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5 Behaviours Successful Brain-Aware Leaders Practice


The following is a guest piece by Amy Brann.

Most leaders we work with are passionate, committed, intelligent and dedicated. They want to make their organization the best it can possibly be. They want to support their employees and enable them to do their best work. They also want to reduce their stress levels and have a good life.

Every leader, and every person you work with, has a brain. Over the last 20 years fascinating insights have come from the field of neuroscience to help us better understand this organ that drives so much of our behaviour. Neuroscience isn’t the only piece of the puzzle, but it lends a wonderful lens through which we can see even more clearly.

1. Illuminate Contribution
We’re starting with the concept that, as a leader, you have to build everything else around. Neuroscience tells us that our connection to contribution activates our neural reward networks (which is a great thing). So as leaders one of our most important challenges is to illuminate contribution.

If the organization is set up well then this shouldn’t be too hard, it just requires an investment of attention and potentially some systems to be set up.

Remember the story of President Kennedy’s visit to the NASA space centre in 1962? He noticed a janitor carrying a broom and walked over to the man saying “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?” The janitor responded “I’m helping put a man on the moon, Mr President”.

The level of engaged brains you achieve is dramatically different if people are aware of the contribution they are making on a daily basis. So how can you do it? Hopefully you have already started. Every way you communicate internally and externally is a potential opportunity.

The one-one approach means that every time you meet with someone you have the opportunity to illuminate a contribution they’ve made. Did they get a report to you on time, meaning you could fulfill your deadline? Did someone work longer or harder on getting some data for you? Is someone still doing their job thoroughly?

Shine a light on what that means for you, for the rest of their team, for the organization as a whole and for the clients you serve.

Strategically there is a lot you can do to connect people to their contribution also. A great clothing organization I worked with was doing something wonderful. Accounts are usually not the most exciting department within a company. In this place though they had lots of rails of clothing in the room with them. On a daily basis they could see, feel and even smell the bigger picture of which they were contributing to.

2. Connect
We are wired for interpersonal attachments. It is a fundamental human motivation and is incredibly powerful. We work best as humans (as well as employees) when we have frequent interactions with people with whom we have an ongoing bond.

Belonging somewhere has multiple strong effects on emotional patterns and cognitive processes. A lack of attachment causes pain, increases our perception of stress, impairs cognitive functioning and can interfere with the immune response.

As a leader, you have the opportunity to be a role model in building real and valuable relationships. Consider being open, honest and transparent in your interactions with people. Rather than sharing just the bear minimum, share deeply.

3. Build Confidence
A good friend of mine (and amazing confidence Coach) called Jules Wyman says that confidence is about trusting yourself. How much you trust yourself on a certain matter or area will determine your confidence in that area.

We know from neuroscience that there seems to be a sweet spot where people are challenged and stretched, but still have the confidence to achieve the task in hand.

Open dialogues between leaders and their colleagues around how to continue to grow and develop can make even monotonous work engaging.

4. Give Control
Humans love having control over what they are doing. If they feel too micromanaged, or that they don’t have enough autonomy then it can have a negative effect on efficiency and effectiveness. It can also lead to disengagement.

This means that you have the opportunity to creatively find ways to give control to people at work. The control doesn’t have to always be around pure work tasks. Think about corporate social responsibility, social activities, or training.

Giving control to others is easier to do when you are more deeply connected to them. You can choose to delegate, mentor, coach, shadow or even give people projects to run with.

Neurally we know that changes occur when someone is actually doing a task rather than just thinking about it. This means that you can’t properly evaluate how well someone will do something without actually trialling it.

5. Celebrate
Here we are talking about a neural celebration – the activation of the reward networks within the brain. There are parallels with a classic celebration, for example having a party or an awards ceremony.

However, it also extends far deeper and offers many more opportunities and benefits. So why do we want people to activate their reward networks?

  • They experience an increase in cognitive resources
  • They are more creative
  • They can solve more problems, using insight (especially useful for complex problem solving)
  • They come up with more action-focused ideas
  • They have a boarder field of view

These benefits often help people to do what they do better and quicker. So how do we activate their reward networks? There are a huge number of ways, including novelty, praise, learning, food, connection, achievement and problem solving. There are innovative ways you can build a culture of celebration.

Many organizations celebrate achievements. The invitation is to celebrate anything you wish to condition to be repeated.

For example, perhaps a team has been working really hard, putting a lot of focused energy into a project, and for some reason the end result wasn’t what everyone was hoping for. Traditionally you wouldn’t celebrate. We’re saying do! You absolutely want to activate the reward networks and link that to the focused energy input so next time the team knows they were valued and are renewed to give again.

Bonus: Coaching
The bonus piece here is to step into the role of a Coach. As you will recognize, if you have your own excellent Coach, you get more out of yourself through the process of being coached.

Imagine if you could give at least a degree of that to everyone you worked with. Consider the opportunities for clarity of thought, creative thinking, ‘ah-ha’ moments, increased productivity and results.

Amy Brann is the director of Synaptic Potential, a consultancy offering neuroscience-based people management and leadership development services. She is also the author of “Engaged: The Neuroscience Behind Creating Productive People In Successful Organizations”, “Neuroscience for Coaches” and “Make Your Brain Work” from which some of the insights shared in this piece are based upon.

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