Rewiring leadership (Executive Series)

Understanding how the brain works can seriously boost employee performance

Editor's note: Once a month, the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) hosts a special seminar on a topic of interest to HR professionals and business leaders. Canadian HR Reporter covers these events for a special feature titled "Executive Series." The feature includes news coverage from one of our editors, plus commentary from SCNetwork's panel of thought leaders on strategic capability, leadership in action and organization effectiveness.

This web post contains all of these elements: 

Canadian HR Reporter's news coverage
Neuroscience needs to tell people what to do, by Michael Clark
Achieving the right balance in our heads, by Morgan Smyth
Encouraging collaboration, communication, by Trish Maguire

Rewiring leadership
Understanding how the brain works can seriously boost employee performance 

By Liz Bernier

Most of us don’t know much about what goes on in the inexplicable recesses of our brains. But learning more about it can go a long way in the workplace. 

Applying lessons from neuroscience to leadership can change the way we talk about relationships, according to Josh Davis, director of research and lead professor at the NeuroLeadership Institute in New York City.  
“It enables us to have conversations we wouldn’t have been able to have before. So, in that way, we’re creating a new language,” said Davis at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto. 

“We’re not just talking about changing the way a company’s leadership (works) but we’re actually talking about changing what it means to be a leader, what we think of when we set out to lead a group.”

The vision of the institute is to transform leadership from the ground up, said Davis. 

“Leadership is all about working with other people, influencing other people, guiding other people… all of that is heavily influenced by how our brain works.”

Neuroleadership knowledge can be applied to four domains in the workplace: decision-making, problem-solving and learning; regulating emotions; collaboration; and facilitating change. 

“These are four types of thinking that we think cover the space that a leader needs to engage in,” he said. 

With knowledge of how the brain works, people can try to take advantage of its processes to achieve better results, said Davis. For example, a manager might want to turn up the pressure to facilitate greater productivity or creativity. 

“You light a fire under someone, and for some people, that really gets them in the zone. But then, for other people… you light a fire under them and they go crazy. So the question is why does that happen? Can we predict that? Can we know when that might happen for certain people or for ourselves?”

Prefrontal cortex 
One of the first things to understand in thinking about the brain and productivity is the prefrontal cortex, a large part of the brain with many sub-parts.

“The prefrontal cortex is the part that is most different in human beings than in other animals,” he said. “It is so much larger in human beings than in our next closest relatives that it really calls into question, I think, many of the things that we wonder about other animals.”

The pre-frontal cortex also correlates across species to the size of the social network the species has to keep track of, he said. So it is actually necessary for conscious, focused awareness — it’s the part of the brain people need to engage when they’re trying to focus, pursue goals and pay deliberate, conscious attention. 

There are two neurochemicals that are key to the prefrontal cortex operating optimally, said Davis. One is called norepinephrine. 
“Norepinephrine will be released when you get stressed out or there’s some kind of excitement. It’s the same chemical as adrenaline, but we call it norepinephrine in the brain,” he said.
It helps a person to “amplify the signal” — whereas the other chemical, dopamine, helps decrease the noise.  

“These two neurochemicals will make it easier for the prefrontal cortex to function,” said Davis. 

“When these chemicals are released into the prefrontal cortex, it will help it operate more effectively. But if you have too much, then it’s going to cause problems.

“As arousal of any kind increases, then for a little while performance also increases. We get better at what we’re doing. And then as arousal keeps on going, we get worse.”

And it’s important to know which levers can help shift these chemicals. 

“Some of the things that will do that (are) novelty — if you come across something novel, that’s going to help release dopamine. If you just expect rewards, you don’t actually have to go to the dinner, you can just think, ‘Hey, I have dinner plans tonight,’ that can release dopamine. Anytime you exceed expectations, that will release dopamine as well… stress will increase norepinephrine, fear will probably increase both,” he said.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, coffee is a kickstarter that will impact both chemicals, said Davis.

