Does the way the brain work offer insights for OD?

The study of neuroleadership is a new field, and at this conference there were a number of surprising research findings that are worth considering.  I have references should anyone like more information about the research or researchers.  A few of the highlights that have immediate interest or relevance for us all include:

  • Why is sleep so important for leaders?
  • What do we do next when feedback is questioned?
  • What can the brain teach us about motivation?
  • How to deal with a life full of intentions?

Why is sleep so important for leaders?

The sleeping brain is highly active, more active during the REM stages than when we're awake!  The brain uses this time to make connections and inferences, and helps us remember what's important.  Our memory is better after sleep and we are better able to regulate our emotions.  Studies have shown that after sleep deprivation we only remember the negative information, as opposed to the positive or neutral information.  The practice of 'sleeping on it' is a good one. Leaders and groups are encouraged to defer decision making on complex and critical issues until the next day and everyone has given their brains time to make the necessary connections and inferences.

What do we do next when feedback is questioned?

Comment on the usefulness of feedback came from a number of presenters.  A recent study has shown that feedback on performance results in change in only 30% of people studied, for 30% there was no change and for the final 40% it made the situation worse.  This is because feedback is often given about personality which is difficult to change, and about task detail which is also ineffective as we're much more likely to take notice of quantitative feedback i.e. I'd like you to hold weekly staff meetings.  We are largely habit driven e.g. 70 - 90% of us are stimulus driven, operate relatively automatically, learn in slow incremental ways and like working in routines.  10 - 30% of us are thought driven or reflective where we are deliberate and intentional, can work on higher order concepts and plans, and learn quickly.  The conundrum is that the habit system works best when people have implicit motivation to act whereas the thought system responds best to explicit motivation.  So for feedback to be effective, both groups need to learn new tricks, as feedback is largely designed for the people who better fit the thought system (although it's difficult to get this right for them).  Those in the habit system respond best to immediate feedback.  Food for thought?  What works best for you, and is your manager getting it right?

What can the brain teach us about motivation?

We know that sometimes when the incentives are high, performance can decline e.g. professional golfers, tennis players etc.  Yet incentives can drive performance and motivation as they tap into similar neural architecture (dopamine and opioid systems of want and like).  Short term fear may facilitate performance but it isn't desirable and can reduce performance.  Social comparison can be motivating when the rewards are closer together, than when they're far apart e.g. a small monetary difference is more motivating than a large one.  Key points:

  • it's rewarding to see others succeed, especially if they're similar to us and it's fair
  • it's rewarding to help others
  • team work facilitates social reward
  • it's rewarding to hear people say nice things about us

Several people referred me to Daniel Pink's Utube piece on Drive.  I haven't looked at it yet but it's probably worth a look.

How to deal with a life full of intentions?

At any one time we're likely to have thousands of open or unfinished intentions which then become distractions.  These create 'noise' and add to the complexity in our lives as we're constantly reflecting or ruminating on what we are not doing or finishing.  Our brain works best when we limit these intentions, better still when we transfer them to a piece of paper or record them in some way.  This confirms what we know about the benefits of writing down goals, as opposed to keeping them in our minds.  The recommendation is that we only work on 2 - 4 intentions (there was dispute about whether our brains work best with 2 or 4) at any time.  This also calls into the question that vast number of organisational intentions that we'd like everyone in organisations to remember (purpose, intent, outcomes, outputs, goals etc,) and work with.  Perhaps it's time to give our brains a break and limit the distractions we're providing.