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The Neuroscience of Leadership Behaviour at Work

Working with the brain in mind helps us to build better leaders, teams and relationships.

Emerging neuroscience is exploring the impacts of leadership behavior upon team and organizational performance.

Rigorous studies are offering better insights into how practices such as authenticity in leadership, open communication and understanding really do enhance trust, teamwork and motivation.

Importantly, it also points to how dramatically inauthentic leadership with poor empathy, trust and communication can shut down even the best individuals and teams.

The human brain has developed with deep survival mechanisms that trigger emotional reactions to real or perceived threats, and these threats can include the impacts of the behavior of others upon us. Leaders in particular can trigger strong reactivity in team members.

The “amygdala moments” or “flight or fight” responses that originate from the limbic system of the brain can be triggered by poorly chosen words or behaviours from others.

Recent White Papers and studies from the likes of the University of North Carolina and our own friends at the Neuropower Group in Brisbane have been linking the neuroscience to impacts in workplaces.

A leader in the field of neuroscience and leadership, David Rock, has also coined the phrase “Neuroleadership” in 2009 to focus upon the importance of understanding the impacts of leadership behavior on the human brain.

Certain behaviours can trigger positive reactions within the social systems of the human brain that can enhance engagement, whilst others can rapidly disengage people and lower morale.

In a recent study cited by Boyzatis in the Ivey Business Journal cutting edge FMRI technology was used to measure reactions within the brains of managers when they were asked to recall previous experiences with leaders.

When recalling interactions with effective and resonant leaders there were actually fourteen regions of the brain activated. These were largely regions associated with excitement, positive attention and relationships.

When asked to recall ineffective and dissonant leaders only six regions activated, this time associated with narrowing of attention, negativity and a drop in compassion. Eleven regions of the brain actually de-activated. This is compelling evidence of the power that behaviors from others can have upon us.

The social systems of the human brain seek safety, inclusion, fairness and authenticity from leaders and fellow team members as an integral function of our survival within social networks. Much of this happens sub consciously.

Leaders that engender genuine feelings of safety, fairness, authenticity and openness actually help to trigger a chemical in the brain known as “oxytocin”. This chemical (amongst other benefits) makes people more receptive to feeling genuine trust towards a leader.

The social brain therefore prioritises leaders who are not perceived as a threat and who do not trigger feelings of injustice, anger or frustration.

The human brain also possesses what are known as “mirror neurons” that are associated with feelings of empathy. Distrust from a leader can actually be somewhat contagious as these mirror neurons have been found to sub consciously detect and then actually mirror back individual distrust. So genuine trust can breed trust, and distrust more feelings of distrust in others it seems.

Leaders thus benefit from practical understanding into their own behavioural strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of their colleagues. We have used the Belbin Model and its profiles and reports very successfully in this regard.

When people can use evidence-based insights into their own behavior and that of others, it’s far easier to understand not just your own strengths, weaknesses and triggers, but also those of the team members around you. External behaviour naturally has far deeper origins, including within the social brain, but this is the external evidence leaders can work with most readily at work.

A common language to explore behaviour and its impacts (of the sort provided by Belbin) enables practical positive actions to be taken day to day.

Building understanding and better relationships between leaders and teams helps to open up pathways within the human brain that encourage not just better engagement, but also enhanced trust and openness to new ideas and better approaches.

The human brain can for example perceive change as a threat and react accordingly unless leaders are trusted and focus appropriately upon people’s fears, motivations and reactions to change. This is particularly the case with people of certain behavioural types. In such instances where a leader knows a person is particularly vulnerable in this regard, behaviour can be better managed to suit.

Innovation and the pursuit of innovation from individuals and teams also can be undertaken more effectively with the brain in mind.

Periodic disengagement from technology such as such as smartphones, tablets and desktops as well as unstructured “creative time” suits the social brain, particularly in some behavioural types according to recent research.

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of our own behavior at work, and that of our colleagues, better enables us to work with the social brain as opposed to against it. This can lead to better relationships and better business outcomes.

Getting this right enhances organizational performance and profitability, hence the growing interest from many business leaders.

To find out more about how we measure behaviour and its impact within teams visit and

Sources and further reading:

Schaufenbuel, K, 2014, The Neuroscience of Leadership, University of North Carolina Kenan-Flager Business School

Boyzatis. R, 2011, Neuroscience and Leadership, Ivey Business Journal

Waytz A and Mason M, 2013, Your Brain at Work, Harvard Business Review

Rock D, 2009, Your Brain at Work, Harper Collins.

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