5 things we've learned from neuroscience about leadership

Day after day, neuroscientists make amazing new discoveries about our brains that can help us learn more about the way we function and how to become happier, more efficient and more productive.

At LeadershipHQ we know how important it is to understand the way our brains function in order to get better results, to maximise business performance and to become inspirational leaders.

These 5 discoveries have changed our understanding of leadership and influence the way great leaders behave.

Is it worth the risk?

According to Brian Knutson and Charlene C. Wu at Stanford, it is possible to explain why people risk even when the risk is not worth taking.

Their research suggests there are two brain regions particularly associated with the making of financial decisions – the nucleus accumbens and the anterior insula. The former is particularly active when someone expects to win, and the bigger the sum, the more activity is recorded. The latter is linked to disgust and anxiety and tries to “warn” you that the risk is not worth taking.

However, according to their findings, the willingness of people to take risks increases proportionally to their excitement. Hence the success of the National Lottery; people become really excited about winning a lot of money, which helps them forget that their chances are close to zero.

Make sure they remember

As a leader who wants to convey a certain message, you can use this neuroscience finding to make sure your audience will understand and remember what you say.

Scientists have found that what people hear, read and see is recorded in different parts of their brains. So, if you are making a presentation, make sure you include not only text, but also images – this will not double, but triple the chance of people remembering what you said, because they will hear it, and read it, and see it.

Why? Well, when a message is first received, it enters the immediate memory, and it will sit there for just a few seconds unless you give it something to link to. When you present a message in the three different ways, it is all brought together into working memory, somewhere in the prefrontal lobe of the brain. Now the message is going to last long enough for you to build on it.

Keep calm and…

Research has shown us that the human brain uses words to interpret events. Think about situations that make you angry or scare you. You probably think of them as nasty, disgusting, terrible, dreadful… Next time you are in such a situation, try to label your emotions with bland or even positive words – curious, exciting, and indifferent. What you are actually doing is calming your amygdala, which is where the fight or flight response is triggered. If you can stop it from triggering a flight response, you have much more chance of remaining calm, and remember – a calm leader leads a calm team.

Optimistic leaders are better leaders

It’s human nature that we want to be with people who make us feel good rather than those who suck us into negativity. Team members experience a leaders emotions through their mirror neurons, which are the tools in our brain that wire us for sympathy and empathy. Emotions are contagious and as leaders, we want to spread only the constructive emotions to our teams.

Optimism is attractive and in a leader, it’s an essential quality because it’s contagious. An optimistic leader creates optimistic teams who are then able to work collaboratively and creatively together.

Built-in GPS?

A few months ago, Professor John O’Keefe shared the Noble Prize for physiology or medicine with Edvard and May-Britt Moser.

Back in 1971, O’Keefe discovered that the brain has something like a “built-in GPS”. His experiment with rats showed that when the rat is in a particular area of the room, there was activity in certain cells of its bran, while another area of the room activated other cells.

More than 30 years later, the Mosers found a part of the brain that basically serves as a nautical chart. This discovery may give some answers as to why people with Alzheimer cannot recognise their surroundings, but it has also opened the door for more discoveries about the way we think and plan.

Sonia McDonald is the founder and CEO of Leadership HQ. She has had over 20 years experience in human resources, management and organisational development, and combines her background in neuroscience with her passion for inspired leadership and organisational excellence.

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