Neuroleadership: Managing the Workplace as a Social Environment

By Manie Bosman

Have you ever rolled around in bed thinking about an incident earlier that day and feeling really frustrated with yourself for not clearly explaining your point or saying what you should have said? Maybe it was a meeting where you struggled to state your case and later, thinking back, what you should have said was so clear and simple and you just couldn’t believe how you didn’t see that earlier. Well, for what it’s worth, thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of people have a similar experience every day.

What you’ve experienced during that meeting was the activation of the classical ‘fight or flight’ response in your brain. This response, also known as our survival instinct, helps us stay alive by triggering neurological pathways in our brains which enable us to react to danger without even having to think about it. Here is how it works: as you grew up, your brain ‘labeled’ or encoded some stimuli (things you observed or experienced) as “threats” (e.g. food that tasted really bad) and others as “rewards” (e.g. food that you enjoyed). These “labels” or neurological codes are stored in the amygdala, a small oval-shaped object in the brain’s limbic system, which also plays an important role in the actual encoding process. From then on, whenever you come across something encoded as either a “threat” or a “reward”, the amygdala activates the limbic system to trigger an automated ‘disengage’ (refuse to eat your cabbage) neurological response when facing a perceived threat, or an ‘engage’ (eat the ice-cream) response when facing a perceived reward. Similarly, your brain most likely encoded losing money, seeing a large predator, or facing a scar-faced guy wielding a flick-knife as threats while receiving money, water, the possibility of sex, and a safe shelter were all encoded as rewards.

So, you’re out hiking in the forest and you hear an unfamiliar sound somewhere behind you. Your limbic system is aroused in the blink of a second – neurons are activated and hormones are released – as you try to establish whether this is a threat or reward, and subsequently if you should disengage or engage. Anxiously staring into the underbrush your heightened senses pick up a small movement and the next moment you’re running – disengaging from what might be a lion or bear or some other dangerous predator. Important to note here that this entire process is automated – in other words your brain (or the neural pathways that are triggered) determines how you will respond without you consciously giving any real input.

While the basics of this survival instinct had been known for some time, neuroscience, with the use of fMRI scans and other scientific methods, has in recent years given us new insights into exactly what happens when a threat or reward response is activated. Probably the most exiting revelation has been that exactly the same neural responses which drive us towards food (reward-engage) or away from danger (threat-disengage), are activated when we socially interact with other people. In other words, when we’re having a meeting at work, enjoying a braai (South African version of a barbeque but much better) with friends, or chatting about the weather while standing in the queue at the supermarket, people’s behaviour during these social interactions can trigger either a “threat” or “reward” response in one another.

For leaders, the consequences of this discovery are really profound. It means that the human brain is basically a social organ which reacts to social situations (and social pain in particular) in exactly the same way in which it reacts to the physical environment (and physical pain), which is a bit of a kick in the proverbial butt for Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It also means that the brain views the workplace primarily as a social environment where it is constantly assessing social interaction as either threats or rewards.

But there’s more. Studies have shown that when a threat response is activated, it has a severely negative impact on our cognitive performance. When the limbic system goes into its automated response, fewer resources (oxygen and glucose in particular) become available to the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain where conscious thought takes place. This means that when a threat response is activated our ability to understand, make decisions, remember, memorize, plan, inhibit impulses, solve problems and communicate could be severely impaired. Your creativity and innovativeness become restricted, you struggle to see the “big picture” and ultimately your overall productivity drops.

David Rock, author of the seminal Your Brain at Work and a pioneer in the emerging field of neuroleadership (applying the scientific findings of neuroscience with leadership practice) cites a study in which two groups had to complete a maze where a little mouse had to reach a picture on the outside. The first group had to guide their mouse through the maze to reach a picture of cheese on the outside, and the second group had to reach an owl, which of course is a predator. Once they had completed this exercise, the two groups were given creativity tests. The researchers found that the group pursuing the cheese solved considerably more creative problems than those approaching the owl. As Rock concludes, “this study, supported by several other similar studies, shows that even subtle effects of this approach-avoid (reward-threat) response can have a big impact on cognitive performance”.

Do you now see why you were finding it so difficult to hold your own during that incident which kept you awake that night? Somehow, at some point during your interaction someone (perhaps a dominating manager or maybe just an insensitive colleague) triggered a threat response in your brain. Your brain perceived this social threat in exactly the way it would perceive a physical threat, and it went into ‘survival mode’ where your cognitive abilities became impaired and restricted.

As leaders in the highly volatile, constantly changing 21st Century, our greatest skill will increasingly be the ability to facilitate engagement in the workplace. Neuroscience is providing us with solid scientific evidence of what happens in the human brain as we interact with each other in the workplace. As leaders and facilitators of organizational development this provides us with great opportunities to apply the principles of “neuroleadership” which, among other things, means understanding that the workplace is primarily a social environment and that the human brain is a ‘social organ’ which needs to be led in a way that complies with its social needs.


About Manie Bosman

Manie Bosman is Founder and CEO of the Strategic Leadership Institute. He is a leadership development consultant specializing in the emerging fields of neuroleadership and neurosafety. Based in Pretoria, South Africa, Manie has more than 20 years of international experience in cross-cultural interaction, diversity management, change management, public speaking, communication, corporate training and team development. He holds a Masters of Arts in Organizational Leadership and believes that effective leadership is the key determiner of success in any venture, group or organization.
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2 Responses to Neuroleadership: Managing the Workplace as a Social Environment

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