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19 June 2018
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The neuroscience of leadership

by Dr Rebecca Broomfield

As a current Welsh Clinical Leadership Fellow based within Cardiff and Vale Health Board we were privileged to have the opportunity to attend a Leadership Course at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Five Welsh Clinical Leadership fellows hopped on a plane at the end of March and flew over to Boston in order to attend “Applied Neuroscience: Unleashing Brain Power for You and Your People”.

We flew in the day before the course and in true tourist fashion made the most of the first day getting over jet lag before the course began. None of us had been to Boston before, so we grabbed our lonely planet guides and re-embraced our travelling student identities to explore a fantastic city. 

The course was facilitated by Dr Tara Swart (@TaraSwart). She holds a BSc in Biomedical Science and PhD in Neuropharmacology from Kings college London. She read Medicine at Oxford University gaining a BM BcH qualification. She is an executive coach and is passionate about disseminating simple, pragmatic neuroscience-based messages that change the way people work. 

Even with the ongoing leadership training provided there has never been a room where, as a medic, Imposter Syndrome has a more appropriate setting. The course was not aimed at medics but was instead full of chief executives and people who have multi-million pound contracts in their back pockets. I feel that we would have benefited from a slightly more rigorous focus on the scientific evidence for some of the science taught on the course, however, this was not its aim and in fact may have alienated some of the audience who were present. The problems encountered and the neuroscience to increase behaviours and lead change are relevant to both the medical and the commercial setting. The insight which mixing with leaders from completely different worlds to our own has allowed us to gain was worth attending the course alone.

This course was clearly very different from the majority we had attended as Leadership Fellows. At the back of the room were juggling balls, skipping ropes and standing desks. There were refreshments available through the whole day (although, caffeine was removed at 14:00 - it reduces your sleep quality after this time) and at the start we were actively encouraged to access refreshment as needed and walk around the classroom freely. While the skipping only occurred in the breaks some people did take advantage of the juggling balls and juggled at points throughout the teaching. Physical activity, as we learnt on the course is the second biggest influence within wellbeing in the workplace. By standing up and engaging in a physical activity such as skipping or juggling we were actively engaging our brains and increasing our neuroplasticity, which is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Old neural connections are held onto, in order to create new pathways you need to rest, fuel, hydrate and oxygenate your brain. By exercising you increase the release of brain derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF) which helps with the formation of new pathways. 

Neuroplasticity is an important concern when thinking about the neuroscience of leadership. We do not unlearn habits or behaviour, this is not possible but we are able to overwrite these pathways. When we think about the application of this fact to inspire greater leadership ability this could be as simple as giving people an alternative option rather than simply managing an undesirable or ineffective behaviour by saying "don't do that". Therefore you offer a suggestion for a new pathway to be created. Making new neural connections for behaviour is tough, but it is the first time which requires the most effort. As you repeat the same pattern of behaviour you strengthen this pathway and therefore make it more automatic. There are 2 areas of the brain involved with learning new behaviours; the cortex - which is learning by instruction and the limbic system which is learning by experience. Knowledge/organisation of reality happens in the pre-frontal cortex but feeling and managing anxiety is under the control of the limbic system. A brain stem reflex is often change preventing within behaviour modification. Logic is not enough in order to modify behaviour and promote change you need to connect the 2 systems.

Communication is a key area where neuroscience can give us the edge over others. Using your limbic system to promote bonding and enhance the emotions above can give you an edge in leadership. Trust is the number 1 emotion but trust uses more resources than mistrust, and is therefore more difficult to gain and use.

Can you use neuroscience to create a better bond and increase trust?

Yes, and it's as simple as eye contact. When you next communicate face to face with somebody try actively looking with your right eye into their left eye. This will activate their right limbic system which has been shown to create a strong bond. A bond enables colleges to feel more valued and creates a better working culture and environment. As far as I know since my return from the course, nobody has thought I've been looking at them strangely or even been aware that I am trying out this technique. I feel that it has enabled me to shortcut some relationship building and create a quicker more valuable relationship. Even if it initially feels awkward for you it's worth a try! Face to face communication is always better, so make the effort to do this when possible. 

The role of stress

The right ventral lateral pre frontal cortex is active in stress and has a role in regulating emotions. This area responds to pain - notably physical pain causes the release of natural painkillers whereas psychological pain does not, it also contains cortisol receptors. Cortisol is a fight or flight response hormone. It has a natural morning spike and then maintains low levels throughout the day accept in crisis or when there is a threat to survival. Having too much cortisol can lead to physical manifestations from yourself or the team which you are leading. These include poor sleep, irritability and craving chocolate/caffeine. The physical symptoms can detract from your brain power and demand attention; too much cortisol can also decrease your immunity and increase your abdominal fat thus impacting your physical health. Emotion biases all decisions and stress/fear biases decisions to the emotional system through the cortisol pathways. Interestingly some studies have shown that cortisol levels can be transmitted to others in a similar way to pheromones. Therefore a leader who has high levels of cortisone has the potential to expose others to them as well as themselves. 

