[This post is a synopsis of a longer article, published in Strategic HR Review, Volume 15, Issue 4, and available for purchase and download online]
The challenges of today’s world make leadership approaches rooted in fixed, rigid positions not just counterproductive, but likely to lead to organisational failure: leadership must now be more adaptive and agile. Accordingly, leadership is shifting from a position characterised by the mythical ‘skilled hero’ to a more adaptive and collegial stance that recognises the value of followership.
This shift is a response to several contemporary challenges:
- a world of multiple delivery channels and saturated markets that is highly susceptible to disruption
- continuous technological evolution in work environments and tools
- shifting employee demographics and expectations of the psychological contract with employers
- social and political unrest, creating economic damage in the developed world and mass migration towards it
Job roles are shifting away from an algorithmic model that emphasises process and compliance to a heuristic paradigm, in which creative employees need to develop innovative solutions. Engaging with and getting the best out of these people requires leadership and management that focuses on understanding how to shape the work experience and environment.
Previously guided by process diagrams and organisation charts, leaders now need to draw greater insight from the findings of neuroscience. The scientific advances of the twenty-first century are beginning to enable us to identify specific areas of the brain and understand how their activation affects thinking and behaviour: this offers the promise that we can facilitate and empower behaviours and thinking that increase workplace performance.
How the brain works
Human instincts and emotions are seated in our limbic system, the earliest part of our brain to evolve and one that is triggered to dominance by perceived needs to protect our survival. But we have also uniquely developed a powerful cerebral cortex, giving us a unique capacity for rational thought. We may be genetically coded to reproduce, for example, but we can also choose not to have children.
If the limbic system is the emotional brain and the cortex the thinking brain, constant interplay between them provides cognitive and behavioural equilibrium. When the thinking brain is dominant, we are in growth mode, enriching our lives by learning and making plans for growth. But when potential threat triggers our emotional brain to take control, we enter survival mode, resulting in increased anxiety, fear and stress and triggering cortisol production. Yet this weakens our immune system: protracted periods in survival mode actually threaten our overall health.
The Inner Work Life
In their book, The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer identified ‘the inner work life’ – intrinsically motivating work that brings enjoyment and a sense of purpose in and of itself – as critical in getting the best performance from people. Achieving this, however, means engaging employees on an emotional level: they must feel and believe that their work is meaningful. Their feelings and beliefs, determined by their perceptions of their work and its environment, are performance’s true starting point.
To realise the potential benefits of these new understandings, managers and leaders must take two important steps:
- recognising employees’ neurological states and the triggers that influence them
- creating and managing work environments that reflect this understanding.
Employees’ neurological states
Our brains respond to social pleasure and pain (eg grief, loss, heartbreak, humiliation, sadness) just as powerfully as their physical counterparts: both activate the same region of our brains. But there are important differences. Social pain registers for longer, and can be retriggered years later simply by remembering the event that originally invoked it. We are able to recall the occurrence if not the physical pain of a broken limb, but we can recall the sensations of emotional loss many years later. Yet social pain’s potential impact isn’t often recognised in the workplace.
David Rock has researched this disparity, developed in his SCARF model, which explains our tendency to move towards rewards and away the social pain we associate with threats. He identifies five domains for these rewards and threats:
- Status – how we are valued, and our sense of our meaning and purpose
- Certainty – feeling safe about the future because we know what will happen and can respond accordingly, reducing our need for reassurance
- Autonomy – being in psychological as well as physical control of our work and work environment, stemming from a sense of trust
- Relatedness – our connections to groups and individuals in the workplace
- Fairness – a sense of justice and of being treated fairly in comparison to others
Managers and leaders need to be aware of these domains, engaging and interacting with employees ways that do not induce social pain.
Creating creative environments
In his classic work, Flow, Mihaly Cziksetmihaly argued that we need certain levels of two separate elements to achieve optimal performance: personal skill and presenting challenge. Being over-skilled makes us bored; too much challenge creates anxiety. Theresa Amabile’s study of professional critics’ assessments of a range of art (Creativity in Context) reinforced this finding. Half the presented work – assessed ‘blind’ – comprised pieces produced in the artists’ own time whose form and content had been self-determined. The rest comprised pieces produced to commission to set completion times. The critics rated the self-determined work’s quality significantly more highly.
From surviving to thriving
To inspire the best performance, leaders and managers must create the right emotional as well as physical environments, ensuring employees continuously develop through the challenging and stimulating work opportunities that ensure growth mode. To avoid triggering survival mode, they must also recognise the pressure they are applying and the anxiety, stress and fear this may produce.
Fig 1 The relationship between challenging work and pressure
Figure 1 illustrates the potential impact of different balances of these factors, indicated on two axes: ‘development challenge’ (how far work tasks offer stimulating opportunities) and ‘pressure’ forces outside the employee’s control that create stress or fear). It uses the possible combinations of these factors to offer a categorisation of employees in terms of their ‘inner state of work’ and its performance implications.
- Passengers experience low challenge in their work and low pressure. They will tend to become bored and lazy, and possibly disruptive to others: to make them more productive, provide more challenging, focused work.
- Slaves also experience low development challenge but face high pressure. As a consequence, they experience high anxiety and stress and, eventually, burnout: reduce the pressure and give opportunities to try new tasks and challenges.
- Heroes experience high challenge and high pressure. While their work is stimulating, without time to recuperate this position is unsustainable.
- Ideally, all employees should be Artists: to optimise both productivity and creativity, ensure a high level of development challenge and reduce the pressure.
As we move towards a more heuristic and creative style of working, we need to move our leadership and management focus from controlling employees to creating environments where they can grow and add value: our understanding of neurology and its effect on professional performance can only improve the way we manage our people.
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