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October 30, 2018 Tuesday 01:12:38 PM IST



Organisations across the world are continually looking for superior ways to lead, engage, connect, and engage with others. Breakthroughs in the neurosciences are helping to connect the dots between human interaction and effective leadership practices. Although the developments are still nascent, new technologies have helped researchers to develop an in-depth understanding of the complex nature of the brain and human behaviour. As studies about the human brain show, we can expect great revelations about the ways in the grey and white mass operates and how leaders can use this information to best lead individuals and institutions.

Conventional wisdom forces leaders to achieve better results by implementing management practices that, in effect, lower morale and reduce employee trust and motivation. A better understanding about neuroscience has helped us to improve leadership behaviours at a lower cost to workers, and in turn, at a lower cost to the firm. For example, while we are nowhere close to being able to scan a leader’s brain while s/he runs a meeting, we can explore some of the fundamentals of what leaders do when making a decision, solving a problem, conducting a negotiation, or persuading others to do something. There are been some big surprises in the research. Here are just a few:


When exploring the intricate processes involved with leadership, many investigators study coherence. Coherence captures the synchronised activity of various parts of the brain in order to determine inter-neural connections. Researches done on the right frontal area of the brain is significant to interpersonal communication and relationships. Coherence in this area of the brain is important for social skills, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.

Studies have shown that leaders who profusely used social language in their vision and mission statements were more likely to have greater coherence in the right frontal part of the brain than leaders with more self-language. Leaders who employ more social language were also seen by workforce as being more motivating and appealing in their leadership styles. In effect, workers viewed leaders who had more right frontal coherence as being more powerful leaders due to the volume of social language they used.


Before the advent of extensive research in neuroscience, social pain, like feeling insulted in front of others or treated dishonourably, was just something to ‘get over’. Studies carried out by Naomi Eisenberger, a psychologist and professor known for her research in social psychology, have shown that the brain considers social pain much like physical pain. One study revealed that Tylenol, a pain reliever and a fever reducer, brought down social pain more than a placebo.

The human brain occasionally regards social rewards like physical rewards. For example, giving affirmative feedback or treating someone fairly can stimulate reward centres in the same way or even more than financial dividends can do. There seem to be five social rewards and threats that are extremely vital to the brain: status, certainty, independence, relatedness, and equality. This clarifies why giving feedback is tough: Individuals treat feedback as an attack on their ‘status’, which to the brain is observed like a physical attack. The brain counters these attacks with the help of different defensive strategies. This model elucidates the incredible number of conflicts, misinterpretations, and tensions that one encounters in everyday work-life, and points to ways of ameliorating these.


Current research done at Case Western Reserve University in the U.S. identified an association between resonance and effective leadership. Resonant style signifies the compassionate nature of the leader and his high levels of emotional quotient. Being dissonant, on the other hand, is more dictatorial and objective. Using fMRI scans, scientists asked managers to reflect on their experiences when a leader was resonant or dissonant. Fourteen areas of the brain reacted when they contemplated resonant leaders as opposed to only six when the subjects thought of dissonant leaders.

In fact, as many as 11 areas were disengaged when the subjects thought of dissonant leaders. What this signifies is that resonant leaders trigger attention, social consciousness, and positive connections in their employees, while dissonant leaders activate negative emotions, disrespect, restricted attention, and reduced social consciousness. Resonant leadership styles also help in developing trust through the discharge of oxytocin in their brains and in the brains of their audience. Oxytocin is a hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain and is involved in social recognition and bonding, leading to formation of trust, generosity, and general psychological stability.


Even though studies have shown that stress affects performance, recent updates look into the brain to know why our emotional control strategies worked. Research by Matt Lieberman, a Professor and Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab Director at UCLA Department of Psychology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioural Sciences (US), has proved that the brain has just one central ‘braking system’, situated behind the left and right temples, which is employed for all kinds of braking, be it psychological, physical, or emotional. The bad news is this system has limited capacity and tires easily with use. The good news is this system is trainable, which explains why many leadership initiatives consist of individuals overcoming tough emotional events, giving them an opportunity to develop their braking system. Leaders, who deal with extreme emotions all day, could do well to cultivate processes or mechanisms that truly keep them cool under pressure.


Due to the elastic nature of the brain, neurofeedback can help the brain to build new pathways that become involuntary in due course. This produces new habits and behaviours. So, neurofeedback can help leaders establish new behavioural patterns and become better leaders. For instance, investigators asked a manager to contribute to neurofeedback after he revealed anger management issues. With the knowledge about the regions in the brain that help anger management, the neurofeedback analyst was able to assist the manager stimulate those parts of the brain resulting in better emotional regulation. After many meetings, he was able to ‘rearrange’ his brain to generate robust pathways in those parts of his brain known to aid emotional regulation. Neurofeedback has also facilitated individuals in enhancing their focus and react better to stress.

In light of contemporary research, leadership training could become a private brain-based approach, aiding individuals identify their problems and unravel their true potential. While there is still a lot of missing links in the area as to how the brain can make us better leaders, present and clear evidence show that the brain is the foundation on which effective leadership is built. 

Dr. Manu Melwin Joy

The writer is an Assistant Professor at School of Management Studies, CUSAT

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