What Does Neuroscience Have To Do With Leadership?
For years, leaders in business ruled their employees in a benevolent (or not-so-benevolent) dictatorship. Employees, seen as interchangeable, were often treated with indifference from their manager, and the response to mistakes was typically punitive, even shaming, and full of blame.
Employees endured these conditions because, in an economy where there were more people than jobs, they were grateful just to have a paycheck.
That management model was never a template for effective leadership, but it has persisted for decades—even centuries. It only “works” when employees see few other options, and that is about to change. As a result of a growing economy and declining birth rates, America is now near full employment. There are more than 6 million unfilled jobs in the United States as I write this, the highest number since 2000. After years of the media lamenting unemployment, the biggest threat to America’s continued prosperity is labor scarcity.
A shortage of skilled labor in many industries (e.g., construction, agriculture, high-tech) is about to transform the American workplace. One key group—Millennials seeking intellectual challenge, social engagement, and the desire to find meaning and purpose in their careers—isn’t responding well to hierarchical managers and threats of punishment. And with more employment choices than ever, all generations will walk out the door in search of more gratifying work.
Empirically Guided Workplace Culture
The human resources literature is replete with guidance about how to create an appealing workplace culture that encourages teamwork and accountability. Much of it is cognitive and tactical—it is based primarily on making employees more satisfied and offers responses that address symptoms without understanding why people act the way they do.
Consequently, a recent Gallup poll of businesses found that 70% of U.S. workers do not feel engaged in their work. Those figures are not very different than they were a decade ago, a testament to the ineffectiveness of standard, traditional approaches to increasing employee engagement. What all these approaches are missing is the human brain.
Recent advances in neuroscience are cluing us in on why and how humans respond to certain kinds of environments and stimuli and how that impacts daily behavior. It’s telling us that the hardwiring in our brain doesn’t fundamentally need more money or fun company perks. To become engaged we need reliable social resources (people we can count on), to be seen and valued, and to feel like we are a part of something important that’s bigger than ourselves (an enormous wellspring for pride). The challenge for business leaders is to take this new relational science and integrate it into company cultures, leadership paradigms, and the daily practices of management.
The Opposite Of The Desired Result
Long ago, our brain’s limbic system established the fight-or-flight response to protect humans against danger. We rarely face mortal danger in our modern lives, but the hyper-vigilance of the limbic system still constantly identifies (and overreacts) to perceived threats at work and at home. Though seemingly mundane, a lack of clarity on a work assignment, the need to collaborate with an underperforming coworker, or the experience of reporting to a toxic or ungrateful boss can trigger a sense of threat and cause a reassignment of scarce mental resources (metabolic energy) in order to cope with the situation. These threats can result in a loss of focus, creativity and innovation, positivity, collaboration, morale, work quality, and productivity. Employees feel emotionally drained when limited mental energy is consumed by coping strategies, feelings of resignation, and even despair.
Imagine feeling that way day after day. That’s not a productive (or engaged) employee.
Understanding the latest findings in neuroscience empowers leaders to create a workplace that allows employees to thrive, thereby maximizing their commitment and connection to the company. Creating this environment requires a concerted, long-term effort. It requires that leaders recognize employees’ integral value to the company and commit to unlocking that value. Research shows that leaders who commit organizational resources to creating a work environment that feels safe are rewarded with more loyal and dedicated employees, fewer sick days, better customer service, and fewer errors and safety issues.
It starts with understanding the brain. Learn more about the science of leadership on my website.
Don Rheem is a former congressional science advisor, CEO, and author of Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures with ForbesBooks. Learn more at DonRheem.com.