Leading with the Brain

David Rock explains how scientists’ growing understanding of the brain illuminates techniques for leadership and decision making.

By Adrienne Fox Jun 1, 2011
In March 2008, HR Magazine published an article on breakthroughs in neuroscience—understanding how the brain works—and how the research applies to learning. Two years later, readers still comment on the applications described in the article. In that time, neuroscience has continued to decode the workings of the brain, and researchers are applying those findings to the workplace. To follow up on the latest discoveries, HR Magazine Contributing Editor Adrienne Fox caught up with David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a research organization based in Sydney, Australia.

The 2008 article concluded with promises of new insights on mindfulness, labeling and reappraising. What are these facets of the brain, why are they important and what have scientists learned about them?

Mindfulness is the ability to be meta-cognitive or to think about your thinking. Labeling is the ability to put words on your mental state—for instance, to articulate when you are feeling anxious. Reappraisal is the ability to alter your mental state, such as deciding that a tough situation is a challenge rather than a threat. All involve an area of the brain that is central for self-regulation—the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. We now think of it as part of the brain’s “braking system.”

Researchers are discovering that self-regulation—regulating emotion, regulating your thoughts, regulating your attention—is essential in leadership.

What makes a leader, cognitively speaking?

The optimal leader is adaptive. Leaders have to know when to be dogmatic in their beliefs and when to be collaborative, when to get granular and when to be big-picture-focused. To be adaptive, you must have an integrated brain. That means having tremendous connections across all regions of the brain. We can measure how integrated a person’s brain is through tests.

When your brain is well-integrated, you can switch between different approaches easily. If your brain is not well-integrated, you will tend to be narrower in the strategies you use to solve problems and make decisions. You might always be tough and focused, for example, but not be able to exhibit real empathy when necessary. Leaders need to solve problems quickly and understand massive complexity. However, it is probably the ability to be adaptive that gives them an edge.

What keeps leaders from being successful?

While the need for self-awareness and social awareness increases as leaders rise up the ladder, the capacity of a leader’s brain for self-awareness and social awareness actually decreases. Leaders are under tremendous mental pressure in the same way athletes are. As you go from managing five people to 50 people, the uncertainty and complexity increases the allostatic load, the body’s marker for stress. High stress levels reduce your ability to think of yourself and other people. Leaders need to learn techniques for improving cognitive performance under pressure, thereby building self-regulation capacity.

How can leaders use neuroscience to train their brains for self-regulation?

Most leaders develop the ability to adapt and self-regulate through experience. But we can increase self-regulation through training. The brain has only one braking system, which applies to physical as well as mental stops. So, if you practice stopping a physical movement, such as stopping yourself from standing up, you build your capacity to self-regulate, or inhibit overly reactive emotions. Mental games help. In a Stroop exercise, for example, you read the word “green” that is colored red and try to say “red” instead of “green.” The brain is more likely to read the word, so you have to focus and say the color instead. This trains the brain not to have automatic responses and builds self-regulation capacity. You see more of these exercises on the market.

There is an interesting study of more than 5,000 people, published in the 2010 NeuroLeadership Journal. Researchers Megan O’Connor, Nick Cooper, Lea Williams, Savannah DeVarney and Evian Gordon found that four hours of brain training during a month resulted in an average 14 percent increase in productivity.

What have neuroscientists learned about decision-making that can help leaders?

In an IBM study of 1,500 chief executive officers worldwide in May 2010, the respondents said that navigating an increasingly complex world will require creativity—more than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision.

A big part of the creative process is using your non-conscious brain, because the problems being tackled are simply too big for conscious processing resources. The conscious brain freezes at about seven items of information at once. We solve problems non-consciously with the experience of insight. New research has been coming out showing that having an insight requires a state of low neural activity, literally mental quiet, combined with introspection, a slight sense of happiness and some distance from the problem. This is why insight happens as we wake up, or when we drive, or in the shower or during exercise. Insight isn’t strange or mysterious. It’s just the non-conscious brain solving problems, and the brain state necessary to have these insights is now fairly well-understood.

The trouble is, many organizational systems aren’t designed for what the brain needs—quiet, relaxed and flexible environments where employees are happy. Managers in some cutting-edge organizations have realized this, and through creating flexible environments and taking care of their people, they have increased their “insight quotient.” People in these companies are solving complex problems in creative ways.

The interviewer is a contributing editor and former managing editor of HR Magazine.

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