Executive Development Blog

The Neuroscience of Leadership: Practical Applications

Posted by Kip Kelly on Mar 20, 2014 1:55:00 PM

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The Neuroscience of Leadership

Management practices such as the open-book management approach encourage employers to practice open communication and transparency with employees to improve trust, teamwork, employee motivation, and performance. Studies evaluating the effectiveness of these methods show that they can also improve a company’s bottom line. Until recently, though, we did not understand the science behind these practices. Thanks to the field of neuroscience, technological advances in functional magnetic imaging (fMRI), and a 2013 commitment by President Obama to support a brain-mapping initiative to help us understand the workings of the brain, we are beginning to see the physical link these and other management practices have to the brain.

The Emerging Field of Neuroscience and Neuroleadership

Leaders and HR professionals are continuously searching for better ways to engage, connect, and lead others. New advances in the field of neuroscience may help us unravel the physiology of leadership effectiveness. Neuroscience is the study of how the nervous system develops, its structure, and what it does. This field is still in its infancy, and neuroscientists admit there is more they don’t know about the brain at this time than they do know. The mapping and studies done so far, however, have shown definite neural connections in the brain that have allowed scientists to develop a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of the brain and behavior.

As professors Adam Waytz and Malia Mason wrote in a 2013 article for Harvard Business Review, neuroscience has already revealed insights that are applicable to the workplace, including:

  •          How to promote creative thinking;
  •          How to structure rewards;
  •          The role of emotions in decision making, and;
  •          The opportunities and (mostly) pitfalls of multi-tasking.

Neuroscience and Leadership

In the not so distant past, the conventional definition of an effective leader was one who got results, boosted the bottom line, and generally forced productivity out of his or her employees. Some of the management practices used to get these results were unfortunately at the cost of employee motivation, retention, trust, and ultimately the bottom line. With a window into neuroscience, today we have more insight into how to improve leadership behaviors. Neuroscience research has found:

  •          A link between effective leaders and positive working relationships with others. Leaders with positive working relationships with others trigger areas in the brain associated with exciting attention, activating the social system, and other regions associated with “approach” relationships. Leaders with poor working relationships with others deactivated the social system and activated regions of the brain associated with narrowing attention, lowering compassion, and triggering negative emotions. Leadership development activities, therefore, should focus on building positive working relationships with peers and subordinates.
  •          A physical connection in the brain associated with trust, an emotion that is increasingly cited as a critical leadership trait to exhibit. The brain determines trustworthiness within milliseconds of meeting a person. That initial determination is continually updated when more information is received and processed, as the brain takes in a person’s appearance, gestures, voice tone, and the content of what is said. What this means for leaders is that it is possible to build trust among employee even if it has been lacking in the past.
  •          Gut feelings—those feelings that occur without conscious thought—are real, and this can be helpful in leadership development. Gut feelings trigger physical changes to the body like increased heart rate, sweating, blushing, and goose bumps. While gut feelings or hunches can be fallible, they can be used to help bypass complex and time-consuming analysis. Leaders can be taught to stop and consider gut feelings before making business decisions.

neuroscience of leadership

Neuroscience and Change Management

We now know that change is dreaded because the brain, which is hard wired to survive, perceives it as a threat. This deeper understanding of the fear of change has widespread implications for how business leaders and HR professionals approach change management. If change is presented as a crisis (“If we don’t change immediately, we’ll all be out of a job”) or if a “just do it and don’t ask questions” approach is taken, the change effort will likely fail. Leaders should try to reduce stress and anxiety by focusing on the positive aspects of the proposed change, asking questions, and listening actively to employees’ concerns. This process enhances the brain’s ability to adjust its response to the change and perceive it as non-threatening.

Neuroscience and Promoting Creative Thinking and Innovation

Neuroscience has found that there are sections of the brain tied to innovation and creativity.  The innovation section allows humans to transcend, to imagine what it may be like to in a different space and time. This area is unique to humans and is most effective when it is highly engaged. When people “transcend”, the brain detaches itself from the external environment and focuses inward. It is during this time that creativity is at its peak and those “eureka” moments are most likely to occur.

Another way to improve creativity is to appeal to another section of the brain Waytz and Mason call the “control network.” The control network allows the brain to focus on the present moment so it won’t wander all the time. This network works best when it is faced with limited distractors such as email, phone calls, the Internet, and all the other daily factors that draw us away from task and increase anxiety.

HR and talent management professionals can apply the knowledge gained through neuroscience to improve innovation and creativity by:

  •          Engaging the area of the brain associated with innovation. Establish programs that allow employees protected time to work on projects of their choice that advance the organization in some way.
  •          Engaging the control network to encourage focus. Establish and support “technology free” blocks of time when phones and email are turned off.

Neuroscience and Employee Engagement

Much of the same neuroscience findings that can be applied to improve leadership skills, reduce anxiety during times of change, and improve creativity and innovation can be applied to employee engagement.

HR and talent management professionals can use neuroscience to help improve employee engagement by:

  •          Fostering a top-down approach to employee engagement. Leaders and HR professionals should encourage and educate others on how to develop positive working relationships with their peers and employees to increase employee engagement.
  •          Making innovation and creativity a top organizational priority to improve employee engagement. It may be time to re-evaluate open plan offices, the constant barrage of emails, 24/7 access to technology, and other practices that neuroscience has found to reduce innovation, creativity, and focus.
  •          Discouraging multi-tasking.


Neuroscience has widespread application possibilities, from understanding the genesis and possible cures of such disorders as schizophrenia, autism, and Alzheimer’s disease to better understanding the science behind our interactions with others. By leveraging neuroscience and increasing our understanding of the brain, we can also enhance leadership skills, change management initiatives, creativity and innovation, and employee engagement. As we improve our understanding of how the brain functions, we can transform how leaders think, develop, and perform.

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Topics: leadership