“If you find yourself really overwhelmed one day and you know about this curve, then you can check in and say, ‘Wait a second. I can’t think straight — is it because I’m over-aroused or is it because I’m under-aroused?’”

Regulating emotion
Another area that’s helpful to learn about is regulating emotion, said Davis. People tend to think about emotions as something to “get rid of” — they’re a problem and they’re getting in the way. And certainly there are times when that can be true, he said.

“(But) we can’t make decisions without some kind of emotion. If you take out the emotional tag, we’re lost. There’s no way for a human being to decide what’s better,” he said. “Knowing that it’s right — that’s a feeling. And we can’t make that decision without a feeling.”

Motivations are also tied into emotions, said Davis. 

“Emotions are absolutely part of everything we’re doing all day long, even if we’re pretending and telling ourselves that we’re trying to get (rid of) our emotions.”

So how do people use their emotions to their advantage? There is another part of the brain — a collection of brain structures — called the limbic system. 

“These are parts of the brain that drive an emotional reaction. Something out there in the world triggers us, is worth our attention, potentially threatening, potentially exciting — and these parts of the brain can immediately, in less than 200 milliseconds, already get the process started where your heart rate can accelerate, your palms can get sweaty, you have a change in hormone levels,” he said.  

“All of those things can start to happen really quickly — and then when we feel all of those changes, that’s when we’re feeling the emotion.”

The limbic system can also begin to take over. With certain emotions — for example, when people get anxious — that can really narrow their focus. 

“That’s going to push you to certain actions — to lash out, to run away. So then we have a competing action from the prefrontal cortex to control that, to change course,” said Davis. 

“You’ve got these two parts of the brain competing with each other, in those cases. So what we really want to do then is find some way to kind of damp down limbic activity.”

In that case, it’s about minimizing limbic activity and facilitating prefrontal cortex activity. 

“You’re not getting rid of emotions, you’re just shifting the balance a bit,” he said.

There are several methods that can be used to achieve this — one of which is simply labelling the emotion. 

“What happens when we put a label on the emotion is we activate some linguistic parts of the brain,” he said. “If I say, ‘I’m nervous’ or ‘I’m happy,’ I’m just putting a label on it — I’m not actually re-thinking it.

“What that will do is it activates some of the linguistic parts of the brain, and it will have this effect of decreasing limbic activity and it will shift us out of that mode… It’s really a small shift, but it might be enough to shift you out of the state that you’re in and help you focus.”

Neuroscience needs to tell people what to do

By Michael Clark

Josh Davis, director of research at the NeuroLeadership Institute in New York City, delivered to SCN an enjoyable 90 minutes about neuroscience and leadership: What exactly is going on in your brain while you do the things you’re supposed to do as a leader? 

Davis — in an entertaining style that was simultaneously laconic and passionate — regaled the audience at the SCNetwork event with plenty of information and anecdotes.

But wait — did we actually learn anything new? 

Surely — considering the accumulated human resources experience in the room — we already know what to do with the four domains of neuroleadership: 

•making decisions and solving problems

•regulating our emotions

•collaborating with others

•facilitating positive change. 

Surely we already know to focus on behaviour, not the person; that too much stimulation is just as bad as not enough; that social exclusion is bad for collaboration; that it makes sense to curb your emotions; and that connecting the “why” to the “what” is important in change.

I emerged from the session entertained and informed, but at a loss for what I might now do differently. 

It seems neuroscience tells us what is happening “under the hood” (as it were) but not what to do nor, more importantly, any new ways to do it (unless you happen to be standing around with a glint in your eye and a syringe full of dopamine or  norepinephrine).

Here’s why, in my opinion, a room full of senior human resources practitioners came away enjoying the neuroscience session so much: The information provided our prefrontal cortex with proof that something is actually happening when people lead effectively. 

We can now loudly proclaim, “Look, this stuff is real — it’s scientific!” 

Our prefrontal cortex can now wrestle to the ground our limbic hand-wringing fear response, which can only stem from a lack of confidence in what it is we teach, promote and coach. 

We can now point to neuroscience and not to ourselves as experts.

