Taking Small Steps is the Key to Improve Your Leadership Behaviour

By Manie Bosman

“So I realise that I have to change the way in which I’m leading people. Can you give me just five things I can do to be a better leader from now on?” In the nearly two decades that I’ve been involved in leadership development I have been asked variations of this question a zillion times.

In a sense expecting a shortcut to better leadership is probably a manifestation of the “Seven Steps to This” and “Ten Steps to That” quick-fix culture of our time. However, it is also a reflection of the uncertainty and even frustration many leaders experience when they realise they need to change the way they lead in order to be more effective, but they don’t know how and where to start. For instance, when I talk to leaders about the principles of neuroleadership and how it could vastly improve their effectiveness and impact, they often get really excited until they are faced with the reality of how difficult it is to change behaviour. To a large extent our behaviour is the result of our personality, character, beliefs, values and a myriad of automated neural responses (of which we’re largely unaware) – most of which had been formed over many years. So how do we now change (ineffective) leadership behaviour overnight?

Radical Change is Possible

Well, the bad news is that in spite of our best intentions it is practically impossible to change behaviour overnight. The good news is that change – even radical change – is possible. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, studies in neuroscience have shown conclusively that the old adage that learning only occurs up to a certain age, after which the human brain cannot change, is simply not true. In fact, our brains can change and adapt throughout our lives. This phenomena – known as neuroplasticity – allows the brain’s neurons (nerve cells) to continuously adapt and adjust to form new neural pathways. In other words, while the neural responses which cause us to behave in a certain manner might be automated, these neurological pathways can be changed. So changing our behaviour to lead people more effectively is possible on a conscious and neurological level.

Where to start? Well, the “where” will depend on which behaviour you want to change most urgently, but the most important factor for behaviour change is the “how”: START WITH SMALL STEPS!

Insights from Stanford’s Persuasive Tech Lab

Some of the most significant insights into behaviour change is coming from Stanford University’s Persuasive Tech Lab where, among other things, Dr BJ Fogg and his team creates insight into how we can change ‘bad’ and undesired behaviour into ‘good’ and desired behaviour. More than 15 years of research has led BJ to conclude that among the Top 10 Mistakes in Behaviour Change, “attempting big leaps in stead of baby steps” and “trying to stop old behaviors in stead of creating new ones” rank very high. His “BJ Fogg Behavior Model” proposes that three elements must come together at the same moment for a behaviour to occur: the motivation for that behaviour, the ability to perform the behaviour, and a trigger. When a desired behaviour (e.g. leading people in a more mindful way) does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing.

Motivating leaders to become better at leading is generally fairly easy, but the ability and trigger to improve the way they lead might lack in some cases. The key to overcome this, according to the Stanford researchers, is to take small, doable “baby steps” and link these to existing “anchors”. In an article he wrote on the topic of persuasion BJ explains that “in most situations behaviour change occurs only when the behaviour is easy to do”. So, if we want to change our behaviour we need to start small, in fact very small. This small new behaviour must then be linked to an anchor – something you’re already doing at more or less the same frequency as the intended new behaviour. The existing anchor would then “trigger” the small new behaviour.

Find an Anchor and Start Small

Sounds complicated? In fact it’s very simple, and by following this process BJ has successfully helped thousands of people change their behaviour. Here’s an example of how it works: Want to get back into a daily routine of physical exercise? In stead of committing yourself to a vague new behaviour such as ‘I am going to start training, become fit and live healthier’, find a daily anchor (e.g. ‘after I wake up in the morning’), and then link that to a simple and easily executable new behaviour (e.g. ‘I will perform three sit-ups’). Just that. Or maybe you’ve never been able to get into the habit of keeping a journal. Now find an existing anchor (e.g. ‘after I’ve brushed my teeth at night’) and use that to trigger a small, easy-to-do new behaviour (e.g. ‘I will write one sentence in my journal’).

It might sound counter-intuitive to start so small, but the goal of doing this is to re-wire your brain – stimulate it to form new neural networks (enabling the new behaviour) to replace the old. Once this small behaviour has become an established habit through continuous repetition (the brain now calling up the new pattern without thinking about it) it is much easier to expand on it.

So, for now forget about the five steps to become a better leader and start by committing yourself to just one small step. To determine what this should be, you could list the new leadership behaviours that you want to pursue in order of priority. Then select just one new behaviour and simplify it to its most basic form. Write it down. For example, ‘Improving trust and unity in my team’ could be simplified to something such as ‘ask X what he thinks the best solution would be (new behaviour) every time he comes to me for advice (anchor)’, or ‘every day when I return from lunch (anchor) I will write a note to thank just one person for something they’ve done well (new behaviour)’. By taking these ‘baby steps’ you could start to rewire your brain, forming new neural patterns and pathways that would eventually become the habits you could expand on to develop into the best leader you could be.

Posted in Change Management, Leadership, Neuroleadership, Neuroscience, Talent Development | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Neuroscience of Conditioned Racism

Although great progress has been made in the war on racism it is an evil which persists to haunt us. From the London Olympic Games to the run-up for the American presidential election to workplaces all across the globe friction and conflict based on racial differences is still very much part of life in the Global Village. In this article I take a look at what neuroscience reveals about some of the processes in our brains related to aspects of *racist behaviour.

By Manie Bosman

You’re not a racist and I’m not a racist and we agree that all people are equal and that there is strength in diversity – so why is racial friction still a factor in the 21st Century? What continues to drive people in civilized societies to judge, degrade, discriminate against and even victimize others solely because of perceived racial differences?

Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou has been expelled from the 2012 London Olympics by Greece, after she allegedly made offensive Twitter comments about African immigrants and expressed her support for a far-right party.

Besides the pain and sorrow it causes and the obvious moral and ethical arguments against it, racism – and all other forms of prejudice and discrimination – has the potential to be a major stumbling block in the inter-connected, globalized 21st Century marketplace. Diversity is now the norm and collaboration the name of the game. Leaders set to succeed in this complex heterogeneous environment therefore cannot afford to ignore the potential harm of racial conflict. So while fighting racism on moral and ethical grounds has brought us a long way, perhaps the insights gained from neuroscience can help us take the fight to the next level.

