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Demystifying Neuroleadership: Creating Inspiring And Collaborative Environments

By Jacqueline Codsi,, CRIA, ASC and Nathalie Langis, M. Sc. CRHA

Article published in Le coin de l’expert of the HRPA

While Human Resources Professionals have been skeptical of NeuroLeadership, which has been on the rise in the business world, after thorough examination there is no doubt that NeuroLeadership provides excellent tools for organizations. NeuroLeadership enables organizations the decisive factors that create inspiring and collaborative environments, while simultaneously avoiding poor morale and apathy that so often results in the loss of talent and high turnover in organizations.

Based on scientific research, NeuroLeadership explores several dimensions of the human brain. Historically the two fundamental responses in the brain: approach (reward) and avoid (threat), have been viewed primarily as survival responses. Today’s research, however, indicates that these neurological responses also directly apply to human social experience. Avoidance involves fleeing what might constitute a threat (either real or perceived), while approach involves maximizing rewards. Across all types of relationships, at home or in the workplace, these primal reactions deeply impact human behaviour. Triggering these responses can lead people to either be on the defensive (avoidance) or be open to collaboration and connectedness (approach).

The feeling of commitment produces increased activity in the human brain’s neurological circuits, which in turn produces the dopamine hormone (a “reward” neurotransmitter) that is released in the prefrontal cortex. Therefore, a person who feels commitment will have greater emotional and cognitive capacities, and their memory will also be improved.

On the otherhand, feelings of apathy stimulate the brain’s defensive circuits signifying a threat; and therefore, individuals experience anxiety. As a result, their energy will be spent on defense and survival mechanisms leaving them with fewer resources for concentration and productivity. It has been shown that often they will distrust others and take fewer risks.

According to the SCARF model created by David Rock, five factors or fundamental needs are hypothesized to modulate these two types of neurological responses. When these needs are fulfilled, a human being will achieve a higher level of confidence and collaboration. However, when they are threatened, the brain goes on the defensive and survival and avoidance coping mechanisms are triggered.

StatusThe need to maintain a certain status or preserve one’s “rank” in relation to others.
CertaintyThe need for certainty and security helps to predict the future and adapt.
AutonomyThe need for autonomy provides individuals with a sense of choice and control over their own destiny.
RelatednessThe need for belonging, or to feel part of a group (formal or informal) and the ability to count on its support.
FairnessThe need for equity and justice, the feeling of fair exchanges between people

By considering these factors the SCARF model can help HR Professionals to collaboratively and creatively resolve problems in the workplace. On the other hand, if these five factors are not considered or supported organizationally, individuals are more likely to feel threatened (avoidance) and poor performance and high turnover become more likely.

The Real Challenge for Managers and Organizations is:

  • To recognize the complexity and diversity of their workforce, and to adjust their individual and group interventions , by using the elements of the SCARF model.
  • To invest the energy necessary to get to know their employees, and identify the SCARF elements that are most likely trigger a defensive reaction (avoidance). Being conscious of these triggers will help foster a positive work environment where individuals will work to their full capacity, thereby better serving their team and the organization as a whole.
  • To review their individual and organizational strategies by by consciously taking the SCARF model into account.

Such insights should also motivate managers and human resources departments to rethink their HR processes.

A few relevant questions:

  • Performance Management : When someone’s performance is not up to par – is closer and tighter supervision the answer?
  • Management style : is the situational model still relevant?
  • Clarity of goals and mandates : What is the right degree of clarity and detail for each individual? The same amount of detail might be insufficient for the individual who has a greater need for certainty and who deals poorly with ambiguity, but it could undermine the need for autonomy felt by another member of the team.
  • Managing change : Rather than consider employee resistance an obstacle that one must avoid, listening to the employee’s concerns and taking them into account could lead to moving away from avoidance towards a form of collaboration.

NeuroLeadership can be helpful in readjusting certain approaches to guidance and mentoring, change management, career management, and coaching. The tendency of some managers and organizations to concentrate exclusively on performance and results should be revisited. In talent management and organizational change strategies, it’s time that organizations acknowledged the equally fundamental importance for their own survival by taking the time to survey the degree of commitment and mobilization of their employees, and to listen to their concerns and “resistance”.

NeuroLeadership opens the door to some powerful tools, based on rigorous science. Leaders are constantly concerned about taking effective action that pays off in terms of results and commitment. A better understanding of how the human brain works truly facilitates changing behaviours more promptly. Although trends in human resources have evolved over the years, it is certain that NeuroLeadership is far from being a passing fad.