And how sad is that? Do we still have to justify ourselves in promoting the so-called soft skills of leadership? 

How many white papers, reports and, indeed, how much neuroscience will it take before our customers — and ourselves — believe what we know to be true? Accountants don’t justify themselves; nor do lawyers, teachers or chief executive officers.

My hope is that neuroscience will get past justifying what we already know is right, and move on to explain what is happening when we don’t do the things we know we should be doing, like diagnosing and resolving why some leaders — perhaps even you and I — don’t actually do the leading we should.

Michael Clark is director of business development at Forrest & Company in Toronto, an organizational transformation firm, with over 25 years experience in developing the organizational and leadership capacity in organizations. 

Achieving the right balance in our heads

By Morgan Smyth

What makes a leader? This question has been asked ever since the concept of a leader was first invented. Yet, here we are, many millennia later with libraries full of books on this subject, and still we struggle to find the answer.

Josh Davis and his colleagues at the NeuroLeadership Institute are trying to help by approaching the issue from a different perspective. They are mapping the relationships between the desired traits of a leader and how her brain functions. 

They are showing us what areas of a leader’s brain are affected and what chemicals are released, depending on her actions or reactions. 

For instance, they have found the same area of the brain — the anterior cingulate cortex, to be precise — is stimulated whenever we experience either social pain or physical pain. 

Another area of the brain is also stimulated when we experience a decrease in social pressure or physical pain.

Establishing links
Davis and his team are using this information to establish links between our behaviours in certain situations and what areas within our brains respond so we can better control our behaviours and thus become better leaders.

This takes practice. We have to become more aware of our actions and understand why they are occurring: “When I talk in this manner, what emotion is driving me?” 

More importantly, “How can I control or change it?” Being mindful of our conduct will help us better govern our behaviours and actions.

One way to approach this goal is to imagine we each have two brains. One is our “worker brain” and the other is our “manager brain.” 

Our worker brain performs all our actions, including verbal, emotional and physical. Our manager brain watches this worker brain and directs it accordingly. 

An example of this would be when we are having a conversation with someone and, at the same time, evaluating what we are saying, how we are saying it (such as our tone of voice), noticing we are suddenly feeling happy, sad, angry or frustrated, for example, and also watching how the person is reacting.

Increasing management skills
The challenge most of us have is increasing the management skills of our manager brain. By doing so, it might not only help us avoid a lot of embarrassing moments, it might also make us a much better person.

Davis says the four primary domains in which the manager brain can be employed are: problem-solving, controlling emotions, interacting with others, and facilitating positive change.

The prefrontal cortex of our brains is the main area in which problem-solving activities take place while our emotions are formed within the limbic system, located at the centre of our brain. The goal is to get these two regions to work in harmony.

Balancing 2 chemicals
According to the NeuroLeadership Institute, the best way to accomplish this is to achieve the right balance between two chemicals produced in the brain: norepinephrine and dopamine. 

Norepinephrine is like adrenaline for the brain. It stimulates us, giving us a sense of urgency and alertness.

Dopamine focuses our attention. It dampens down any extraneous “noise” or distractions, enabling us to concentrate more effectively on the issue at hand.

The challenge is to get the right dosage of each. Too little of either fails to energize us enough to properly achieve the task at hand, while too much causes negative effects, such as stress and anxiety. 

So balance is important, and this is where the manager brain comes in. It must be aware of the stress levels being created and tell the worker brain when to cool it. 

The best way to do this is to utter a single word to ourselves, such as “calm.” 

And the best way to express this word is to either say it out loud or write it down. Keep it to just one word because more than that can actually increase stress and anxiety levels further.

Co-operation needed
To achieve our goal, be it a business goal or a personal goal, we need the co-operation and assistance of others. 

To get this, we have to communicate in a calm, positive, rational fashion. Essentially, we have to keep our worker brain in check.

It sounds like a lot to perform but once we have created the process and practised it several times, it will become a habit. 

New neurons will be created, new neuro-communication channels will be developed, neuroplasticity will take effect and, soon, we will be different people — people equipped to lead others in a much more effective way.

