The Impact of Neuroscience on Leadership

Laurie Cozart, Founder and CEO of Brain Squared Solutions Inc. - an organisation dedicated to using neuroscience to unlock extraordinary leadership, dissects leadership development, building self-efficacy and the value of delegation.

The Ripple Effect of Leadership

As an organisation, two of our driving core values are love and service. So, when we thought about our mission and vision, we looked at the leadership needs we’ve seen—and continue to see—in the world.

I have taught leadership development courses for over a decade. Most of the cohorts were made up of people who worked for the same organisation as managers. In those cohorts, I met hundreds of people who had been promoted into leadership roles based on their technical or clinical expertise—regardless of their ability to lead people. I saw people who were often politically driven, dismissive and uncollaborative. Many approached their roles without a purpose or direction other than to advance themselves, apparently mindless of their presence and impact on their peers.

I was amazed to learn how many managers consider getting to know their people a small, dispensable thing. One leader asked me for coaching on how to create trust in her team. She had been with the team for 11 months, so I first asked: “How did you onboard yourself with your team?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did you introduce yourself to each person one-on-one? To the group, in a meeting? Or did you do both?”

She said: “I didn’t do either. There’s a back entrance to the office. In eleven months, I’ve never walked out into the floor and met anybody.”

Can you guess why there is no trust in her team?

The unfortunate situation I’ve observed over the past 40 years in leadership and leadership development is that people often don’t really care about the people they’re working with―they care about themselves. Part of that self-focus is organisation driven. Since 2008, we’ve all had to do more with less, so we simply have too much on our plates to notice individuals or give any sort of feedback unless someone does something wrong. There is little recognition for the bulk of things done right.

These “small things” are the most important. Are you paying attention? Do you care about other people and the major events in their lives? Do you know each team member well enough to notice when something might be troubling them? In other words, what is your level of emotional-social intelligence—your ESI?

Employees are nothing if not observant. Everyone else down the chain sees the dysfunction, and they mirror what they see. Negativity becomes a toxin that spreads throughout the organisation. The impact doesn’t stop with the organisation—it ripples out to the worker’s family and community. This ripple effect of leadership is the biggest reason I am so passionate about leader and manager development.

Building Self-Efficacy

If leaders want to get the best performance out of their teams, they first need to create a sense of psychological safety within people, a sense of competence and confidence around their responsibilities. That calls for situational leadership rather than the one-size-fits-all approach managers typically use. Many believe that if a person has been with the organisation a long time, they automatically know how to function in a new role or take on a new task. That isn’t so. Situational leaders adapt their approach to the individual’s existing levels of both competence and confidence in a deliberate process we call building self-efficacy.

For example, if the person is new to a task, the leader needs to instruct, guide, offer advice—tell them what to do. If the person is somewhat familiar with the task, yet hesitant, the leader shifts to a more coach-like approach, asking many questions to identify gaps, and then giving instruction based on those gaps.

Once the person is familiar with the task, they might hit a barrier. That barrier is typically uncertainty about how to balance safety and risk. People in organisations constantly weigh the practical and social rewards against the possible downsides. Will I get myself into trouble? What if I make a mistake? Will I look stupid? What will the consequences be and how visible will those consequences be? In this situation, the leader needs to function as a thought partner, helping the person think options through until they arrive at a reasoned confidence level.

Learning the delegation process

The place most leaders stumble is with delegation. In fact, I was 15 years into my career when I actually learned the value of delegation, what it meant, and the freedom effective delegating gave me. I asked myself why I had taken so long to acquire that skill. The answer for me, and most leaders, is that we’re not taught how to delegate. Too often, leaders believe delegating means simply handing off the task with a deadline, when actually, it’s a process with distinct steps.

In delegation, the expectations and parameters need to be clear.  A confused mind will say “no”. Often delegation fails for both parties because of a lack of clarity.

Here is a simple formula to guide leaders through successful delegation with their team.

  1. Define the goal and the outcome. What will success look like?
  2. What actions or resources are required?
  3. When is the project due? What are the required milestones?
  4. When and how will the leader follow up throughout the process? The leader needs to schedule check-in points to determine whether progress is on track or support is needed.
  5. How will this project impact workload? Determine the impact on the person’s workload and help them reprioritise if necessary.
  6. What obstacles or challenges may come up? Identify any obstacles or challenges and determine how to mitigate them.
  7. What authority does the person have? People need to be given the necessary authority to accomplish the task. They must know what decisions they can make without getting permission.
  8. What are the benefits or consequences of the project for the person?

