Neuroleadership: What It Is, And How to Use It to Supercharge Your Leadership

Leadership is a field that always seems to have an abundance of “new” ideas. Truth is, most of these “new” approaches are the same old approaches dressed in new clothes. But once in a while, there are legit new ideas that come along and change the way leadership is practiced. And one of those legit new ideas that have turned generally accepted ideas about leadership on its head is neuroleadership.

The term is a combination of two obvious words – neuro and leadership. Leadership, we all know what that means. But the “neuro” part of the term is what’s really interesting. It refers to the brain and is the shorthand term for “neuroscience,” which is the study of the brain. The field of neuroscience has grown so much in the last 20 years due to scientists discovering more and more things about the human brain, which makes it possible for us to understand how we think from a more scientific and physiological basis, instead of just from a psychological perspective, which isn’t as objective as we’d all like to think at times.

So in short, neuroleadership refers to the practice of applying neuroscience in leading people. It’s that simple. And neuroleadership is already infiltrating many areas of leadership such as collaboration, decision-making, influencing people, organizational behavior, self-leadership, social interactions, strategizing and building trust with others.

Neuroleadership can be applied in 3 major ways: self-leadership, leading other people in a team and leading a whole organization. Again, the basis for its application is learning about how the human brain works.

Using Neurology to Motivate Others

If you’re a leader, whether in a formal or an informal setting, the ability to motivate the people you’re leading is a must. In fact, you can’t lead effectively or, even if you’re able to, you won’t be able to sustain it because people will only follow you willingly over the long term if you’re able to motivate them to do so. And when it comes to being able to successfully motivate your people, it’s crucial that you understand a very important neuroscience model or principle known as SCARF. It stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. These 5 motivational components were identified by leading neuroscientist and author of the book “Your Brain at Work,” by David Rock.

He demonstrates – by using neuroscience – how the human brain reacts to perceived threats and rewards, specifically through the neurotransmitter or brain chemical called dopamine. According to Rock, all types of human behavior are physiologically determined by the brain, which treats social needs – the components of SCARF – as actual, physiologically hardwired needs. Each component of SCARF can be thought of as:

Status: This refers to a person’s self-esteem or sense of worth. To be more specific when it comes to leadership, it refers to where a person feels he or she fits within an organization’s hierarchy, whether professionally or socially. This is one of the most powerful drivers of a person’s behavior within a group. When a person feels secure in his or her status, he or she will be much more pleasant to work or interact with. If that person feels threatened, you can expect to have challenges leading or interacting with this person.

Certainty: This refers to feelings of clarity and certainty about things that need to be done. If your people aren’t familiar with a task that you assign to them, they’ll use more mental resources compared to if the task is something they are already familiar with. And the more mental resources are needed, the more stressful it becomes for your people and their decision-making abilities may be impaired. More stress also makes them more challenging to work and interact with socially.

Autonomy: This refers to a person’s perception of how much say or control he or she has over assigned tasks and responsibilities. Based on neuroscience, a person’s brain will consider a lack of autonomy as a threat, which increases his or her stress significantly. But if a person’s given more freedom and control over what he or she’s doing, that person’s brain will consider it as a reward and thus, that person’s stress levels will be considerably lower, which makes the person easier to work and interact socially with.

Relatedness: It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that humans are social creatures. And one glaring manifestation of that is our natural tendencies to establish and maintain relationships and to form social groups. The way being part of a group or having relationships works physiologically to help people feel more positive and trusting is through the release of the hormone called oxytocin. This hormone helps regulate sexual reproduction and social interactions, hence the label “love hormone.” It’s also a hormone that leads to increased feelings of trust and an antidote to feeling depressed. So the more your people feel they belong in your group, the more they’ll trust you. And that means they’ll be easier to lead and interact with.

Fairness: This refers to a person’s perception of justice. When a person is confronted with something he or she perceives as unfair, that person’s brain will trigger its defense mechanisms because it’s interpreted as a threat. When a person feels that you lead the group with fairness and justice, his or her brain will perceive it as a reward and they’ll feel more pleasant. It’ll help make that person much easier to lead.

LEADERSHIP APPLICATION

So what does this mean for you as a leader? For one, if you’re still subscribed to the classic hierarchy of needs model of Abraham Maslow, you should reconsider your subscription because most experts in the field of psychology believe it’s not as relevant today as it was in the past.