Morgan Smyth is an SCNetwork thought leader and a change management consultant who launched his own IT services company which soared to Profit Magazine’s 50 Fastest Growing Companies. He is based in Toronto and can be reached at

Encouraging collaboration, communication

By Trish Maguire

If you thought neuroleadership in the workplace was destined to be just another trendy model, you may be surprised to learn it is emerging as a critical talent management strategy and practice. Reportedly, this is a trend that is radically and positively shifting organizational practices and leadership development at a number of organizations. 

The focus for Josh Davis, director of research at the NeuroLeadership Institute, is to teach busy professionals and leaders about how their brains make decisions and choices. 

“The best business minds make decisions very differently than we thought,” said the April 2014 article “The Inner Workings of the Executive Brain” in the Wall Street Journal.

Apparently, contrary to common belief, the logical section of the brain is not the exclusive mechanism of resolving problems. We actually use two other essential sections — the emotional and intuitive. 

Neuroscience researchers are finding that the best leaders seem to lean on their emotions much more than logic.

At the 2015 NeuroLeadership Summit in New York City, Dan Radecki, lead professor at the institute, said, “Our brains work best when we no longer feel the need to hide, cover up our mistakes or dwell on errors. 

“We do better when we aren’t mentally bogged down in a ‘threat response’ worrying about which of our colleagues is the boss’ ‘flavour of the month,’ getting a hasty promotion or badmouthing our work.” 

Imagine the difference it would make in leadership effectiveness if leaders learned and understood how emotions influence their decisions and fuel unsatisfactory results.   

Changing the way management thinks through its decisions is a significant achievement. The advantage with this ongoing research is neuroleadership is positively transforming leadership based on neuroscience.

Davis offers some interesting examples on how conventional leadership can unintentionally result in the exact opposite when it comes to people’s performance and creativity.

In other words, leaders can cause employees to become less efficient and lose creativity because they are unaware of how people work most productively.  

For example, some leaders will drive for achieving goals and improved performance with rigid deadlines and increased effort. Neuroscience research indicates such pressure can cause people to shut down, limit their thinking capability and decrease productivity.

It fascinates me that some leaders still believe the only way to get results or have anything finished on time is for them to be tough leaders.

 Another example is when leadership teams introduce an organizational change and they too quickly dismiss people’s resistance and judge it to be a major barrier.  

Neuroscience, however, suggests leaders need to change their thinking and learn to take the time to acknowledge and listen to people’s uncertainty, anxiety and fears about their job security.  

It’s important for people to know that leaders accept the importance of their concerns and offer sincerity in supporting them in finding their own solutions. 

Correspondingly, perceived or anticipated resistance can move to a more positive and collaborative attitude.      

Unlike Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, has identified five fundamental needs that, when satisfied, enable people to achieve improved levels of confidence, creativity, risk-taking and collaboration. 

His research establishes that when people feel threatened, their brain goes on the defensive and activates their survival or avoidance coping mechanisms. 

I would surmise many leaders are aware of these reactions yet dismiss them as an emotional weakness. In so doing, leaders remain unaware of the critical impact their logical decisions make on people’s reactions.

Rock created the acronym SCARF for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. It’s important to appreciate how each of these five needs mutually connects people’s social needs in the workplace. 

In my experience, when people feel the need to assume defensive and survival behaviours, they tend to be increasingly distrustful, demoralized, show little interest in their work and become progressively more disengaged.

With the continued support of neuroleadership research, workplaces can incorporate more of a human social experience that can only encourage collaboration, enhance open communication, strengthen retention and help reinforce people’s commitment.  

Whether you are a leader or HR professional, the following insight from Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience at the University of California, will hopefully motivate you to rethink your leadership effectiveness, human resources processes and organizational practices: “I continue to be fascinated by the fact that feelings are not just the shady side of reason but that they help us to reach decisions as well.” 

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions in Nobleton, Ont., focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and OD in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial firms. She can be reached at

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