Ideological Racism and Conditioned Racism

To start with, it is helpful to distinguish between two basic types of racism. The first, ideological racism (aka explicit or overt racism), is based on the conscious belief that race or ethnicity (see description of differences here) is the most important determinant of human traits and abilities. ‘Adherents’ typically claim that race-related traits and abilities render one race or group superior or inferior to another. This usually translates into claims that their own race is superior and that other races – identified as such on the basis of factors such as skin tone, eye colour, language, culture, customs and origin – are of lesser value. Over the years ideological racism has been offered as an excuse for discrimination, intolerance, hate speech, oppressive laws and policies and also racial violence and killings. In organized form ideological racism is typically expressed in right-wing or supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, neo-Nazi groups, the Nation of Islam and others.

The second type of racism – which I would term conditioned racism (aka implicit, subconscious or covert racism) – is often less visible but sometimes more harmful when it rears its head in the workplace or other social environments. It is also more widespread – several studies have shown that although most people would deny having any racial biases and even be outspoken against ideological racism, almost all of us are to some extent or another influenced by conditioned racism. Unlike ideological racism, racist behaviour driven by conditioned racism is not necessarily based on conscious beliefs or ideologies about supposed racial differences. While factors such as skin tone or culture or accent can act as ‘triggers’ for conditioned racism, it is largely our brains’ automated response to anything and anyone perceived as a possible threat or enemy.

Loyalty to My Ingroup

In 1906 American sociologist William Graham Sumner introduced the world to the concept of “ethnocentrism” and the idea of social “ingroups” and “outgroups”. He suggested that our ingroups are groups of which we’re a member or with which we identify strongly. Ethnocentrism – today often termed as racism – is the view that our own ethnic group (or “ingroup”) is “the center of everything, and all other (groups) are scaled and rated with reference to it”.1 In Sumner’s view a strong “positive” attitude to our ingroup automatically causes us to form strong negative attitudes (e.g. contempt, hostility and hatred) toward any outgroup:2

“The relation of comradeship and peace in the we-group and that of hostility and war towards others-groups are correlative to each other. The exigencies of war with outsiders are what make peace inside… Loyalty to the group, sacrifice for it, hatred and contempt for outsiders, brotherhood within, warlikeness without—all grow together, common products of the same situation.”

While the aggressive behaviour of some sport fans toward supporters of other teams prove that there is at least some credibility to Sumner’s views on ingroup loyalty and outgroup hatred, numerous studies have shown that people would sometimes discriminate against an perceived outgroup or member of an outgroup even if they have no particular loyalty to an ingroup. Also, we can in fact be loyal and dedicated to an ingroup without feeling aggression or hatred to an outgroup. So although Sumner’s concept of ingroups and outgroups provide us with a solid starting point to explain the group-relationship factor of conditioned racism, we clearly need to dig deeper to understand its underlying dynamics.

Perceived Un-Relatedness

David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, used results from neuroscientific research to devise the SCARF-model, according to which the human brain has five distinctive social needs (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness). Studies have shown that when our brains perceive a ‘threat’ to any of these five social needs, the amygdala (a small almond-shaped structure, which plays an important role in emotional learning and memory) sends impulses to the hypothalamus, which then activates the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn triggers the nervous system to go into an automated ‘fight-or-flight’ mode. Simply put, perceived threats in the social environment – when your status, need for certainty, autonomy, relatedness or sense of fairness is compromised – activate the same automated ‘disengage’ (fight or flight/ avoid/ withdraw/ danger) neural circuitry in your brain as when you face a physical threat such as a fearsome predator or armed robber.3

In the context of interaction between different races the brain’s need for relatedness (our need to feel safe with ‘our own’ people – our ‘ingroup’ – and to feel that we are included in that group) is of particular importance. As part of the process to assess our relatedness in any given situation, our brains are constantly gauging whether people – strangers in particular – are ‘friends’ or ‘foes’. Anyone perceived to be different from those my brain (the amygdala) perceives as ‘friends’ or belonging to my ‘ingroup’, automatically triggers a threat response.

The results of two studies, published as early as 2000, confirmed that perceived racial differences could be enough to trigger such a response. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) the researchers established that our amygdala becomes more activated (indicating early stages of threat-response) when we see someone from another race than when we see someone from our own race group.4

So, you’re relaxing on a park bench late on a Sunday afternoon when you notice that it’s going to be dark soon and that most of the other visitors have already left. Just when you decide to leave you see a tall shabby-looking stranger from ‘the other ‘ race group coming your way. His hoodie is pulled low over his forehead and his hands are in his pockets. Your heart rate picks up, you start to breathe faster and you automatically tighten the grip on your bag while nervously keeping an eye on the approaching figure. He passes by without incident and you give a sigh of relief, although for a while your ears are still pricked to pick up any changes in the rhythm of his footsteps.

What just happened? Your brain noticed the fact that this was a stranger, that in appearance he was different from the people you usually hang out with and that there was no-one else around. Your amygdala triggered an automated ‘threat’-response, which a few moments later turned out to have been totally unjustified. However, for your brain keeping you alive is far more important than being politically correct. It would rather trigger an unwarranted threat response to a harmless stranger than to be caught asleep by a real enemy.

So was this racist behaviour? Decide for yourself, but bear in mind that while in this example the threat-response was triggered by possible race-related differences, the exact same response could have been triggered by a stranger of your own race who looked like those your amygdala has labeled as ‘enemies’ (more about that in a minute).

I REALLY Don’t Feel Your Pain

Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of racism or any other form of discrimination understands the pain, humiliation and anger that it causes. Because of this, there is no excuse for racist behaviour. However, if we want to get to the bottom of conditioned racism it is helpful to understand just how strong the impact of the conditioning is on the ‘transgressor’s’ neural functions.

Several studies using brain imaging techniques have shown that physical and social pain activates some of the same areas in our brains, sharing some of the same neural mechanisms and pathways. In particular, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the anterior insula are activated when we experience physical or emotional pain. Even stranger, perhaps, is that these exact same areas of the brain become activated when we watch someone else in physical or emotional pain and this then enables us to feel empathy for them. However, it seems that perceived group relatedness – and race in particular – can play a role in determining how much empathy we feel when seeing someone in pain.