When the leader meets the person where they are at each stage of the process, they build not only competence but also a sense of psychological safety, the confidence to take necessary risks in order to accomplish the task. Leadership is about building other leaders. Leaders need to help build self-efficacy in the people they lead.

Most of the time, leaders aren’t leading; they’re managing, with a focus on maintaining the status quo by carrying out tasks. Leading, on the other hand, is about developing people. The issue for most leaders is that development takes time, and the results are not immediately visible, so they avoid the time-consuming conversations and check-ins until something goes wrong. Employees tell me they rarely know how well they’re doing until their annual review and more disturbing is many haven’t received annual reviews for years.

Coaching by example

Leaders have an enormous opportunity to elevate employee performance by including coaching.

I teach leaders a conversational model with four basic elements that mirror effective leadership and keep the conversation focused. A coaching conversation is a partnership that helps team members build confidence and competence.

  • First, get to the point and clarify the purpose of the conversation. Why are we here? Be clear about the goal or situation you are coaching toward in relation to the needs of the individual and organisation
  • Next, we identify the goal of the conversation, where are we heading and what will success look like? Seek to identify what a good job, success, change in behaviour, or the result will look like. You will want to know where the person is trying to go. Identify this first before going to solutions.
  • Develop Solutions: Identify what is needed or required to move from point A to point B. Once you both have a clear picture of where the person is now (point A) and where they are heading (point B), only then is it time to problem solve. Help the person identify options for getting to the goal. Notice here, I didn’t say that this is the point to give people advice. You may have some. Just hold on to it until it’s needed or wanted. Once you both understand the gap between A and B you are ready to think together toward the desired outcome and create a path for getting there. Here is where you partner with the person to identify a way forward.
  • Create Accountability: Gain commitment and ownership. I often hear from leaders: “I wish people would just take accountability!” We, coach leaders, to hold themselves accountable for preparing people to be accountable. Review the actual steps the person can and will take to progress. In this way, the person being coached develops accountability, self-responsibility, and ownership. The goal is to gain agreement about what will happen next; and who will do what, by when.
  • Follow-Up and Check-In. At the check-in points, we want to see what’s working and what’s not working and create an opportunity for the person to course correct. We are not interested in digging into the problems to assign blame. We’re here to explore the person’s vision, thinking, priorities, and values, and develop solutions that align with that context. We articulate why the goal is important and what brings it to the forefront and help build the person’s confidence and competence.

Our main goal throughout the conversation is to keep the psychological ownership of the learning with the leader we’re working with. Instead of telling them what to do, we ask questions like “What are you committed to doing? What are your next steps? What kind of accountability will you create for yourself? What support do you need from me as your coach? What obstacles might you come across? How will you prioritise your work?”

How does neuroscience fit into your model?

Neuroscience is the study of the biology behind thoughts, perceptions, emotions, motivations, decisions, and actions. A general understanding of people’s neuroscience gives a leader the basis for emotional and social intelligence—and for creating the psychological safety individuals need to perform at their highest level. Leaders understand their own motivations, and they have greater empathy for others. Most importantly, they don’t just wait for trust to happen; they take active steps to build rapport and trust.

When leaders reflect upon and understand how their presence, words and interactions impact the performance of others they can make the necessary adjustments to show up and interact differently. Part of the leadership/coaching journey is developing self: As people develop self-awareness they become more aware of what they say and do and how they engage with others (self-management) As they begin to engage differently with others they gain an understanding and awareness of the culture, values and beliefs that exist within the organisation and the diverse relationships operating concurrently in teams (relationship awareness) As their awareness grows they also become more aware of how the system operates, how teams need to cooperate with each other and how units, divisions, staff, customers and stakeholders need to interact with each other. (relationship management).

Reflecting upon who we are as leaders and making a conscious effort to create psychological safety in our teams benefits the people in organisations in many ways.

When people feel safe, they have access to:

  • More cognitive resources
  • More insights
  • More ideas for action
  • Wider field of view
  • Improved critical thinking
  • More collaborative
  • Fewer perceptual errors
  • Less siloed behaviour

Investing time in developing people and creating relationships that build psychological safety is a worthwhile investment that will create a ripple of positive outcomes inside and outside your organisation.

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