January 10, 2019 Influencing, Leadership, Neuroscience

Neuroscience explains why Leadership Development fails – and how to succeed instead

Is Leadership Development preventing leaders from developing themselves?

Approximately 75% of organizations find their leadership development programs ineffective, according to various surveys carried out by I4CP, the Institute for Corporate Productivity. Why does this matter? Because today more than ever, organizations need leaders who are capable of driving strategic and culture change in order to accelerate the pace of innovation, gain a competitive advantage and increase profitability in local and global markets.

However, despite massive investments in leadership development, only 17% of executives believe their organization has the leadership capabilities they need to achieve their goals (source: Korn Ferry ‘Real World Leaders’ reports).

A lack of adequate leaders doesn’t just affect the bottom line, it can undermine an organization’s existence.

What Neuroscience teaches us about a leader’s brain

For extreme simplification, let’s focus on three regions in our brain, the Primitive Brain, the Emotional Brain (Amygdala) and the more evolved Executive Brain (Prefrontal Cortex).

Ideally, our Executive Brain should be engaged most of the time, especially at work, because it helps us to think strategically, solve complex problems, stay focused, and build trustful relationships.

However, if we feel judged, criticized, ignored, overwhelmed, or if someone else decides for us and we don’t like it, we feel threatened and our Primitive Brain is triggered, or even our Amygdala. We automatically and unconsciously get into Fight or Flight mode, i.e. we may attack the other verbally (Fight), or we may withdraw physically or emotionally (Flight). Under the stress of a perceived threat, our body produces cortisol and adrenaline and we may experience a sudden heightened sense of power, clarity and energy to respond to the immediate emergency. But this state is not sustainable and prevents the Executive Brain from functioning at its best.

Our Executive Brain tends to function at its WORST when:

  • we feel threatened
  • we feel exhausted
  • we must do a job we find boring or humiliating

Our Executive Brain tends to function at its BEST when:

  • we feel safe
  • we are well rested and fed
  • we work on a specific task or goal we find meaningful, interesting or exciting

Most leadership development programs trigger the Primitive Brain

1. They trigger a Threat Response

Within most leadership development programs and performance appraisals, a leader’s personality and competencies are examined and judged by others according to specific standards and long lists of competencies. Managers need to attend specific training and focus their attention on changing their behaviour according to the organization’s requirements. These trigger an automatic, unconscious Threat Response in their brain. Although they may rationally accept the feedback and agree that they indeed need to work on certain competencies or character traits, they unconsciously perceive the experience as a threat to who they are as an individual, to their autonomy in deciding how to run their own life, and their sense of safety in front of their assessor or superior (colliding with their need for Status, Autonomy, and Relatedness according to David Rock’s SCARF model). This is considered painful and therefore managers will try to avoid anything that reminds them about it.

2. Threat can increase the motivation to compete and win

Some managers are very competitive, and threat motivates them to compete more strongly in order to win. In theory, this could stimulate them to further develop their leadership skills, but it does so only if the goal deeply excites them.

3. Overwhelm + No Excitement = No Priority

Leadership Development does not happen in a vacuum. In parallel, managers still need to do their work: they must think strategically while managing urgent issues at work and achieving their business objectives; they must inspire their team and create a collaborative environment in an authentic way; they need to manage an increasing number of internal and external stakeholders in a global matrix organization with or without formal authority; they need to deal with the uncertainty and ambiguity of their re-structuring organization that is trying to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world and the increasingly aggressive competition. On top of this, they may have to meet their family’s demands, requiring their physical, intellectual and emotional presence. That’s a lot! Managers are under pressure like never before and their brain is busy dealing with multiple priorities.

Connecting the abstract concepts they heard during a workshop to their actual work environment for the purpose of leadership development is perceived as an additional stress factor. Unless a manager has a strong intrinsic motivation and finds it really exciting, developing new competencies and changing their behaviour is just not a top priority.

Leadership development needs to also consider the brains of the leader’s stakeholders

Leadership Development is never just about the leader themselves. Leadership always happens in connection with others, and the others are different. A leadership approach that works well in the US is not always suitable in China, because it may collide with the cultural conditioning that influences the brain of a native Chinese employee.

I often meet global leaders who sincerely try their best to get their foreign employees on board. However, they don’t realize that their own well-intended behaviour may be perceived as a threat by someone from another culture. For example, a Swedish leader used to ask for his South Korean employees’ opinions in an attempt to diminish the hierarchical gap and make them feel valued. However the Korean employees felt threatened by this approach because, due to their cultural conditioning, they thought their manager was incompetent, otherwise he wouldn’t have asked for their opinion. This made the Koreans feel worried and it created a wall between them and their Swedish manager.

Leadership Development must help leaders to understand what happens in their stakeholders’ brains. They need to understand what their stakeholders need from them in order to feel safe and eager to work with them to the best of their abilities to achieve a common goal. Summarized, leaders need to learn how to bring out the best in the people they work with.

Stop developing leaders, start helping them

Leaders are under an enormous pressure. They are literally giving their life to their organization. If organizations want them to successfully drive the strategic and culture change needed to increase innovation and profitability in complex global markets, they must stop burdening them even more, and start helping them to meet the organization’s needs. How? By helping them to bring out the best in themselves and the people they work with, in alignment with the organization’s vision and values.

1. Focus on results rather than behaviours

When leaders are freed from the perceived weight of having to change their behaviour and instead can focus on achieving a meaningful and exciting goal, it is much easier for them to develop the behaviours that can help them achieve that goal. An exciting goal allows the Executive Brain to function at its best and makes behavioural change a “no-brainer”.

2. Develop leaders on-the-job in their actual context

Instead of burdening leaders with theories, leaders need to develop their skills in their actual context, no matter how complex it is, so they can reflect and put the theory into practice right away. This helps them to see immediate progress and generates positive energy for other priorities, which also allows the Executive Brain to function at its best.

3. Focus on stakeholder engagement rather than management

Leaders need to learn how to partner with their superiors, peers and employees to work together towards a meaningful and exciting common purpose. This requires them to align the organization’s vision, strategy and people. This creates a sense of Inclusion and Ownership in the process. It allows their Executive Brains to focus on a specific vision and target that is experienced as exciting, and it makes them feel safe, valued and relevant because they feel they all belong and they can contribute to something that matters to them.

Our Leadership Activation Journeys are built around these priorities.

What are you noticing in Leadership Development?

Do you also believe that something needs to change in the way we develop leaders? What works and what doesn’t, based on your experience?

[References: ‘Your brain at work’ by David Rock, Director of the Neuroleadership Institute; ‘Neuroscience for Leadership’, T. Swart, Kitty Chisholm, Paul Brown]