Researchers from Peking University in China used fMRI to observe activity in the brains of Caucasian and Chinese subjects while they watched video clips of individual faces either being pricked with a needle or being touched with an ear bud. They found that the brains of both the Caucasian and Chinese subjects triggered a much stronger empathy-reaction when watching someone of their own race group suffer pain than when seeing someone from a different race group being pricked in the face. A follow-up study showed that our brains trigger a stronger empathy-response for those whom we regard as friends than for strangers – to the extent that different areas of the brain are activated depending whether we’re seeing a friend or stranger suffer pain.5

In a similar study involving soccer fans neuroscientists from the University of Zurich got similar results, but this participant’s ingroup wasn’t defined by race. The subjects – all Caucasians – watched videos where either other supporters of their favourite soccer team or supporters of a rival team received what seemed to be painful shocks to their hands. They could then decide if they wanted to help the ‘victim’ by receiving some of the pain themselves. The researchers found that when witnessing members of their own group suffer, the fans’ anterior insula became activated – showing concern and empathy – and they then offered to help even if it was going to be at their own expense. However, when witnessing supporters of the rival team suffer, the subjects’ brains showed no or little signs of automated empathy.6

Without offering an excuse for racism or any other form of discrimination, these results show just how strong the impact of conditioned racism can be on neural processes of which we might not even be aware and over which we have little or no direct cognitive control. The results of the studies at Peking University indicate that we are more likely to regard complete strangers of our own racial group as ‘friends’ and emphasize with them than we would strangers of another racial group, simply because of the way our brains are wired. But the results of the studies at the University of Zurich make it clear that this is not primarily about race – it is really still all about perceived relatedness. But there’s more.

It’s Not Just About You Being Different

Matt Lieberman and a team of researchers from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) used fMRI to monitor brain activity in groups of African-American and Caucasian-American subjects in response to race. As part of this study the subjects were shown pictures of African-American and Caucasian-American individuals. As could be expected, there was greater amygdala activity in the brains of Caucasian-American subjects when they looked at pictures of African-Americans than when they looked at pictures of Caucasian-Americans. Surprisingly though, Lieberman and his team found that the brains of their African-American subjects also responded with significant amygdala activity when looking at pictures of people from their own group. So why do the brains of both groups flag African-Americans as a possible ‘threat’?

Lieberman explains:7

“The present study suggests that the amygdala activity typically associated with race-related processing may be a reflection of culturally learned negative associations regarding African-American individuals”.

If participants of both racial groups responded stronger to faces of the ‘other’ group than to their own, it could have been argued that it was simply a reaction to the novelty or strangeness of seeing a face unlike those with which they interact with on a daily basis. Some might even have pushed the point and suggested that we are genetically hardwired to mistrust other races. However, this study strongly suggests that the strong amygdala response when looking at African-American faces is at least to some extent a conditioned reaction – a learnt response. The fact that participants of both race groups perceived African-American faces as possible threats probably reflect their shared negative stereotype of African-Americans.

While there is something profoundly sad in discovering that negative racial stereotyping (which often manifests as racism) can even occur between members of the same race, it also offers a glimmer of hope. If this is learnt or conditioned behaviour, surely it can be unlearnt?

The Fear Factor

It is often said that no child is born a racist, but research indicates that they catch up pretty soon. Some studies have shown that even children as young as three years of age prefer their own racial group and would discriminate against children of a different racial group. Another study found that around the age of five children become aware of racial stereotyping and that negative stereotyping about their own race can impair their academic performance. So why is the human brain so susceptible to negative labeling of racial groups other than our own?

A growing volume of research results are pointing towards fear as the major underlying driving force for conditioned racism.16 Some researchers have suggested that humans are born with a genetic ‘preparedness’ to learn to fear individuals from different social groups (as defined by race). Neuroscientists Elizabeth Phelps and Andreas Ollson from New York University have done extensive research on the neuroscience of racism, and they propose that “millennia of natural selection and a lifetime of social learning may predispose humans to fear those who seem different from them”.17 While the role of genetics has not been clarified, social learning, and learning to fear those from ‘other’ social groups in particular, seems key to conditioned racism.

In 2010 Andreia Santos and a group of researchers from the Central Institute of Mental Health at the University of Heidelberg in Germany launched a study involving children with the genetic condition known as Williams Syndrome. Among other symptoms, this rare genetic condition causes sufferers to be abnormally friendly even to complete strangers simply because they lack the sense of fear that the rest of us feel in some social circumstances. The children were shown a series of pictures of people from different races and asked to assign positive or negative features to the individuals in the picture. Where other children typically assign strong stereotypical features based on race (positive for ‘own’ and negative for ‘other’ races) when shown these pictures, the children with Williams Syndrome showed no racial bias whatsoever.9 Lacking the social fear from which most of us suffer to some degree, these kids were for all practical reasons ‘blind’ to race.

The key role that fear plays in conditioned racism was more recently confirmed in research at Oxford University in the UK involving 36 Caucasian students. Half the participants were given a dose of propranolol – a drug used for the treatment of hypertension, anxiety and panic – and the rest were given a placebo which looked just like propranolol. The students then took the Implicit Attitude Test which measures implicit and often hidden negative attitudes towards social outgroups such as another race. The results showed that the students who had taken the propranolol scored considerably lower for conditioned or subconscious racism. The explanation for this somewhat strange outcome: propranol is a beta blocker which inhibits the action of adrenaline and other stress hormones on the sympathetic nervous system which, as we know by now, mediates the fight-or-flight response. By inhibiting the students’ autonomous fear reaction, the drug significantly reduced their conditioned racial bias!10

Images and Stories about “Them”

Though most of us are probably vulnerable to at least some form of an automated neural threat-response to anyone perceived as being ‘different’ from ourselves and the group(s) we identify with, the intensity of this response will be directly influenced by the level of subliminal (or conscious) fear we have of ‘them’.

It is understandable that people who have been victims of racial abuse or violence could feel a rational and conscious fear for members of the race group that caused them harm. Even long after counseling and healing conditioned fear responses could still linger in their neural circuitry. However, many who have never had such a traumatic experience pick up on this fear through a process called “fear conditioning”. In the social environment fear conditioning happens when a negative stimulus (e.g. being robbed) somehow becomes associated with a neutral stimulus (e.g. a male of another race) or even a neutral situation (e.g. a deserted public park). In other words, the brain could learn to associate a man from the ‘other ‘ race with the threat of crime, and then automatically respond to men of that race as it would respond to an actual crime threat.

