Simon Ashton: How should leaders use neuroscience in their leadership development?

What makes a great leader? For centuries this question has plagued scientists, philosophers, educators and professionals alike, desperately searching for that secret ingredient or combination of ingredients which have the ability to transform an individual from mediocrity to greatness. As International Leadership Week ends, I’ve found myself revisiting this question albeit through the lens of neuroscience.

For me, everything in leadership starts and ends with the brain. Where athletes understand and subsequently strengthen their bodies, effective leaders need to understand and strengthen their brains. Leaders who can grasp the workings of their own brain – and that of others’ – will always have a competitive advantage over their peers.

Neuroscience has gained a substantial following over the last 20 years and thanks to recent technological advancements, neuroscientists are now able to study and understand the human brain better than ever before.

The progress in neuroscience research has captured the neural processes that underpin behaviour, attitudes and motivations, helping to transform the way human beings interact with each other. It also allows us to understand why some traditional leadership approaches fail, whilst shedding light on what is needed to lead effectively during periods of uncertainty.

Even though an increasing number of articles, books, and publications have been devoted to the topic of neuroscience, not all of them apply research to the modern business environment nor provide any practical solutions. So, how can we utilise neuroscience to become better leaders?

Firstly, leaders need to become more emotionally intelligent by understanding what triggers them, positively and negatively.

With modern advances in technology, particularly AI and machine learning, emotional intelligence will become an increasingly important leadership skill in the future. In particular, leaders need to learn to tackle rather than ignore negative feelings in the workplace. Too often, we fear that expressing negative feelings such as anger, frustration and anxiety will impact relationships with colleagues and our wider reputation within the business. However, instead of suppressing negative feelings, leaders need to acknowledge and label them so that they can employ the appropriate tools for dealing with these emotional experiences rather than letting them control their response.

From the perspective of neuroscience, research using Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) imaging has demonstrated that labelling emotions leads to reduced activation of the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with anxiety and avoidance behaviour. Increased activation in the prefrontal cortex calms the amygdala, which enables the person to better access the thinking part of the brain to apply higher-level reasoning to the problem at hand.

Secondly, we need to understand that our brain is a social organ which feeds off social encounters – both negative and positive. Within the workplace we are continuously interacting with others, so in order for us to perform effectively, we need to prioritise healthy workplace relationships which stimulate and motivate our brains.

As leaders, our interactions with employees can have a real impact on employee engagement and productivity levels. Neuroscience has shown that employee engagement is strongly influenced by leaders’ ability to assist employees in meeting core social cognitive needs. These requirements can seem basic, such as defining objectives and expectations, instilling individual value, and helping employees understand their purpose and overall contribution to the organisation. Yet these basic steps provide employees with opportunities for growth, autonomy and improved self-esteem, and can improve employees’ attitude to work.

Leaders who cultivate healthy relationships which acknowledge and respect these social cognitive needs, create a safe environment and lay the foundation for employees to be proactive in their jobs.

Thirdly, we need to accept that we are humans, not machines, and neither are our brains. When working on a complex problem, it is important to take breaks and step away from thinking about the issue. For most of us, this seems simple. We’ve all had experiences of working on a problem with no solution, only to take a break or switch our attention to something mundane, and suddenly the answer seems to ‘come out of the blue’.

However, there are in fact a number of neurological reasons that can contribute to this. One key reason is that the brain needs fuel and this comes in the form of a steady supply of glucose. Research shows that memory, attention and problem solving are enhanced when brain glucose levels are maintained. Similarly, blood glucose levels decrease as a result of cognitively demanding work such as decision making.

For this reason it is particularly important for leaders to structure their work to include three key things – healthy snacks, fluids and breaks. Snacking healthily and remembering to hydrate, replenishes glucose levels, which restores thinking capacity. However this does not mean that you should be continuously reaching for nuts or an apple, a break without food is also often needed to allow some time for unconscious neural processing.

As well as taking breaks and watching your nutrition, choosing the timing of when a decision is made is in itself an important decision. The saying ‘sleep on it’ holds a lot of weight – just like all of us, the brain needs time to rest and replenish. Before coming to any hasty decisions, it is advisable to give yourself and your brain some time, as we are often unaware of when we are depleted or when low glucose is impacting our decision-making.

For leaders looking to grow and develop, understanding how our greatest asset, the brain, works, is not only ‘recommended’, it is essential. By understanding the brain, you are enabling yourself to identify where and how long-term positive change can be brought about in yourself and your organisation. For, how we lead is impacted by how we think, communicate, make decisions, build relationships, manage our emotions and motivate others. All of which is ultimately controlled by the brain.

Simon Ashton is a business psychologist, trainer and certified coach, with over 15 years’ experience in L&D. At Phoenix Leaders, Simon works with clients across a broad range of sectors to solve their L&D issues apply the most up to date research from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, social sciences. With both an academic and professional background in behavioural sciences, Simon helps organisations to gain a better understanding of how people act, think and feel, transforming performance and maximising potential to achieve tangible business outcomes.