Sandeep Gautam

The Fundamental Four

Good at Task, Bad at People?

The different leadership orientations based on anti-correlation between TPN/DMN.

Posted Jun 13, 2014

Default network

Default network (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Leadership theories have typically distinguished between a task-oriented leader and a people/ relationship-oriented leader. Some people are naturally good at accomplishing tasks and are focused on the project management aspect of leadership; while others are more focused around managing people aspects and are good in such soft areas.

New neuroscience studies have now an explanation for the same.

It is known for some time that the human brain contains of multiple large scale functional networks of brain region that may be separated in space. These have been determined variously, including by looking at the resting state brain activity and determining functional connectivity based on which regions have correlated vs. anti-correlated activity.

All regions comprising a large-scale functional network typically show correlated activity; while the network as a whole may show anti-correlated activity with some other functional network.

Two such networks of particular concern to us are the Task positive network (TPN) and the Default mode network (DMN).  These networks are typically anti-correlated meaning that activity in one inhibits the activity in the other.

The task positive network kicks into action whenever we are focused on a task; in contrast when we are not actively engaged in a task, the default mode network is activated and helps us muse about other people, our own memories, daydreams and future selves conceptualization etc.  .

Another way to look at the functions of the two networks is to use folk concepts.  Humans typically distinguish between the physical, inanimate world and the social, agent-full world.  Thus the laws that apply to say balls and pulleys don't apply to other humans and animals—or at least our brain makes a distinction between such animate and inanimate objects.

These two modes have been labeled mechanistic view of the world and a mentalistic view of the world.  It has also been posited that some neurodiversity in human population, like autism is due to an acute mechanistic perception, while psychotic tendencies are on the other end with acute mentalitisc focus and attributing agency even to inanimate or natural phenomenon.

One good way to think about the difference between the TPN and the DMN is to think of the TPN as specialized for mechanistic, analytical and reasoning based interactions; while the DMN is specialized for mentalistic , empathetic and self and other referential social interactions.

While any individual does use both the networks based on the appropriate situation—whether a mechanistic situation or a mentalistic situation, there is some propensity or inclination to rely on one network more and to the exclusion of the other in some people. Thus, some would view all situations with a mechanistic and reductionist frame; while for others every situation is about agents.

Thus some leaders whose TPN is particularly more activated or ‘strong’, are more likely to have a task orientation; while others whose DMN is more active will typically be more relationship oriented.

A good leadership style however is in using both the styles as appropriate to the situation. This however is different form using both styles simultaneously for the same situation.

It has been found that in normal people activation of TPN does lead to deactivation of DMN and vice versa; only in sociopaths lie the capability to have both the networks activated simultaneously- and that thus provide them with a unique advantage—manipulative-ness—or how to use people strategically and as objects instead of respecting and treating them as persons.

Thus, its imperative that when one talks about leveraging both networks or orientations for maximal effect, on still keeps the two domains separate and utilizes TPN for task-oriented work and DMN for people oriented work and doesn't mix the two domains.

Thus a good leader not only recognizes and differentiates the task aspects from people aspects but also is also able to utilize different underlying brain networks to be successful on all fronts.  

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