How does racial fear conditioning happen? Probably in a million different ways. In some cases it is the result of personally experiencing real or perceived threats involving individuals or groups from other races. However I suspect that for the majority of us racial fear conditioning is something that happens during what Phelps and Ollson calls a “lifetime of social learning”. We learn to mistrust and fear ‘others’ as we are continuously exposed to negative images, stories, stereotypes, archetypes, and memes of ‘them’. An Iraqi child listening to his father talk about American soldiers performing a house-to-house search… watching television footage of civil war violence somewhere in Africa… seeing the mug shot of a wanted rapist in the newspaper…. In our inter-connected world negative racial conditioning and reinforcement can happen in a nearly limitless number of ways. Not least of these is the news and entertainment media which, even though it proposes not to do so, often continues to form and reinforce these racial perceptions.

No ‘Quick Fix’, But We Can Change

So what neuroscience is showing us is that there are two major underpinning factors for conditioned racism. The one is the human brain’s predisposition to label and treat any perceived outgroup member as a threat, which is why someone from a different race can trigger an automated threat response even if it is completely unwarranted. The second is that this racial predisposition can be amplified and reinforced by fear conditioning, which is a socially learnt process.

While no sound-minded doctor would yet prescribe propranolol (or any other drug) for the treatment of racism, how do we deal with this deep-seated neural reaction that can drive us to discriminate, hurt and victimize? While there are definitely no ‘quick fixes’, I will propose a couple of points to consider:

  1. Rewiring is Possible. Over the last few years studies in neuroscience have shown that the old belief that learning only occurs up to a certain age, after which the human brain cannot change, is an absolute fallacy. In fact, our brains can change and adapt throughout our lives. This phenomena – known as neuroplasticity – allows the brain’s neurons (nerve cells) to continuously adapt and adjust to form new neural pathways as a result of learning, changes in behaviour and changes in our environment. In other words, while the neural responses underlying a tendency to racist behaviour might be automated, these neurological pathways can and should be changed.
  2. Reframing is Necessary. Research have shown that fear responses to dangerous stimuli (predators, snakes, spiders) are much harder to unlearn than fear responses triggered by ‘neutral’ stimuli (butterflies, birds). If we rationally believe the object of our fear poses a real threat, it will be near impossible to undo the automated threat-response in our brain when facing this object. The implication is that if you are really serious about adjusting the conditioned racist response in your own brain, you need to change the way you think and talk about other races. Does someone pose a realistic threat just because they are different? If not, start to intentionally reframe the mental pictures you hold of them (including the terms you use to refer to them) to confirm that they are ‘neutral’ and not dangerous. As parents and leaders we also have the responsibility to reframe racial images and perceptions for our children and those we lead.
  3. Exposure is Critical. While our brains seem eager to assign negative ‘labels’ based on appearance or background, several studies and real life experience shows that that this could be modified – probably most effectively through individual exposure. Our conditioned fear response can be countered and even reversed through close, positive interracial contact. Here’s how Phelps and Ollson puts it:

“For now, our finding that close, intergroup contact may reduce this (racial) bias suggests that individual experiences can play a moderating role. Millennia of natural selection and a lifetime of social learning may predispose humans to fear those who seem different from them; however, developing relationships with these ‘different’ others may be one factor that weakens this otherwise strong predisposition.”

Personal interacting with people from other race groups can be a powerful ‘rewiring’ experience. I’ve seen firsthand what a difference it makes when people from different races (or other divides) get the opportunity to experience each other as human beings who share similar joys and challenges in terms of family, aspirations, concerns, needs and other aspects of our lives. Opportunities for this type of exposure don’t automatically happen in the work environment, so leaders should be deliberate in creating and facilitating them. Leaders should also be deliberate in establishing cultures of trust, as inter-personal trust can be a powerful force to fuse diversity into constructive synergy.

To Conclude

The human race has come a long way from when our survival depended on being accepted in the tribe and our senses kept us alive by identifying the rustle in the bush as a threat even before we knew it was a saber-toothed cat. In a relatively short time the world in which we live has become an inter-connected and dynamic space where our ability to collaborate rather than to compete is crucial for success. One of the key leadership skills at this time is to find ways to facilitate safe connections between people. Dealing with diversity – racial diversity in particular – is a crucial part of that skill set.

AUTHOR’s NOTE: While the focus of this article is on racism, the same basic neural processes can also apply to almost any other form of stereotyping and discrimination. As with racism discrimination based on gender, religion, political views or group affiliation can be the result of ideological convictions, but are quite often the direct result of conditioned neural responses.

1. Craighead, W.E., and Nemeroff, C.B. (2004). The Concise Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science. John Wiley & Sons: New Jersey.
2. Brewer, M.B. (1999). The Psychology of Prejudice: Ingroup Love or Outgroup Hate? Journal of Social Issues, 55 (3), 429-444.
3. Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. Neuroleadership Journal, 1, p. 1-9.
4. Allen J. Hart, Whalen, P.J., Shin, L.M., McInerney, S.C., Fischer, H., and Rauch, S.L. (2000). Differential response in the human amygdala to racial outgroup vs ingroup face stimuli. Neuroreport, 11 (11), 2351-2355.
5. Meyer, M. L., Masten, C.L., Ma, Y., Wang, C., Shi, Z., Eisenberger, N., and Han, S. (2012). Empathy for the social suffering of friends and strangers recruits distinct patterns of brain activation 2012. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, March, 1-9.
6. Hein, G., Silani, G., Preuschoff, K., Batson, D., and Singer, T. (2010). Neural Responses to Ingroup and Outgroup Members Suffering Predict Individual Differences in Costly Helping. Neuron, 68, 149–160.
7. Lieberman, M. D., Hariri, A., Jarcho, J.M., Eisenberger, and N.I., Bookheimer, S.Y. (2005). An fMRI Investigation of Race-Related Amygdala Activity in African-American and Caucasian American Individuals. Nature Neuroscience, 8 (6), 720-722.
8. Olsson, A., Ebert, J.P., Banaji, M.R., and Phelps, E.A. (2005). The role of social groups in the persistence of learned fear. Science, 309, 785–787.
9. Santos, A., Meyer-Lindenberg, A., and Deruelle, C. (2010). Absence of racial, but not gender, stereotyping in Williams syndrome children. Current Biology, 20 (7), 307-308.
10. Terbeck, S., Kahane, G., McTavish, S., Savulescu, J., Cowen, P.J., and Hewstone, M. (2012). Propranolol reduces implicit negative racial bias. Psychopharmacology, 222 (3), 419-424.

