What does brain plasticity have to do with leadership?

9 Aug

Guest post today by Dr Stewart Hase 

There are three related issues that I’d like to briefly mention here on the way to providing some hard science that people who want to be leaders could find useful, if not compelling.The first is that the ‘great’ debate about whether leaders are born or made is a non-event. The issue is more about what people do that make them leaders and whether they have the capacity to perform the behaviours. It is clear that some people can’t be good leaders and others can. The second issue is closely related to the first and that is that people in leadership roles do not pay much attention to the social, anthropological and psychological evidence about what great leaders do and how to get the most out of people and, ergo, organisations. Leadership is treated a bit like counselling and teaching (other than in schools), that it that anyone can do it, without any formal training, if they have the inclination. It is fascinating that we still promote people to leadership roles on the basis that they have demonstrated high levels of competence in their profession (being an engineer, academic, town planner). Lastly, for this little article at least, the leadership literature is, at best, fluffy and has probably not had much impact, other than the occasional halo effect, on what most people in leadership roles do at the coalface.With these three issues in mind it is interesting to actually look at the science behind what people need to do in order to become good leaders. The evidence is pretty well overwhelming concerning the conditions in which people perform best at work. The tragedy is that the evidence is not accessed, oversimplified or incorrectly interpreted. I know of many organisations that have been sold psychological ‘pups’ by consultants or whose CEOs have read a trendy book on leadership at the airport that sounds good but has not evidential base. These ‘pups’ come in the form of untested theories and models that are anecdotal at best. They might consist of colourful and sexy personality testing instruments that have no reliability or validity whatsoever and are simplistic in the extreme. Medical practitioners, psychologists, dentists, nurses, physiotherapists, engineers are required to use evidence based practice. Why not people in leadership roles?We know from many social psychological experiments that people work best in an environment where they have control over their immediate work, are informed, make a contribution to decision making, feel that what they do is worthwhile, feel that they have a positive future, feel a valued member of the team, are acknowledged for what they do, are appropriately rewarded, have interesting work, and enjoy optimal variety in their work,

We also know, again from social psychological research, what it is that good leaders do to have influence and to get the best out of people. They have empathy, listen attentively, have good interpersonal skills, make people feel valued by involving them, are optimistic and positive, involve people in decision making that affects them, and don’t micro-manage (they believe that expertise outranks rank). Good leaders consciously create the type of environment or culture described in the paragraph above.

In recent years technology has made it possible to view in living brains how experiences change our brain structure, how new neural networks grow and how relationships between the various are affected. In general it can be said that positive experiences have a growth and positive effect on our nervous system and negative experiences have the opposite.

This research has now given us some explanations of why the social factors described above seem to be important in what has come to be called employee engagement. People perform best in a situation of what I call Goldilocks Stress: it has to be just right. That is, not too much and not too little. This means the environment has to be safe and you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to see that the factors described above from social research lead to a sense of safety. People are more likely to learn and adapt when they feel safe and is a central theme in the research on brain plasticity.

Research into brain plasticity also tells us that people learn and function better in enriching and challenging environments. This would explain why people tell us that they enjoy work when they feel that they are involved, have a valued role to play, work in functional team settings, have a role in decision-making and have control over what they do. Positive parenting has been shown to have very powerful cognitive and emotional advantages to children thus exposed. There is no reason to suspect that the same thing is not true for adults whose brain, we now know, develops throughout the lifespan.

Finally, we can see the role that positive interpersonal relationships are such an important aspect of leadership. Specifically, it is easy to see why people report that they most admire and are engaged with leaders who have empathy, listen and demonstrate good interpersonal skills. In short, it has a positive effect on their nervous system. Bullying behaviour, for example, has the opposite effect: it creates stress, reduces enrichment and diminishes cognitive ability.

At least there is a significant physical science to reinforce the already considerable social psychological evidence that what managers/leaders do really does matter. As does what they do not do.

Dr Stewart Hase

Guest author Dr Stewart Hase is a registered psychologist and has a doctorate in organisational behaviour as well as a BA, Diploma of Psychology, and a Master of Arts (Hons) in psychology.

Stewart blogs at stewarthase.blogspot.com


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