Chief Diversity Officer at Microsoft.

Above all else, companies need to stay the course. This is a testing moment, as the effects of the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action will sooner or later reach the private sector, said Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University. “DEI will and must change, but so long as we remain steadfast and are resolved, it will not be moved. It will be transformed,” he said.

3. AI is a tool for change, but mindset is the catalyst.

When NLI CEO and co-founder Dr. David Rock visited Shanghai for the first time, he rode the fastest train he had ever been on. As amazing as it was, he still needed to take a cab for two hours to get to the city center after disembarking. That’s what’s happening with AI: You can go super high speed but still hit an unexpected bottleneck — humans.

Recent surveys found 56% of workers are using AI, and 71% say it has changed roles and necessary skills at their companies. But adopters of this technology have yet to see substantial gains. That’s because humans are resistant to change and can view it as threatening, leading to distress, anxiety, and difficulty adapting. So, to get the most out of AI, we need to understand how to get people over that hurdle.

That’s what Stanford professor and surgeon Dr. Teodor Grantcharov observed in his work. He wanted to improve the safety of operating rooms and collected massive amounts of data with AI. His team identified factors that contribute to medical error, such as distractions and fatigue.

But translating that information into meaningful impact isn’t so easy because the key to change is not data but culture. Grantcharov found collaborative teams that prioritize psychological safety and a growth mindset, where you look at changes as opportunities, performed much better than those obsessed with high performance.

The lesson here is that AI is a tool for helping people do their jobs better. Dr. Bob Johansen of the Institute for the Future urged leaders to examine why their organizations want to incorporate AI and how it relates to their purpose and values. That clarity will help them figure out how they want themselves and their employees to be augmented by the technology.

4. Reskilling needs to take a human-centered approach.

The pandemic and rapid development of AI technology have spurred a skill crisis where once-prized competencies are quickly becoming obsolete. The World Economic Forum estimates that 50% of all employees will need reskilling by 2025. But the pace of learning isn’t keeping up with the rate of change. To stay competitive, businesses need to design learning with humans in mind.

Ironically, to learn fast, you need to go slow. Humans can only process a limited amount of information at a time, which is known as cognitive capacity. The load our brains must bear will only increase as volumes of information continue to grow exponentially. Effective learning requires space and time to digest, so people must learn to slow down, said John Reid-Dodick, Chief People Officer at AlphaSense.

And people learn better through social interactions, which help them encode information more deeply, recall it more easily, and act on it more often. A social environment is also more conducive to insight generation.

It’s also important to ignite employees’ intrinsic motivation for self-improvement. Mandating training threatens people’s sense of certainty and autonomy. Instead, assign someone to take a course but give them a choice to decide when and how to do it.

Ultimately, putting the focus back on humans empowers leaders to make an impact that extends beyond their organizations. “We have within us the creative capacity to invent organizations that are flourishing and creating massive ability, agility, and mobility for people. When we really take on that intention and believe in the creative capacity of humans, we can change the world,” said Deb Bubb, Executive Human Resources Leader at NLI.

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