Posted in Leadership, Neuroleadership, Neuroscience | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

You Might Not Like it, But Bad is Stronger than Good

By Manie Bosman

The owner of a car dealership I once knew was regarded by most who knew him as a complex man. He demanded that each working day started with a motivational team talk which was compulsory for all employees. An hour later the staff and patrons of the take-away restaurant across the road would roll their eyes and shake their heads as his daily ranting started – furiously shouting and swearing at employees who somehow managed to trigger his extremely sensitive temper. Similar outbursts would erupt throughout the day, but before closing shop he would call everyone in to thank them for their contributions on that day and habitually make an effort to ask for forgiveness if his “terrible temperament” had caused him to offend or hurt anyone on that particular day.

Done and dusted and everything okay? Well no – continuous high employee turnover, low levels of employee engagement, and lack of motivation manifested in a culture of constant internal conflict and poor service delivery which led to the total demise of the dealership within two years. All that in spite of an excellent location and a considerable initial capital investment which should have been enough to carry the business through until it became profitable. The owner had no option but to close the doors and retire, another potentially lucrative business which came to nothing.

So what really went wrong here? This is a classic (perhaps extreme) illustration of how a leader’s behaviour – and I’m not judging him for struggling to align his admirable intentions with his daily behaviour – can trigger a strong threat-disengage response in people’s brains, and ultimately lead to complete failure. In previous posts on neuroleadership, I have explained how our brains react to perceived “threats” and “rewards” in the social environment (in particular our needs for  status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness or fairness) in the same way and with the same intensity with which it reacts to physical threats (e.g. a predator, pain) and rewards (e.g. food, money). What I did not emphasize before was that threat responses have a greater impact and are far more powerful and easier to trigger than reward responses. This means that leaders need to be extremely attentive in managing perceived social threats in the workplace as these could ultimately have a severely destructive impact on the organization’s survival and success.

What I am saying is that in spite of the somewhat romantic notion that many of us hold which states that good always ultimately triumphs over evil, overwhelming evidence from research in different fields indicates that to the human psyche, the impact of “bad” is much stronger than the impact of “good”. In other words, leaders engaged in equal amounts of “good” and “bad” interactions with their followers are heading downhill fast.

In an article published in the Review of General Psychology the authors provide fascinating and very convincing evidence from different fields of study and research that people perceive negative experiences much more intensely than positive experiences. The effect of these negative experiences also seems to have a greater impact and to last longer than the effect of positive ones.

For example, studies have shown that a single traumatic experience can have long-term and even permanent effects on an individual’s health, happiness, outlook, self-worth and general behaviour. On the other hand there is little or no confirmation that a single positive experience can have even nearly the same impact. In one study participants were monitored as they processed the joy of receiving $50 and the anguish of losing $50. The researchers concluded that people were much more troubled over losing the money than they were happy about receiving the same amount.

Consider personal relationships – it could be logically assumed that relationships would last if we have more constructive and positive interactions than negative and destructive interactions. Well, research confirms this, but what might come as a surprise is the ratio between positive and negative interactions which is needed to maintain a steady relationship. Dr. John Gottman, author of 190 published academic articles and author or co-author of 40 books on relationships, studied more than 2,000 married couples over four decades. He proposes that for a relationship to succeed and remain stable, positive and good interactions must outnumber the negative and bad ones by no less than five to one. If the ratio drops lower than that, the relationship is unlikely to last. This means that contrary to what we might expect, the long-term success of our relationships actually depends more on not doing bad things than on doing good things. Gottman’s findings had been confirmed by several other researchers in recent years.

Numerous studies have concluded that we experience negative emotions more intensely than positive emotions. An interesting approach to this was studies which looked at language – the code with which we describe emotions. These studies concluded that negative emotions were more fully represented (there were more words to describe them) than positive emotions. One study which looked at words that described emotions showed that 62% described negative emotions while only 38% described positive emotions. Another looked at all the words in the English language describing personality traits and found that an overwhelming 74% of the total described negative traits.

Even our senses seem to experience negative input more intensely than positive inputs. In one study participants facial expressions were monitored as they were exposed to pleasant, neutral and unpleasant odours. The results indicated that people’s negative reactions to unpleasant odours were much stronger than their positive reactions to pleasant odours.

Perhaps most unsettling for those of us who are parents is that bad experiences have a far greater impact on a child’s development than good ones. Research shows that in the long-term the damaging consequences of, for instance, child abuse or sexual exploitation are more durable than any comparable positive childhood experience. Plainly put – the negative effects of bad parenting and bad childhood experiences have a much stronger impact on our lives than good parenting and positive experiences.

This tendency of bad having a stronger impact than good continues into nearly every sphere of our existence. Bad first impressions last longer and are harder to change than good ones; bad stereotypes are quicker to form and have a stronger influence on our behaviour than good ones; bad feedback has a much more profound impact on how we view our performance than positive feedback; the memory and effect of bad social interactions last longer than that of good social interactions; and the impact of bad health is stronger than that of experiencing good health.

So where does this leave us? Neuroscience has shown us that our brains and the brains of the people that we interact with are strongly influenced by how it perceives the social environment in which we operate. When it perceives a social threat (real or not) it goes into “survival mode” – functioning well below its best when needed to make decisions, remember, solve problems or collaborate with others. However, because we experience “bad” so much more intensely than we experience “good” (at a ratio of 5:1), we need to go further than just maintaining an equal balance in our work relationships. Routinely treating people badly and then asking for forgiveness is not an option. If we really want them engaged and committed we need to minimize negative interactions and create a culture where positive social interactions abound.

