What Neuroscience Can Teach Leaders About Change

There are probably six excellent change theories and models, and hundreds of books.   Here are a couple of little factoids about the human brain that just cuts to the chase on this topic:

  1.    People can only really focus on one big goal at a time.  Setting another goal will most likely cancel out the original goal (Rock).


2. Change is hard for everyone and really really hard for some, because it literally sets off alarm bells in the brain (Rock and Schwartz).  When navigating a change, take more time than you think should be needed, set up systems for people to have conversations about the change to process it. People need time and coaching to relate, repeat and reframe (Deutschman) their thinking about the changes expected of them.  Be ready to be talking about the change long after you have become bored to death with it.

As Peter Senge so advises: 

  • Start small
  • Grow steadily
  • Don’t plan everything and
  • Expect challenges.

Image by Paul Brentnall

What Neuroscience Can Teach Leaders – 7

Many people have an intuitive sense about how sensitive people are to their own and others’ status.  Some are oblivious. BUT…it is critical that you be mindful of your people’s status.  People need to know where they stand, and will respond well when treated appropriately in terms of their status (Rock) (Zinc et al). 

People who feel that their status has not been fully recognized will also feel a damaging sense of unfairness which  will negatively impact how they feel about their work environment far beyond what might seem rational (Tabibnia).  When people act like lunatics, before you judge them,  check first to see if someones’ place in the hierarchy has been threatened.  Don’t upset the cupcakes, unless you mean to.

What Neuroscience Can Teach Leaders About False Consensus

You will vastly overestimate what people know, for example, your take on the current context or your reasoning for a specific course of action,   assuming that others know what you know and see what you see; this is called False Consensus (Ross et al).  Remember this when explaining the nuts and bolts of your vision, strategy and goals.  Become accustomed to seeing the world differently from others, and defining reality as you see it regularly, more than you think you should need to (Senge).

Stan Slap once said “Most leaders would just get where they’re going by themselves and send a postcard if they could.”  Don’t try it, it won’t work.  Stand at the front, hold the map aloft and keep explaining again and again.  Long past the point when you are bored.

What Neuroscience Can Teach Leaders About Feedback

Feedback:  The never ending mystery! Here is yet another installment in the series on what we have to learn about Leadership from the study of neuroscience.


  1. Hire for Feedback Orientation. Individuals, who have feedback orientation like feedback, believe it has value, seek it regularly, have the wherewithal to process feedback with and without help, are sensitive to others’ view of themselves and generally feel accountable to act on feedback (London and Smither).  Ask yourself about your own feedback orientation?  Are you a role model for asking for and receiving feedback?

2.   Build a culture in which feedback is natural and given in the moment.   A culture of feedback is :

“…one where individuals continuously receive, solicit, and use formal and informal feedback to improve their job performance.  This may be linked to effective policies and programs for performance management, continuous learning and career development. The individual’s feedback orientation depends in part on the support and climate for learning.  The more frequent the feedback and the closer it follows the behavior in question, the more likely it is to be accepted.  The more support [from you the leader] for learning and development, including the availability of behaviorally-oriented feedback, the more the individual is likely to develop a positive orientation toward feedback. ” (London and Smither)

3. People who have sustained a great deal of trauma are going to have a very hard time distinguishing a real threat from a potential one (Rock).  This means that workers who go through rounds of layoffs and are not given new information to raise their levels of certainty will most probably become less and less able to receive any critical feedback.  Only people working in an environment where they feel safe will be open to learning, be more likely to have insights and be generally more creative and productive (Gordon).


Image from Grant Cochrane

What Neuroscience Can Teach Leaders 4

A new installment in the series on what we have to learn about leadership from the study of neuroscience.

Fear is bad for Business:

Well, it’s true.  We suspected that it was, but now we know for sure.  No one gets smarter when they are afraid.  Living in an environment of constant threat erodes creativity and cognitive ability (Phelps) (Gordon).


Expectations have real power.  The disappointment of expectations feels much worse to people than simply not liking events or policies when something happens.  If an employee has an expectation of a reward or promotion that is not met, the brain feels just terrible.   It is critical to manage expectations carefully to avoid people feeling awful and taking it out on each other or even more likely, your customers (Rock).

Image from IdeaGo

What Neuroscience Can Teach Leaders 3

1.  The division between thoughts and feelings is in fact an artificial one. From a brain standpoint they are  indistinguishable (Phelps). The best ways to understand what you are thinking and feeling is to make time to reflect upon them, (Ochsner et al) and use language to label them (Lieberman et al). This means you will need a trusted advisor who will listen to you, e.g.: get a coach if you don’t already have one.

 2.  Habits are driven by the unconscious.  Some are useful, some are not.  It serves you well to notice your habits, examine each one and choose whether or not you want to allow it to continue (Rock).

What Neuroscience Can Teach Leaders 2

Attention: What You Pay Attention to Matters

1. You can choose what happens in your head when you are not thinking about anything in particular by choosing to be mindful instead of simply letting your mind wander in what is known as the “default network”.  Mindfullness is defined as:

a)    Self regulating attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment

b)    Adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance (Bishop et al).

By practicing mindfulness you can choose to pay attention to sensory information coming in. What you pay attention to is what you are conscious of (Rock)(Berman).

2. What you choose to pay attention to can dictate the quality of your mood, your quality of life and the quality of life of people around you.  Pay attention to the past and you will end up ruminating uselessly, whereas when you stay focused on the present, you get useful information about what is going on with your own thoughts and feelings (Tang et al) (Hassed).

 3.  One of your key jobs as a leader is to continually remind your people of what to pay attention to (Hassed).

Image by Carlos Porto