Research on how the human brain can affect behaviors--called neuroscience, or the popular term, brain science--has yet to be fully appreciated by leaders of organizations. That knowledge could have a significant impact on how leaders are trained and what they do. In the past few decades, scientists have gained new and more accurate scientific views of human behavior, studying the human brain. Organizational change that takes into account the physiological nature of the brain and ways that predisposes people to resist or cooperate with leaders can be extremely useful for leaders.

Some valuable insights come from John Medina, a molecular biologist, published in the Harvard Business Review in May 2008. Medina is an author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles For Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School. Medina says "the brain is so sensitive to external experiences that you can literally rewire it through exposure to environmental influences." For example, we know that stress hurts the brain and that has a huge impact on productivity. Medina says that enduring continuing stress is like trying to fly an airplane under water.

Some people have brains that are wired in a way that can overcome huge amounts of stress, but we're not able to predict this. Slowly, brain science is beginning to inform us about the genetic components of why some people are more resilient than others. For example, a gene called 5-HTT helps regulate our moods. People with a mutation of this gene are more likely to become depressed under stress.We're also learning a lot about how our brain remembers. Medina says there is no such thing as a perfect memory because the brain's prime purpose is survival. So it will change the perception of reality to survive. The brain is not a perfect recording device. This finding supports Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), which proposes that no one really knows what reality is, but only his or her perception of reality.

Brain research shows that long-term memory doesn't happen instantly, but occurs over a long time. So to develop long-term memory you have to be consistently re-exposed to certain information, a process called, "elaborative retrieval." Advertisers understand this concept, which is reflected in message repetition. Brain research has also pointed us to the knowledge that our brains are very elastic and capable of change regardless of age. The physical changes neurons undergo when learning something happens to anyone’s brain at any age. The brain remains plastic until we die, which means we can remain lifelong learners.

Business school professors at the Arizona State Univesity and Emory University are working with neuroscientists to study the brains of executives. At Emory, researchers asked a group of executives to respond to PowerPoint slides presenting moral dilemmas associated with early memories, to establish whether brain patterns that determine moral thinking are formed early in life. The results so far show that moral thinking is formed early in life which brings into question whether it could be taught later in life. The Leadership Neuroscience Project, headed by Arizona State University professors Pierre Balthazar and David Waltham initiated a study of a group of business leaders while they discussed various scenarios such as layoffs, to determine if there were any distinctive brain wave patterns.

"Neuroleadership,” is a term coined by David Rock, a leadership consultant and author of Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Leadership At Work. Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, a research scientist at UCLA, are applying neuroscience concepts to leadership. For example, by emphasizing mindful, focused attention on new management practices, rather than fixing old habits that don't work, leaders can actually rewire their brains. McKinsey and Company is now incorporating their ideas into client workshops. An article by Rock and Schwartz published in Strategy and Business Journal, was the publication’s most downloaded article in 2006.

Improvements in brain analysis technology has allowed researchers to track the energy of a thought coursing through the brain in the same way they can track blood flowing through the circulatory system. Change lights up the prefrontalal cortex, which is fast and agile. Overloading the prefrontal cortex can generate fatigue, fear and anger, because of the cortex's connection to the emotion center of the brain, the amygdala.

Rock and Schwartz state that "the traditional command-and-control style of management doesn't lead to permanent changes in behavior. Ordering people to change and them telling them how to do it fires the prefrontal cortex’s hair trigger connection to the amygdala. The more you try to convince people that you’re right and they're wrong, the more they push back. The brain will try to defend itself from threats. Our brains are so complex that it is rare for us to be able to see any situation in exactly the same way as someone else. The way to get past the prefrontal cortex’s defenses is to help people come to their own resolution regarding the concepts causing through their prefrontal cortex to bristle."

Dr. Robert Cooper, of Stanford Business School writing in Strategy and Leadership Journal, points out that we actually have three brains--the one in our head, the one in our gut and the one in our heart, all of which have massive number of neurons. He claims that the highest reasoning involves all three brains working together.

Traditional change in management tactics in organizations are based more on animal training than on human psychology and neuroscience. Leaders promise bonuses and promotions (the carrot) for those who go along with the changes, and punish those (the stick) who don't with less important jobs or even job loss. This kind of managerial behavior flies in the face of evidence that shows that people's primary motivation in the workplace is neither money or advancement but rather a personal interest in their jobs, a good environment to work in and fulfilling relationships with their boss and colleagues.

Charles Jacobs, author of Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn't Work and Other Supervisory Lessons From The Latest Brain Science, says the brain is wired to resist what is commonly termed constructive feedback, but is usually negative. When people encounter information that is in conflict with their self-image, their tendency is to change he information, rather than changing themselves. So when mangers give critical feedback to employees, the employees’ brain defense mechanism is activated because that information conflicts with what the brain remembers and knows.
Jacobs' views are supported by management guru Aubrey C. Daniels, writing in his book, Oops! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time and Money. He cites a study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) which found that 90% of performance appraisals are both painful and don't work and further, produce an extremely low percentage of top performers. Modern brain research questions the validly of psychological testing, such as the Myers-Briggs test, used for employment decisions. These tests were developed long before we knew very much about how the brain processes anything.

So if critical feedback or so called constructive criticism is not effective, what is? Jacobs recommends that leaders engage in a Socratic dialogue with employees, asking questions so that the employees set their own goals and self-evaluate. Leaders have to understand that learning in our brains is not the same for all people. When new ideas and concepts are embraced by people, the brain changes physically. So changing the way we think can alter the brain's physical characteristics.

Brain science also tells us that people make decisions based on emotions, not logic. When someone experiences something that gets attached to an emotion, it leaves a strong record in the brain. When that person encounters a similar set of circumstances, it brings up the memory along with the associating emotions, which could be positive or negative. It is the emotional memory that will affect the decisions, not logic. We use our analytical thinking processes to validate the emotional decision we have already made. That's why people can ignore evidence to the contrary to their emotional decision.

Brain science has huge implications for the way we manage organizations, and equally significant implications for HR practices. Compensation, benefits, rewards and other current methods of employee motivation are much the same as they were three generations ago, ignoring all the research evidence from psychology and brain science. So too is the evidence about how psychological states and their brain characteristics---for example, happiness--have a direct impact on employee engagement, creativity and productivity.

In my April 26, 2009 article in Psychology Today, I said, " Leaders can change their own behavior or influence that of other people by focusing on creating new behaviors rather than trying to fix old ones. In a world with so many distractions, one of the biggest challenges is being able to focus enough attention on any one idea. Leaders can make a difference by eliciting attention on only the most important things and focusing their feedback to employees on things that work well. Focusing on solutions and not problems, and allowing employees to generate solutions and developing new positive behaviors become a critical management strategy to increase success."

With the demands of a new economy the old leadership practices just won't work. It's time we learned from brain science.

Author's Bio: 

Ray B. Williams is Co-Founder of Success IQ University and President of Ray Williams Associates, companies located in Phoenix and Vancouver, providing leadership training, personal growth and executive coaching services.