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Neuroleadership: Lead in a Way That Will Engage People’s Minds

By Manie Bosman

A few days ago I was in a bookstore and just about to pay when the cashier – a young lady – was interrupted by a colleague demanding to know why she had left her lunch box out on the table in the back room where I presume the staff took their meals. The cashier blushed, mumbled some vague reply and then went along to make a complete hash of the transaction, punching the wrong keys and making more mistakes as she tried to rectify the mess.

What I was witnessing was the activation of a strong “withdraw” response in the hapless cashier’s brain – a neurological process where her brain’s limbic system registered a social “threat” (her colleague’s insensitive behaviour in front of me, the client), kicking her brain into survival mode and subsequently severely impairing her cognitive performance. Plainly put, her brain’s ability to understand, make decisions, solve problems and communicate was weakened as it tried to deal with what it perceived as an emotional threat.

How does this happen? As discussed in my previous post on neuroleadership, research in the field of neuroscience is showing that our brains react to perceived “threats” and “rewards” in the social environment in the same way and with the same intensity with which it reacts to physical threats (e.g. a predator, pain) and rewards (e.g. food, money). So when your brain perceives a social “reward” (e.g. receiving recognition) an automated positive “engage” circuitry is activated. On the other hand, when you are humiliated (a perceived “threat”, as in the case of the cashier), the same neural circuitry is activated as when you are confronted by a gang of thugs or a dangerous predator.

When a threat response is activated the brain allocates fewer resources to the prefrontal cortex (where most conscious thought takes place, hence making us a little ‘dumber’ for a while) as these resources are needed to activate and sustain other areas of the brain where automated “fight or flight” reactions are managed. The young cashier’s ability to perform the simple routine action of ringing up my purchase was thus disrupted as her stressed and undernourished prefrontal cortex simultaneously tried to work its way through the perceived social threat (being humiliated) and ringing up my purchase. In stead of automatically doing what she probably does a hundred times or more a day, she was now trying to concentrate on what she had to do and at the same time figure out how to deal with the rude behaviour of her colleague. With so much going on in her already undernourished prefrontal cortex, her brain simply ‘choked’, causing her to make a total mess of what she was trying to do.

The fact is, each day millions of similar scenario’s play out in banks, corporate offices, supermarkets, waiting rooms, at filling stations, in churches, holiday resorts, meeting rooms, on playgrounds, in mosques, on trains and buses, in military bases, lecture halls, movie theatres, sport stadiums, restaurants and wherever else people interact with each other. Our brains automatically react to perceived threats or rewards in the social environment, triggering either an “engage” or “disengage” neural response.

So, how can leaders and managers best make use of this new insight, triggering more “reward-engage” responses and avoiding “threat-disengage” responses? David Rock, author of the seminal Your Brain at Work and the man who coined the term “neuroleadership”, has devised the SCARF-model based on five social needs our human brains have (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness). Research in neuroscience have shown that it is these specific social needs which can activate the same reward or threat circuitries in our brains that physical rewards or threats can activate. Understanding that the human brain is primarily a social organ which perceives the workplace as a social environment can help leaders manage and facilitate these needs to the benefit of the individual and team:


Status refers to our social need for comparative importance, significance, respect, esteem, and a place in the social “pecking order”. Several studies even found that for our brains, social status (aka sociometric status – how we are viewed by our peers) and respect are more rewarding and important than money or wealth (socioeconomic status). Also interesting although perhaps not directly relevant are other studies which found status to be the most significant determinant of human longevity and health! In the workplace and other social environments typical threats to status would be someone with a superior attitude, receiving negative feedback, failing in a way that makes you feel inferior, receiving patronizing advice, being left out of the group, being humiliated (the teller again), and receiving disapproving performance reviews. The status reward response can be triggered by a promotion, being publicly acknowledged, winning, receiving positive feedback, learning a new skill which increases your standing or just being respected.


Certainty refers to the human brain’s yearning to know what will happen next. Our brains are constantly assessing patterns in the environment and it prefers familiar patterns which indicate safe and easily predictable outcomes. Unfamiliar patterns causes the brain to go into an alerted state, which burns more resources as it uses the energy-hungry prefrontal cortex to process and assess the unfamiliar pattern. Not only is this energy-sapping, it also causes stress and impairs our ability to make decisions, store and retrieve information, solve problems and think creatively. Threats to certainty can include telling half-truths (hiding information), inconsistency, radical change, job-insecurity, new experiences or places and meeting strangers. Reward-responses can be triggered by familiar places, consistency, feelings of security and stability.


Autonomy refers to the brain’s craving to feel that we have choices about what to do and not to do and that we have at least some level of control over our environment and circumstances. One study indicated that by simply allowing people to make some autonomous decisions we can increase their motivation and engagement by up to five times! In the workplace our need for autonomy can be threatened by micro management, working in teams with very strict guidelines and policies, authoritarian ‘command and control’ leadership, and inflexible rules. A reward-response can be triggered by participating in decision-making, organizing your own workflow or even choosing what to focus on, self-directed learning, and own time management.


Relatedness refers to our need to feel safe with other people and to feel that we are part of the group. This need also includes the brain’s constant assessment of people as either ‘friends’ or ‘foes’. Strangers, or anyone who looks or sounds different from those I perceive as ‘my people’ (e.g. different race or culture), could trigger a threat just because my brain perceives them as not being part of the group with whom I feel safe.

Some fascinating research by Naomi Eisenberger and her team at UCLA’s Department of Social Psychology showed that social rejection activates the same reaction in the brain as physical pain. She explains that when people feel unwanted or left out, they frequently describe their feelings with terms also used to describe physical pain, such as suffering from ‘hurt feelings’ or a ‘broken heart’. “Our research has shown that feeling socially excluded activates some of the same neural regions that are activated in response to physical pain, suggesting that social rejection may indeed be painful.” In other words, the brain experiences social pain in the same way as physical pain – it’s real and not just ‘emotional’. In the workplace and other social environments threats to our need for relatedness can be triggered when you are being ignored, perceive that you are being excluded from the group (even by just hearing a remark such as “everybody is tired of you always being late…”), rejection, starting to work with a new team, being alone among strangers, or working in a culture other than your own. Neural rewards could be triggered by feeling included, feeling trusted, friendship, pursuing common goals, being coaching (experiencing it as an investment being made in your future with the group).


