The Neuroscience Behind Leading Others

APPLYING BRAIN SCIENCE TO THE WORK WE DO EVERY DAY.

Psychology and neuroscience play an increasingly important role in how we shape ourselves as leaders. From the mnemonics and mind maps that allow us to memorize facts and faces, through to the use of mindfulness to increase concentration and positivity, these are becoming a key part of the toolbox of self-improvement.

But many of the most productive uses involve guiding and shaping the behavior of others.

SUCCESS THROUGH STORIES

The stories we tell ourselves are important in keeping motivated. Anyone with experience of depression, either personally or in friends and relatives, will be aware of the powerful feedback loops that can arise from negative thinking. Low self-perception leads to a withdrawal from the world, and to seeing events in negative terms. This makes the negative stories someone tells themselves about themselves seem all the more real. It can be crushing to motivation.

But those feedback loops can also happen with positive perspectives, something that educationalists and developmental psychologists make use of. Positive feedback to pupils is encouraged in schools because it nurtures the confidence to achieve great things. What applies to children applies equally to adults—if we are told positive stories about ourselves this can create self-sustaining feedback loops of confidence and productivity.

So look for the success stories your employees believe about themselves and reinforce them. Look for the negative beliefs and counter them. Build up positive rather than negative loops for a productive workforce.

PHYSICAL SPACE MADE MENTALLY HEALTHY

The way that our brains interact with our environment is central to applying neuroscience in the workplace. A chaotic and crowded physical environment crowds and clutters people’s thinking. Having others watch you work is great for simple types of productivity and terrible for more complex tasks, an observer effect that was one of the earliest discoveries of social psychology. So getting the environment right is crucial.

But we no longer work purely in the physical space of an office or plant. We also work in a virtual environment, one we interact with through smartphones and computers. Neuroscience can be used to set that interaction up in a more productive way, and like so many of its lessons, this becomes most useful when it is taught as well as used. Don’t just organize your electronic interface to support your productivity. Use the same principles to make your webpages and inward facing intranet more psychologically supportive. Provide guidance for others on how to do this.

In short, make your physical and virtual environment psychologically productive for everyone.

NOVELTY

The popularity of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) has turned the application of neuroscience to people management into something of a dark art. Its focus on reflecting and manipulating the mind-set of others, however well-intentioned its application, means that it works best when it is applied but not openly discussed with those it is used on.

But there are healthier, more open ways to use psychology for persuasion. If you’ve been on a training course on change management then there’s a good chance that you’ve done the bouncing balls exercise, in which the point of the video you watched is that you missed its biggest feature. It’s an exercise that hammers home how we can miss the elephant in the room, and why that happens. Novel psychological tricks like those shown on prime-time TV may be flashy and silly, but they can show people how their own behavior works, and so help them to change it. In the long term, this is more powerful than any amount of NLP.

So don’t just keep the insights of neuroscience and psychology to yourself. Use them to shape your whole workplace.

Originally appeared on Fast Company: http://www.fastcompany.com/3041046/the-neuroscience-behind-leading-others