• Christine Lithgow Smith

How neuroscience can help leaders inspire others into action

cc courtesy of flickr

I went to an amazing event this week. It was all about Neuroscience within the context of Coaching, and hosted by the entertaining Professor Paul Brown. What has Coaching got to do with Neuroscience you might ask? Well, that was one of the first things I learnt: in coaching we change the brain. Not how it works, but the connections it is able to make. And that’s important because by enabling those connections, we can change behaviour. You’ve probably heard about neuroplasticity and understand that we can change the connections in our brain, but do you know how we can do that? The first thing to understand is that our knowledge of the brain has exploded over the past 10 years. We now know that the clever stuff doesn’t just happen in our heads; it happens throughout the body. Interestingly, this links back to many of our old sayings. Remember “Don’t let your heart rule your head?” Well, it does; not literally out heart, but our emotions. Or E-motions as Paul described them. He described them this way because at a cellular level, it is our emotions that direct the energy of our behaviour.

Intelligent E-motions

Paul went onto say how Daniel Goleman had almost struck oil when coining the amazing term ‘Emotional Intelligence’ but from a neuroscientific point of view ‘Intelligent Emotions’ may be a more helpful way of thinking about it.

Historically, we’ve looked at behaviour from a psychological perspective and guessed what is happening. Now we can look at what is happening inside a live brain and see what is happening at a biological level. This is showing us some interesting things; like how we make decisions. According to Paul:

“Everything that has meaning in our system comes from the way experience has been attached to emotion, and then attached to language. All behaviour, including every thought, is underpinned by emotion and feelings.”

We’re learning how our brain works

The brain in our head is an electrochemical energy management system made up of 3 parts.
It is literally shaped by our experience of life, and surprisingly some experience from the lives of our predecessors. That experience is then used to create algorithms that help us to make decisions quickly; so quickly, many of these decisions are unconscious so ‘you’ as in your thinking-self have nothing to do with them. These decisions are made by your Limbic Brain. Interesting, this is your emotional brain not your rational one. It works a bit like the default on a computer. My default font is Calibri. Every time I type, I type in Calibri. There are other fonts available. I don’t know what they all are, and I am limited by the number of fonts stored on my computer. I need to sit down and look through all the fonts available, many of which I never knew existed or had forgotten about. Then I can decide which font will best suit my purposes. This involves a lot of effort. I am sure you will agree, it is much easier to stick with Calibri. If the font were stored in my brain and not my computer, I would need to engage my Neocortex, my rational thinking brain, and my Limbic brain as that’s the one that knows what alternatives are available and how to connect to them. Once I’ve made the connection I can change my font. That would work on one occasion, but it takes an awful lot of energy. And guess what? The next time I start typing the default is in place and I am back to Calibri again. If I want to move to something more exotic more permanently, I must work out how to change my default setting. This takes longer than a one-off change. In my brain, it is more difficult as I need to change the setting at an emotional level. Personally, even on my computer I need someone to help me to work out how to change my default. But I know I can do it myself if they show me. And the beauty of that of all that extra effort? Once I’ve changed my default, it keeps on working. It becomes effortless to me and I can direct my energy elsewhere. In our brains that default is determined by the algorithms I mentioned. That algorithm is directed by energy attached to our emotions by our Limbic (Feeling) brain, not our Thinking brain. It then offers a chance to our minds to make up a story that rationalises the directed behaviour and adds meaning for us giving the illusion that our Thinking brain is in charge. Clever? Yes. Intuitive? Absolutely. Rational? No. We are not rational beings. We, as our whole selves, are far more brilliant than that.

How is this helpful?

Now we can see our actions are fuelled by emotions and that those emotions have a far broader frame of reference than we do in our conscious minds perhaps we may benefit by paying attention to our emotions. Perhaps, if we can trust ourselves. Listen more to the signals from our bodies we can quieten our thinking brain and relax and enjoy life more. Imagine that.

But what if we are not doing what we want to? What if our experience from the past is not best placed to inform our behaviour for the future. What if the environment has changed. Our behaviour is not getting the best outcomes for us and we need to do things differently? Or if as leaders, we want to change someone else’s behaviour? What then?

This is where it’s helpful to understand a little bit more about our emotions themselves. Change is possible. We’re malleable: our brains can make different or new connections that release different hormonal responses that change behaviour. So how do we trigger this change at a cellular level? And what is an emotion? How does this differ from a feeling for example? I asked Paul this very question. He shared his findings from 15 years of research. This showed we have a core set of eight emotions that can be linked to three main reactions:

  1. Escape/avoidance

  2. Surprise/startle

  3. Attachment

When emotions like shame, disgust, anger and fear are felt we become more primitive in our actions. Instinctively we move away from what we perceive as a threat. This is where the well-known fright or flight kicks in and we can even freeze taking no action at all. When we are surprised or startled we become confused. Both are unhelpful when it comes to change. We are likely to resist and do what we’ve always done. This response is instinctive, it is not an indication of intelligence or ability. To change these reactions, these behaviours, we need to change our emotions. By moving towards excitement, joy, love and crucially trust we can create new attachments to that positive emotion. This enables the brain to make new connections, to re-set the default setting with its algorithm. It creates positive and lasting change.

And how do we create trust? Well, I’ve written a whole dissertation on that. For our purposes today, simply put it is dependent upon the quality of each relationship we have, and our day to day interactions.

The dawn of a new age?

This is exciting news for us here at Chrisalyst®. We have always recognised the success of organisational change is dependent upon taking a people-centred approach and now science is backing this up. The link between individual and organisational change is becoming clearer. Neuroscience is proving why traditional approaches don’t work and why the old line “70% of change fails” still holds true in many cases.

This new evidence that trust is key to driving change is essential for leaders to grasp. The human brain has a limited capacity of around 25 watts of energy. As far as we know, you can’t increase that. Leaders need to be able to harness this energy and trust their people to take their organisations forward. Only when we trust can we be our most amazing selves. Then we can direct our 25 watts most productively. We can get creative. By developing and changing our worlds within we make progress in the world around us.

Paul suggested this is a new age that needs a new type of leader who truly understands this. A leader that trusts their people and no longer leads through planning and control. He described this person as a ‘Limbic Leader’. Someone who engenders trust. Someone who has intelligent emotions. Who can “Connect. Be courageous. Be clever enough, walk their own talk.” Someone who can “inspire others into action.” There are already several Limbic Leaders out there and the results are clear from their amazing bottom-lines. Are you one of them?

Thanks to Prof. Jonathan Passmore for introducing Prof. Paul Brown and this fascinating topic and to Henley Business School for hosting such a fab event.

If you recognise you are not a Limbic Leader, would like help in creating positive energy and change in your organisation, or are about to transition to a new role or phase in your life please get in touch to see how we can help: coach@chrisalyst.com

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