Fairness refers to our need for fair exchanges. According to Rock, experiencing fairness or unfairness again activates the same network that registers real physical pain or pleasure. He points out that throughout history people had been willing to go to extreme lengths – including sacrificing their lives – to right injustice and unfairness. Perhaps less dramatic but equally significant for leaders are recent studies which have indicated that for your brain (assuming you’re not reading this while on trial for money laundering), fairness could be more important than money. Threats to our brains’ need for fairness can be triggered by broken promises (explicit or implicit promises), expectations not being met, different rules or standards for different people, and inconsistency. Rewards for fairness can be triggered by keeping commitments and promises, maintaining transparency, open communication, and admitting mistakes.

So what’s the bottom line here? Your brain and the brains of the people that you interact with each day are strongly influenced by how it perceives the social environment in which you operate. When it perceives a social threat (real or not) it automatically goes into the neurological version of your car’s ‘limp mode’ – functioning well below its best when needed to make decisions, remember, solve problems or collaborate with others. When it perceives a social reward the opposite happens – it goes into high engagement mode where it is best able to think creatively, plan, remember, memorize, solve problems, and communicate. In a world where employee engagement has probably become the greatest single success factor for any organization, leaders who are serious about accomplishing success cannot afford to ignore this.

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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.

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Start From the Top to Build Loyalty From Below

By Manie Bosman

In the late 1980’s I worked in Olifants Camp in the Kruger National Park as a junior tourist officer for two six-month stints before and after doing my national military service. I was manning the reception desk on a scorching afternoon when one of the apartheid-government cabinet ministers and his considerable entourage arrived to book into the camp’s luxury guest house.

When it came to paying, the stately and somewhat intimidating (he was close to 7ft tall) minister offered me his credit card. In those days there were no telephones in the park and mobile phones weren’t around yet, so our only connection with other camps and head office in Pretoria was via long-distance radio. Because of the security risk of accepting credit cards in such a secluded location, the policy was that all credit cards had to be cleared by head office. As I started the process of raising them on the radio, the imposing minister completely lost his composure.

Do you know who I am?” he growled at me. “Do you think a minister will pay with a fraudulent credit card?” I could probably have explained to him that ministers have been found guilty of doing worse things than paying with fraudulent cards, but instead I tried to clarify the fact that it was Parks Board policy and that if something was actually wrong with the card and I had failed to have it verified, I would be liable for the damage. If I think about it now it is understandable that this feeble attempt to justify myself had exactly the opposite effect of what I intended – it drove him into a complete frenzy. Shouting and banging on the reception desk with his large fist he insisted to see the Camp Manager “immediately”.

At the time, the Camp Manager at Olifants was a man called John Marais. ‘Uncle John’ as most of us called him was known as a no-nonsense but fair man who treated everyone fairly but expected his people to perform to extremely high standards. He appeared and asked the raging minister if he could help. With arms waving and spit flying (or did I add that image later?) the now not-so-stately parliamentarian explained in his thunderous voice (no doubt a magnificent tool for intimidating opposition party members during debates in parliament) how I had humiliated him by checking HIS credit card, and demanded to know why this foolishness was necessary. John Marais listened calmly while looking the minister straight in the eye and then replied in a soft voice: “Because that’s how I taught him to do it”. This response took the wind right out of the rampant politician’s sails, as he was clearly expecting a fumbling apology. Crimson-faced and perspiring even more than he had when first coming in from the scorching African summer sun he and his entourage left for the guesthouse.

Now here’s the thing. If John Marais had apologized to the minister and explained that I was young and over-eager and clearly failed to use sound judgment, everyone would have been satisfied. The minister would probably have felt that his dignity was restored and I would have been all too happy to get out of the entanglement I had created. See, by this time I realized that I could have been a little more diplomatic in handling the eminent guest’s arrival. I would therefore have understood if John Marais used me as a (deserving) scapegoat to diffuse the situation. However, the fact that John Marais showed such extreme top-down loyalty in the face of a powerful threat that day became one of the most significant leadership lessons of my life.

Before this incident I had always respected John Marais, but from that day onwards I would literally have done just about anything for him. I worked harder to do things just the way he wanted them to be done, and didn’t mind ‘going the extra mile’ when I needed to. He never made me feel that I owed him any gratitude for standing up for me; in fact he never even mentioned the incident again. Yet knowing that he would stand up for me when it really mattered meant that he had my complete loyalty, trust and dedication.

Even more significant – the impact that he made in my life on that day reached far beyond the time that I worked with him in the Kruger Park. Showing top-down loyalty and leading by example became part of who I aspired to be as a leader (which for the record doesn’t mean I’ve got it all worked out to perfection yet). I later defined this approach as the leadership principle of “giving credit to your people when a project is a success, but taking full responsibility when it is a failure”. Over the years I had often shared this story during seminars and conferences and I suspect in that way John Marais’ example had also touched and inspired others. I trust that it will also mean something to you…

  • If you’re interested to improve the leadership capacity in your company or organization, the Strategic Leadership Institute offers top-end leadership development options to clients across the globe. Contact us for more about these dynamic programs or just to have a chat about how we can help you reach your full leadership potential.
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10 Practical Tips to Help You Build and Restore Trust

By Manie Bosman

Success is never determined by any single factor – it results from a mixture of critical elements such as effective leadership, vision, strategy, communication, adaptability and often-overlooked factors such as opportunity and timing. However, with information technology turning the world into an inter-connected, volatile, ever-changing globalized environment, trust had become one vital factor without which sustainable success at any level is just not possible.

