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Why Today's Leaders Need to Know Psychology

The neuroscience of emotion and motivation has much to offer leaders.

While many people think leadership is all about the bottom line and maximizing profits, it is actually mostly about people. The best leaders are masters of motivation and inspiration. The leader's task is to create and sustain a positive emotional climate in which the stress and demands of working in a competitive, changing world are offset by the support of colleagues, opportunities for growth, encouragement of creativity and innovation, and sharing the rewards of organizational success. The past decade's research in brain science has uncovered a tremendous amount of knowledge about emotional functioning, yet leaders are often unaware of this information or the way it is presented makes it inaccessable and not user-friendly. Managing anxiety, dealing with uncertainty, and motivating people are three areas in which science-based psychological knowledge can make leaders considerably more effective.

Managing Fear and Anxiety

As a leader, you need to manage fear and anxiety so you can make effective decisions under pressure and maintain the confidence of colleagues, employees and customers. This is a particularly difficult task given that your brain is naturally wired to predict and detect threat and danger. Your amygdala, a structure in your lower brain that also exists in animals, has been functioning for thousands of years as a threat detection and alert center, sounding your biochemical alarm bells loudly to warn your brain and body of impending danger. Because of its location, information gets to the amygdala much faster than to the prefrontal cortex, the area behind your forehead in which you weigh past experience and current conditions and create a rational response. This results in the unfortunate situation in which many of your immediate emotional reactions are unconscious and rapid, hijacking your brain before you even know what’s happening. If you have faced childhood trauma, abuse, or attachment disruption, you may be particularly prone to amygdala-based alarm responses when you perceive possible threat, betrayal, or rejection.

How Psychology Can Help:

Just understanding how your brain processes emotion means you can choose to take a mindful breathing break, rather than acting on impulse. Training or coaching by a psychologist who knows brain science can help you become the CEO of your own brain. With new knowledge and lots of practice, you can rewire your brain and physiological fear networks to be less reactive and lessen the control of unhelpful ways of thinking based on brain biases and past, negative experiences.

Dealing With Change and Uncertainty

Brain science studies that use fMRI technology to scan brain responses in real time are helping us understand how animals and humans react when outcomes are uncertain. Authors such as Jonah Lehrer describe our brains as “prediction machines” that constantly try to predict what is going to happen next and help us mount the best response. In fact, when our predictions come true, “reward” centers of our brains light up in the ventral striatum and we get a rush of dopamine. On the other hand, an unexpected change in the availability or schedule of rewards creates frantic, unpredictable brain firing that spreads across neuronal networks, combined with increased amygdala activity. In other words, our brains view change and unpredictability as threats. In one famous animal psychology study, mice exposed to unpredictable shock got stomach ulcers, while those exposed to the same amount of signaled shock did not.

Your brain is naturally risk-averse, preferring familiar and predictable circumstances to the unknown. In an effort to avoid uncertainty, people make decisions that are not in their best interests. Uncertainty confuses your brains and makes it more likely you will resort to familiar “common-sense” strategies and choices that overly simplify the new situation. Authors Kahneman and Tversky call these strategies “heuristics.” Leaders faced with uncertainty are often slow to adapt, or they stubbornly resist facing the fact that past successful strategies no longer work in the face of innovation and new competition.

How Psychology Can Help:

Knowing that your brain is uncomfortable with risk means you don’t shy away from new strategies, miss opportunities, or get overwhelmed with contradictory information. Leaders can consciously decide to tolerate some emotional discomfort so as to remain open to new information. This can help you update your strategies and take strategic, calculated risks to harness the opportunities of a changing world.

Motivating People

Psychological research has uncovered the bases of human motivation and willpower. We humans are naturally motivated to maximize reward and avoid pain. This means that short-term discomfort or obstacles can discourage leaders from implementing policies that create better long-term effectiveness or open new possibilities. Further, when leaders don’t explicitly support and reward innovation, it is less likely to happen, since it is more risky and painful than “business as usual.” When leaders punish people for making mistakes, they kill innovation, but when they treat mistakes as learning opportunities, they help employees to grow their skills and try new, creative solutions.

In many ways, willpower acts like a muscle that can tire and break down from overuse. It is affected by our immediate environment, current mood, sleep, nutrition, and longer-term stress. Motivation and willpower can be improved when we feel supported, are working as a team with trusted colleagues, and buy in to the values and mission of our organization. Such buy-in can be strengthened with visible reminders, such as office posters, and enthusiastic communication about mission and values in word and deed at every level. Every member of the organization should understand the importance of his/her role, and how it connects to the overall purpose. Leaders should “walk the talk” and serve as role models of the attitudes and commitment they ask of employees.

How Psychology Can Help:

Understanding the principles of motivation can help leaders to maximize employee engagement and commitment. We all want to feel like we belong to a larger group that will offer us some protection, opportunities, social connection, and fair treatment. Further, we want to feel like valuable and appreciated team members. Living in fear of making a mistake, perceiving unfair treatment or exclusion, or distrusting leaders can create unnecessary psychological stress that interferes with employee motivation. Leaders need to actively manage aspects of organizational climate that affect stress levels, create mechanisms for ongoing feedback, growth, and encouragement, and promote a culture of fairness, open communication, and transparency, so that employee’s amygdalas can relax and allow their rational and creative thinking centers to get the job done!

About The Author:

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, and expert on Mindfulness, Managing Anxiety, and Depression, Succeeding at Work,, and Mind-Body Health. Dr Greenberg provides workshops and speaking engagements for your organization and coaching and psychotherapy for individuals and couples

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