To be more specific about how you can apply the SCARF neuroleadership model in leading your own people, Kimberly Schaufenbuel – author of a white paper called “The Neuroscience of Leadership” – recommends implementation of motivational strategies that will help your people feel that their social needs are generally being met. And what does this mean in practical terms? She suggests motivating your people by:
Be lavish in affirmations and hearty with your praise (okay, that’s more of a Dale Carnegie principle), or try to give your subordinates as much positive feedback as possible (the rephrased version of Kimberly Schaufenbuel’s recommendation);
Exert more effort to reduce words and actions that can be perceived as threats and instead, increase those that can be perceived as rewards;
Try to foster a greater sense of belonging or affiliation within your team, e.g., a sense of belonging, teamwork, knowledge sharing and camaraderie;
When leading your people, always keep in mind that your peoples’ brains will tend to move away from a perceived threat at a much faster speed compared to moving towards a potential or perceived reward; and
Increase non-monetary rewards that will help address your subordinates’ brains’ need for SCARF.

SCARF EXAMPLES

One of the most practical ways to make your subordinates feel better about their status in your group or organization is by rephrasing your words – especially when it comes to correcting them or calling their attention – in a more positive and non-threatening way. For example, if your team member, Gina, forgot to let you sign a document prior to sending it up to upper management, you can tell her:

“Gina, I appreciate the fact that you hardly ever make mistakes like this. You’re truly a big asset to this team. So how do you think we can prevent a mistake like this from happening again in the future?”

There are 2 key components here that will make her feel her status in the team is reaffirmed. The first is that it starts with affirmation. She’s affirmed for the fact that she hardly makes mistakes and, as a result, she’s a valuable member of the team. It communicates a secure status in the team and is perceived as a reward.

The second aspect of the example above is positively rephrasing the question. Instead of asking why she screwed up, she was asked how she will be able to avoid a mistake such as this in the future. Instead of focusing Gina’s brain on why she failed (which will probably lead her brain to live out those reasons yet again), the last sentence focused her brain to think about solutions, which will highly likely force her brain to live out solutions that can address the issue. Together, those 2 components work together to make Gina feel a higher status level in the team.

For certainty, you can either assign tasks to team members that have the most relevant experience with such tasks or, if not, give them just enough instructions so that they’ll be able to clearly understand what you want done, when do you want them done by, and how. But don’t give them instructions on everything they have to do because then it will affect their sense of autonomy. Just give enough information on what end results you expect from them and give them the leeway to do it their way. To make sure they know what they’re doing, you can ask them if they need help in figuring out how to carry out the tasks you assigned them. By doing that, you give them an opportunity to ask for more detailed instructions in case the task isn’t familiar to them.

For autonomy, a practical approach to giving your team members a greater sense of autonomy is to avoid micromanaging, particularly telling them how to do exactly what you want them to do. There’s a difference between telling a subordinate to buy 3 reams of paper supplies by this afternoon and telling him or her to get 3 reams of a particular brand of paper supplies only after he or she’s done photocopying of the report for the board of directors, and only after 3:00 pm. When you give too detailed instructions, you don’t give your subordinates enough autonomy and opportunity to make decisions. To the extent that you can, just tell them what you want done but give them leeway as to how to do the things you ask them to do.

When it comes to relatedness, one idea that comes to mind is making it a part of your team’s culture to give each team member time to express their ideas and opinions during team meetings. While you make participating mandatory, make sure that you affirm or praise them in one way or another for them expressing their thoughts or suggestions during team meetings. And to the extent possible, apply their suggestions to the team’s situations and acknowledge their contributions. That will definitely make their brains register such a practice as a reward, particularly by feeling more and more a part of the team.

And when it comes to a sense of fairness, it all boils down to simply walking your talk and doing the deed, especially when it comes to breaking team rules and meeting or exceeding expectations, more so with rule-breaking. One of the most profound sayings I’ve heard that relate to the feeling of fairness is from a former mayor of the Philippine capital city, Manila, who goes by the name of Fred Lim: “The law applies to all. Otherwise, to none at all.”

With regard to the need for fairness, another thing you should consciously practice is correcting people in private. Never berate – or even gently correct – a team member for his or her shortcomings in the presence of other team members. For one, other people have no right to learn of his or her shortcomings because they’re not the boss – you are. Second, it’s possible that there’s an acceptable reason for the shortcomings – a reason that absolves the person concerned of any responsibility or fault. If you berate or correct them in public and it turns out they’re not at fault, it will feel even more unfair or unjust.

LEAD WITH THE BRAIN

Neuroleadership can be a very powerful tool to help you lead your people much better by making them feel much better about themselves, the team and you. When you push the right buttons, neuro buttons, you’ll be able to motivate them to follow you and make your life as a leader much easier and more productive. By appealing to SCARF, you’ll enjoy a more supercharged leadership than ever before!

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