Paul Zak is a neuroeconomist from Claremont Graduate University who joined forces with researchers from the World Bank’s Development Research Group in trying to find out why trust between people varies dramatically across different countries. In the course of their research, they made this remarkable discovery: 1

We discovered that trust is among the strongest known predictors of a country’s wealth; nations with low levels tend to be poor. …Societies with low levels are poor because the inhabitants undertake too few of the long-term investments that create jobs and raise incomes. Such investments depend on mutual trust that both sides will fulfil their contractual obligations.” – Paul Zak

The fact that trust is a decisive factor for a nation’s prosperity is incredibly significant, and should call political leaders and development organizations to rethink some of the strategies aimed at providing aid and support to struggling nations. However, in our changed globalized environment the dynamics related to trust remain the same whether you’re leading a nation managing a small local hardware store. Until a decade or two ago change was still a slow, linear and mostly easily predictable process which meant that managers could get away with an autocratic, ‘command-and-control’ leadership style. Because the change was slow and therefore easily manageable a manager could largely depend on his or her own skills, knowledge and past experience to remain competitive and successful. Once best-practice had been determined, employees were largely mere replaceable cogs in the wheel of systems and structures which was kept in place by hierarchical and often authoritative leadership.

With the snowball-effect of new information leading to new technology spilling over into constant new innovations, that no longer works. Leaders or managers need to cultivate, harness and channel the knowledge, skill and creativity of their employees in order to stay ahead. To do this they need to adopt a more collaborative leadership style which includes greater sharing of responsibility and involving employees in the decision making process. Numerous studies have shown conclusively that for employees to engage and commit themselves at this level, which often includes voluntary extra-role behaviour (doing more than what’s required in their job contracts), they need to trust the organization and leaders for which they work.2

Ready to re-commit yourself and pay some extra attention to improving the levels of trust in your workplace? Here are some practical trust-building tips to consider:

1. Model Trust

As discussed in a previous post (see Proof from Neuroscience that Trusting People Make Them More Trustworthy), evidence from neuroscience shows that by trusting people you could actually start a neurological trust-building process. When people feel trusted, the brain releases the neurohormone oxytocin which generally causes them to behave more trustworthy and to trust more. On a purely cognitive level, modeling trust as a leader would also set the example for others to follow.

2. Manage Expectations

When people’s expectations are not met, it triggers a number of negative responses all of which contributes to destroying trust. Expectations can be created by explicit promises (clear, direct spoken or written promises) or by implicit promises (promises suggested or implied indirectly).3 As a leader you need to manage both and make sure that promises are kept or if in extreme cases this is not possible, people understand why not and what to expect in future.

3. Keep Commitments

Closely related to the previous point, keeping your commitments will demonstrate trustworthiness. Leaders who jump from the one great (often unattainable) vision or strategy to the next will quickly loose support. When people see that you stay committed to the vision and to other commitments you’ve made they are more likely to trust you and to contribute towards the end goal.

4. Show Loyalty

One of the strongest building blocks for trust in any organization is top-down loyalty. A good leadership principle to apply here is to give credit and recognition to your people when the project is a success, but to take responsibility when it is a failure. Showing loyalty when people find themselves in a difficult situation or even during a personal crisis will go a long way to help cultivate trust.

5. Strait Talk

Many good-hearted leaders cause trust to deteriorate because they avoid saying what need to be said. Very often leadership is all about making the difficult calls and communicating this with your people in an open and straight manner. The golden rule here is to remain respectful and to distinguish between the individual (or group) and the issue – practicing the principles of neuroleadership where you also manage the neurological processes in social situations to attain the best possible results (see Proof From Neuroscience That Bad Leadership is BAD). If someone neglected their responsibility, for instance, address it in a way that shows your dissatisfaction with the deed without compromising the individual’s self-worth and identity.

6. Address Reality

While it is a leader’s task to create and cast a compelling vision for others to follow, this does not mean living in a dream where negative realities are ignored. In fact, an important part of leading people towards the vision is to keep them informed about where they currently are and what needs to be done to reach the vision. When things go wrong or when facing a crisis (also see Leading During a Crisis: 7 Lessons From the Costa Concordia Disaster), you will build trust by acknowledging this while facilitating the process of deciding how to overcome the problem.

7. Practice Accountability

Few leadership behaviours destroy trust more that leaders who take personal credit for success and seek scapegoats for failure. You can delicate the task but the ultimate responsibility remain yours. Be accountable and require others to be accountable too. By practicing accountability and acknowledging when you’ve made a mistake people will be encouraged to try new things even if it leads to failure – you not being scared of making mistakes will boost their confidence.

8. Communicate Clearly

Clear communication is the heart of many of the other trust-building practices that I’ve mentioned (also see our 3-part series on Leadership Communication). Keep in mind that communication is a constant two-way process between sender and receiver and as a leader it is your responsibility to enable the flow of information and responses in both directions. A critical part of good communication is to listen attentively – take time to hear what people have to say and think it through before responding. Listening to people make them feel respected and show that you have their interest at heart – a strong contributor to establishing affective trust between individuals.

9. Deliver the Goodies

Cognitive trust between individuals is formed when we perceive someone or something as responsible, reliable and competent. Because they demonstrate these characteristics, we hold the ‘rational’ believe that we can trust them. If as a leader you ‘deliver the goodies’ – results that benefit the individual and the organization, this will strengthen people’s cognitive trust in you. While your own skills, knowledge and experience will help, 21st Century leadership doesn’t require you to have all it all. It rather requires you to facilitate the flow of skills and knowledge and to know how and where to find what is required for success (see Ten Critical Skills Required to Lead Effectively in Our Global Village).

. Remain Human

Above all, remain human. The time is long gone when people in developed nations believed in untouchable ‘larger-than-life’ leaders who knew everything and never made mistakes. Showing that you’re human doesn’t mean sharing your every doubt and fear and projecting yourself as insecure and uncertain. As a leader you need to lead with confidence and conviction, but as a human being you should not shy away from showing that you’re sometimes vulnerable, that you have the same needs as others and that you sometimes make mistakes. Saying that you’re sorry (and meaning it) will go a long way in revealing your human side.

  • If you’re interested to know more about lifting the level of trust in your organization, the Strategic Leadership Institute offers top-end leadership development options to clients across the globe. Contact us for more about these dynamic programs or just to have a chat about how we can help you reach your full leadership potential.


1. Zak, P. J. (2008). The neurobiology of trust 2008. Scientific American, June, 99-95.
2. Sharkie, R. (2009). Trust in leadership is vitl for employee performance. Management Research News, 32 (5), 491-498.
3. Hall, V.(2009). The Truth About Trust in Business. Emerald Book Company, Austin, TX.

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