Healthcare Informatics and Technology Investors
Healthcare Informatics and Technology Investors


About Team Role Theory

History & Research

Reliability & Validity

Dr. Meredith Belbin

Behavior vs. Personality



The Inner Workings of the Executive Brain

By A. Blackman; April 27, 2014; Wall Street Journal

Take much of what you know about how the best executives make decisions. Now, forget it.

For instance, most of us "know" that tight deadlines bring about inspiration. Except they frequently don't. Instead, they typically are counterproductive—making people less creative precisely when they must be. Or many of us assume that when we try to solve problems, we're drawing around the logical parts of our brains. But, in fact, great strategists manage to draw on the emotional and intuitive aspects of their brain much more.

These are some with the insights coming from the arena of neuroimaging, where scientists use sophisticated machines to map what are you doing inside the brain when people do jobs or ponder problems. The work remains to be in its early stages, but nonetheless it offers an extraordinary opportunity that wasn't possible before.

Researchers can see how people's brains react to a situation—a procedure that, obviously, the topics themselves can't see, aside from explain. That intentions to provide a much clearer look at how leaders make good choices, and how other people can learn how to follow their example.

Here's a good look at some of the discoveries researchers have made.

Want Innovation? Be Wary of Deadlines

We often think a deadline might help us get rid of inertia and concentrate on finding a job done. But the brain research suggests the opposite holds true. A deadline, instead, more often limits our thinking and can lead to much worse decision making.

Richard Boyatzis—as well as colleague Anthony Jack and others—has found out that a tight deadline increases people's urgency and stress levels. These people show more activity in the brain's "task positive" network, which we use for problem solving. But it's not the part from the brain that comes track of original ideas.

"The studies have shown us that this more stressful a deadline is, the less open you happen to be to other methods for approaching the problem," says Dr. Boyatzis, a professor inside the departments of organizational behavior, psychology and cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University. "The very moments a lot more organizations we'd like people to think outside of the box, they can not even begin to see the box."

For example, an IT manager being pushed to produce a new software product quickly might rush to have all the bugs fixed. With less pressure, she or he might have taken a step back, asked why all of the problems were cropping up within the first place, and come with a completely different way of writing the code that worked more smoothly and didn't produce the glitches.

Does that mean companies should get rid of deadlines? In most cases, that's not realistic. So Srini Pillay, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School and founder of the coaching firm NeuroBusiness Group, points too companies help employees reduce stress and access the creative parts with the brain even when they're pressurized.

One such strategy is learning to let the mind wander, with exercises like meditation. In that mental state, the creative part from the brain tends to be active. "When people hit a wall of their thinking, generally speaking they start thinking harder," says Dr. Pillay. "What the neuroscience research tells us is that it's more essential to think differently."

Big Unknowns Lead to Bad Choices

The ticking clock of a deadline isn't only type of pressure that produces for bad decisions. So does uncertainty, like feeling your job or your company's future is under threat.

Dr. Pillay cites a study that found that feelings of uncertainty activated brain centers associated with anxiety and disgust, knowning that such concerns naturally cause certain sorts of decisions. "In points during the uncertainty," he states, "you start acting away from that sense of doom and gloom."

The problem, he states, is how the study also showed that 75% of individuals in uncertain situations erroneously predicted that bad things would happen. So the reactions and decisions which were made based on fear and anxiety could come to be exactly the wrong moves.

Let's say a company is having a tough time navigating the weak economy. A manager who's mired in doom -and-gloom thinking could possibly be too pessimistic to engage new staff or spend money on new equipment. But those might be exactly the moves the corporation needs to gain ground on competitors.

Given that uncertainty is really a hallmark of countless modern workplaces, the solution lies not in trying in order to avoid it, but in finding out how to accept it. "It's crucial that you be aware that your response might be an exaggeration," Dr. Pillay says.

Dr. Pillay recently coached executives at a large energy company on making decisions amid uncertainty, and centered on helping them know that no decision is final—if circumstances change, you can always re- evaluate it later. That can take the pressure off, he says, and free people to act. Simply being conscious of your tendency to embrace doom-and- gloom thinking in uncertain situations, and consciously countering it by reframing an issue in positive terms, may also be effective.

Good Thinkers Look Past Facts

Everybody is aware from the classic—and revered—image from the hardheaded decision maker, who cuts through nonessentials and goes after cold facts. But researchers have found the truth is far more complex: The best leaders seem to lean on their emotions far more than logic.

Roderick Gilkey, a professor of management and associate professor of psychiatry at Emory University, conducted research with colleagues to check out what happens when executives are making strategic decisions. They gave a group of midcareer executives a couple of management scenarios and requested their analysis and recommendations, then scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging when they completed the tasks.