Stress is just one of the recognised threats to your brain power in work, others include uncertainty and uncontrollability. As a leader you do have the power to influence these for your team. Can you adapt your leadership in order to make your team feel more in control of the tasks which they are performing? You can definitely reduce uncertainty.

As a leader when a suggestion is made by a member of your team the automatic response is to say "No". In order to say yes it requires more mental energy, but improving your ability to this can increase the level of control which your team feel they have and promote the positive emotional drivers outlined above.

In order to explore this we were tasked in pairs of making a suggestion to overcome a problem to our partner. Initially they had to respond with "No" Then we had to re-ask the question and they had to a respond with "Yes, but .." thus entertaining the idea but outlining the potential barriers stopping this from happening. As the questioner we than had to once again make the same suggestion but our partner needed to respond with "Yes, and..." Using "Yes, and .." reduces the social isolation of your team and increases the attachment and bonding created. Social safety comes above physical activity and is the most important determinant of wellbeing within a workplace. Oxytocin, which is released when creating a good bond, shapes the neutral circuitry of trust adaption. Reward and attachment emotions regulate emotion and improve decision making. Thus by utilising this type of leadership within your team you can promote good decision making and reduce stress. There is a lot to gain. A 10% improvement in performance is equivalent to an extra 23 working days annually.

As a leader you need to also be aware of the culture which you are creating within your team. Culture and patterns of behaviour and beliefs frequently impact perception, cognition and actions. You have a responsibility as a leader to use your skills to create a culture where your team members thrive. Your actions as a leader speak louder than the words which you use. 

We were taught on the first day, that people are 15% more productive on the days that they do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise in the morning. While I'm not sure yoga counts as aerobic exercise, we took this on board and as a group of Clinical Fellows all attended the precourse early morning yoga session at the start of the second day. The view was spectacular. It was a calming start to the day and something which would be fairly easy to replicate in day-to-day life.

During the course we were also encouraged to focus on our own strengths and weaknesses and what we can do to improve our leadership while increasing our own resilience and mental toughness. If we can maintain our mental toughness and resilience as leaders then we promote a culture within our organisation that it is important to do the same.

"Nobody would get into a car without filling it up or maintaining it - Why do we not do this with ourselves?"

My largest area of weakness was sleep. The idea is to focus on small changes which have the potential to have a big impact on my reserves in order to maximise my potential. The course used a Neurozone questionnaire in order to gain insight into the areas we were strong in and those which we could improve.

During the course all food was provided and the menu was created to promote healthy eating and ensure that the nutrients provided promoted brain agility.

Brief summary of other useful tips to maximise your potential

  • Performance reduces throughout the day - a nap will rescue this performance but caffeine will not.
  • Eating healthily enables an increase in productivity.
  • Know what your strengths are and select your team to complete the other objectives - You do not need to be good at everything!
  • If you have worries or concerns then speak them out loud or write them down, it clears your mind.
  • Pick yourself up and start again. Don't waste time beating yourself up about past events.
  • Clear your mind - practice mindfulness. It increases productivity. 

Take home messages

  • Looking after the wellbeing of yourself and your team is worth it. (It's neuroscientifically proven!)
  • When you multitask you do things less well than if you focus on things alone (....yes, unfortunately even if you are a woman!)
  • What you do as a leader speaks much more loudly than what you say.
  • Social safety is vitally important - in order to change and drive forward you need to maximise the relationship you have with your team. (Use some of the tricks mentioned above to enhance this).
  • Loneliness and isolation is detrimental to your mental wellbeing and therefore your effectiveness as a leader. It is also bad for your team, so foster a sense of belonging.
  • Uncertainty is worse than a straight yes or no.
  • As a long term motivator people are more afraid of losing something they already have than gaining something else. (Example - if you lose a £50 note you remember this for longer than if you find one unexpectedly)

What am I doing differently since the course?

  • I am employing eye contact and positive feedback as motivators.
  • I've focused on sleep, I no longer have my screens in my bedroom and I try to eliminate blue light for an hour before bedtime.
  • I've stopped drinking caffeine after 2pm to again focus on an improved quality of sleep.
  • I've started taking magnesium ... the jury is still out on that!
  • I keep myself better hydrated.
  • I have continued to exercise frequently, although I do now attempt to do this earlier in the day when possible.
  • I have restarted trialling mindfulness - I find this difficult and is definitely my current 'to work on' point. It has significant benefits and is something I know works when I remember to do it!

Boston was fantastic, I would recommend it as a city break. The course was an amazing opportunity to understand some of the rationale behind current leadership techniques and put a neuroscience basis to their implementation. I have a lot of areas to work on to maximise my own leadership potential and am looking forward to trialling these out over the coming years.

When considering the impact that using evidence based neuroscience within your leadership can have then don’t try to change everything above at once! Have a look at what you could easily do, a small change you could make. Could you give your team more autonomy over making decisions without you? Can you improve your communications by simply changing where you look while having a conversation? Also consider how good are you at looking after yourself, maximising your own potential and therefore increasing your ability to bring out the best in the team which you are leading.

More information can be found In the book “Neuroscience for Leadership: Harnessing the brain gain advantage” By Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm and Paul Brown.


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