Leadership Development & Neuroscience

Posted by Gail Daniels on Thu, Jul 26, 2012 @ 01:12 PM

Through advancements in technology, Neuroscientists are making incredible strides in figuring out how our brains actually work. Leadership development that incorporates these advances in neuroscience provides leaders with information about how to motivate and support their people.

Do you know how to support others in developing insight to solve their own problems and execute on their plans? Learning a bit about the brain's 'Prefrontal Cortex, is a great first step...


The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC): “The CEO of The Brain”

The prefrontal cortex contains the working memory; the part of the brain that does all the heavy lifting when you’re thinking through problems, making decisions, concentrating and organizing your thoughts. This is perhaps the most inefficient part of our brain because it has limited capacity and tires easily. Neuroscientists believe we can only hold 7 bits of information in our working memory at one time! The PFC loves to solve problems.

When new connections are made in the PFC, we often gain insight into our challenge and experience an “aha” or "eureka" moment. This is the moment when we’re first become clear about what we need to do to move forward. When the “aha” moment hits, the brain releases dopamine and other chemicals into the body. Dopamine energizes the body and acts like a motivator for developing and executing on plans. It’s the reward for doing all that heavy thinking!


Creating Moments of Insight

Studies by Mark Beeman, an eminent neuroscientist, point to the need to quiet the mind and reflect inward while being curious and calm in order to have insightful moments. In organizations, we tend to do the opposite of what the brain requires to solve problems. We ramp up the pressure by establishing timelines and call meetings to brainstorm in groups. This creates both heightened anxiety and a lot of noise.


Leaders can create the condition to support their people in developing their own moments of insight by using these 3 strategies:


1. Use ‘What’ and ‘How’ Questions  

How you ask questions matters!  Helping others to clearly define their problem is the first step to problem solving. Overall, the brain loves to solve problems and we inhibit this ability when we ask too many closed questions and too many ‘Why’ questions. Closed questions require very short answers and do little to engage the PFC.  Often these questions start with, "Have you", "Did you" or "Do you".  Questions that start with ‘why’ ask people to rationalize or justify their thoughts and behaviors. Why questions have their place but need to be used sparingly.  Used repeatedly, these questions can trigger the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.


2. Dig Deep

Look for opportunities to get the dopamine flowing by supporting others in developing insight into how to solve their own problems. This requires a leadership shift: Rather than providing solutions, actively listen to develop a shared understanding of the issue and use a supportive conversation approach to get others to define and solve their own challenges.


3. Reinforce the Moment of Insight

Watch for behavioral evidence of insight.  Often there is a physical shift in the person's posture and some kind of verbal exclamation when everything becomes clear.  Reinforce the moment of insight further by asking the other person to clearly outline the steps they will take to execute on their plan.  Check to ensure their plan has clearly identified timelines and meets the SMART goal requirements (Simple, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely)


When leaders support their people in creating the conditions for moments of insight, employee motivation skyrockets.  Understanding how our brains work challenges leaders to shift from solving other people's problems to supporting them in finding their own solutions.  


Get starting today by keeping track of the closed questions you ask over the course of the next few days.  You'll likely catch yourself asking questions that begin with "Have, Did or Do".  Make a list of the questions you typically ask down the left side of a page.  Next, rework each of these questions on the right hand side by starting each questions with "What" or "How".  


About Gail Daniels

Gail is accomplished at supporting organizations by providing the right set of planning tools and best practice processes to develop, map, document and follow through to execution of the Strategic Direction, Priorities and Actions. She is passionate about supporting and developing leaders to confidently lead people to inspired performance and results. Gail holds a MA Counselling Psychology and a Graduate Certificate in Executive Coaching from Royal Roads University. Gail is an avid learner who actively explores the relevance of neuroscience and emotional intelligence in leadership.

Tags: Leadership Skills, Leadership Development