They anticipated to see a lots of activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area from the brain known for its involvement in things such as planning and logical reasoning. There was activity there, but different areas from the brain were dominant—those associated with social and emotional thinking. And the more adept strategic thinkers within the group displayed much higher numbers of activity in these areas.

"The potential conclusion is always that people who are good at strategy are better at sensing or feeling their way through strategies, rather than relying only on logic and being rational," says David Rock, director with the research organization NeuroLeadership Institute.

For example, the average manager tasked with improving a business's income might embark over a cost-cutting program including layoffs, and would dismiss any emotional reaction as weakness. A good strategic thinker would pay attention to those emotions and think with the full, long -term impact of the cuts on things like employee morale, retention and productivity. The result could possibly be a different method of improving profitability.

The research ties in with findings from other neuroimaging studies, showing that social and analytical thinking make use of very different areas with the brain, knowning that social thinking plays a more essential role than previously thought. In other words, developing a good capacity to look at a problem through other folks's eyes is equally as important as being capable of analyze the important points.

An average leader, for instance, looking to execute a controversial new strategy might assume that it's enough to share with the team what should happen, without recognizing that they may go through their status may be attacked when you're left out from the discussions. An exceptional leader would instinctively recognize the need to get everyone aboard and not simply present a fiat.

"When you're making a decision within an organization, additionally you need to consentrate about people and their reactions," says Dr. Rock. "A lot with the strategies that go wrong are because managers haven't thought through what are the results when this hits people."

The problem is most people do not switch very effectively between your social and analytical modes of thinking. "Our mental abilities are certainly capable of switching back and forth, but we do not actually do it a whole lot of. When we enter into a particular mind-set, it has a tendency to be reinforcing," says Matthew Lieberman, professor of psychology with the University of California, Los Angeles.

He says that easy reminders may help. If you're in a very meeting, as an example, and realize that you tend to acquire caught up in numbers and analysis, you might have prompts inside your notes reminding one to take the social temperature with the room at regular intervals.

Leaders Should Stay Positive

Another area of research goes beyond decision making and looks at how good leaders inspire others—from investigating both the leaders and the ones they are leading. The secret looks like it's the carrot in lieu of the stick.

Dr. Boyatzis among others have done brain scans considering what happens when we recall their interactions by having an effective leader. The patterns were much like those found in another study where people were given positive coaching. Areas in the brain involved in social thinking were activated, together with areas related to positive emotions.

The best leaders, this indicates, are efficient at motivating people with items like encouragement, praise and rewards—thereby creating a strong emotional bond and a sense purpose among employees.

"We have this lingering considered that you have to be negative and tough to have things done, in the event the data says that's just not true at a very basic human level," Dr. Boyatzis says. "It's to avoid with gender or cultural differences or anything else. It has to do with how your brain is wired."

Meanwhile, other researchers are investigating the inner workings from the leaders themselves. David Waldman, a management professor at Arizona State University, worked as a chef with Pierre Balthazard and other colleagues to perform brain-imaging studies on corporate executives, entrepreneurs and army officers. Their aim is to discover how electrical brain functioning differs in effective rather than-so-effective leaders.

One with their findings has to do with inspirational leadership—the capacity to articulate a vision that inspires people and makes them buy into your strategy. Not only can these people see the big picture, however they can put that picture into clear words and impart it to others.

Crucially, researchers have found that those abilities are closely linked with connections between certain parts in the brain. Good leaders apparently make those connections naturally, while less efficient ones don't.

Now Dr. Waldman and his colleagues are wanting to apply that knowledge by training people to access those regions with the brain. The process involves neurofeedback, a technique that trains the brain to learn new processes. A computer monitors people's brain patterns as they observe activity over a screen, including a movie. Then the computer gives people positive or negative reinforcement.

If the people aren't displaying the specified brain patterns, for instance, the screen they're watching might go fuzzy. When they do display the best brain patterns, it becomes sharp again. Gradually, people's brains learn to follow the patterns which are positively reinforced.

The theory is the fact that by the end in the training, people's brains will access those visionary-leadership areas naturally—and, with any luck, make it easier for them to inspire people easier.

"We are right about the cusp of being capable to assist leaders to rewire their unique brains through neurofeedback," says Dr. Waldman. "It's determined by a lots of research, along with the idea is to recognize patterns of brain activity which might be reflective of an better leader, then give direct computer training to help individuals develop those patterns for themselves."

He says the technique is already being used in other fields, like treating attention- deficit disorder. But neurofeedback still needs more research before researchers could be sure it's going to work in developing leadership ability. Even if it can, it's going to most likely have to be used in conjunction with more traditional techniques, such as coaching.

"We think this might be something that becomes an important part in the arsenal of techniques in leadership development," he admits that.