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Your Brain at Work

David Rock (now Dr. Rock) says, “Your capacity to change yourself, change others, and even change the world, may boil down to how well you know your brain, and your capacity to consciously intervene in otherwise automatic processes.” His book, Your Brain at Work helps give you the terminology you need to understand the everyday brain functions we experience.

The book tells the story of Emily and Paul, the parents of two young children. Emily is a newly promoted executive in a large corporation, while Paul has his own business as a consultant. We travel inside Emily and Paul’s brains as they attempt to sort the vast quantities of information they’re presented with, figure out how to prioritize it, organize it and act on it. Woven into the story are 14 different challenges we all face like overwhelming email, multitasking, distractions, roadblocks, uncertainty and relationships.

Rock looks at the tasks Emily and Paul faced how they handled them and then discusses what brain research says about what the brain is trying to do in each situation. Concluding each chapter is a Take Two. Here we get to see how they might have handled things differently with the brain in mind. It is amazing how just small changes in how we do a task or view a situation can have dramatic effects on our well-being, resolve and/or productivity.

Doing the Right Tasks at the Right Time and in the Right Way

There is a lot to learn here. For example, our conscious thinking brain resources located in the prefrontal region are less plentiful than we might think. We are only at our best from a brain perspective, for a small part of the day and we often don’t use these resources wisely, wasting them on low-level activities like answering e-mail. What we need to do is to develop a greater degree of cognitive control.

People who seem to have frequent insights do not do so by focusing harder on the problem, instead they have learned to switch off their thinking – to access a quieter mind on demand. Having insights involves hearing subtle signals and allowing loose connections to be made by quieting the mind – letting the brain idle with minimal electrical activity.

Being Cool Under Pressure

Rock says we also get emotions wrong. Controlling our emotions is important because it maximizes our brain resources. Our emotional experience is connected to a large brain network called the limbic system. When the limbic system gets overly aroused, it reduces the resources available for the prefrontal cortex functions we use in decision making and problem solving. But when we get emotional we don’t usually handle it in the best way.

We have three options: express them, suppress them, or change them. Expressing or suppressing them rarely help and often only makes things worse. Brain research has shown that changing how we think about our emotions is the best course. This strategy has two components: labeling for most situations and reappraisal for the most intense situations.

Labeling is being able to label emotions so they don’t take over; summarize them symbolically. This activates the prefrontal cortex and decreases the emotional limbic system—much like a seesaw works. Rock adds, “Describe an emotion in a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion. Open up a dialogue about an emotion, though, and you tend to increase it.”

In more intense and ongoing situations cognitive reappraisal works best to regulate emotions. Reappraisal involves deciding to look at the situation differently—to create a different meaning from what you are experiencing; finding a different interpretation that will empower you and reflect your goals. Rock suggests you can reappraise by reinterpreting an event, or reordering your values, or normalizing an event, or repositioning your perspective. The work of James Gross that Rock cites is very helpful in understanding the brain activity involved in managing our emotions.


Rock introduces the SCARF model to summarize the five social domains that drive human behavior: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. Status is probably the most significant driver in our lives and is easily threatened. Perhaps it goes without saying but, “When everyone is trying to be higher status than others there is a decrease in relatedness.”

“Because we perceive ourselves using the same circuits we use when perceiving others, you can trick your brain into a status reward by playing against yourself…. To play against yourself gives you the chance to feel ever-increasing status, without threatening others.”

The SCARF model can help both generally and individually. “Many great leaders,” writes Rock, “understand intuitively that they need to work hard to create a sense of safety in others. In this way, great leaders are often humble leaders, thereby reducing the status threat. Great leaders provide clear expectations and talk a lot about the future, helping to increase certainty. Great leaders let others take charge and make decisions, increasing autonomy. Great leaders often have a strong presence, which comes from working hard to be authentic and real with other people, to create a sense of relatedness. And great leaders keep their promises, taking care to be perceived as fair.”

Out of all of this research comes the realization that by changing seemingly minute brain functioning, we can create life-changing results in our lives. Shifts in your brain's energy flow can translate into new behaviors and better responses to what we face each day. The thing is, the more we understand our brain, the better we can label both the experiences going on in our life and in our brain and in turn, begin to activate different brain functions as needed and better adapt to our changing environment.

Posted by Michael McKinney at 06:49 AM
| Comments (0) | TrackBacks (1) | NeuroLeadership


The 2008 NeuroLeadership Summit in New York

NeuroLeadership Summit

The First NeuroLeadership Summit in North America will be held in New York on October 28-30. Spend two and a half days with some of the world’s leading neuroscientists and leadership experts, and explore new paradigms for developing today’s and tomorrow’s leaders.

Areas of focus will include:
  • The physiology of presence, trust, integrity and other leadership competencies
  • Why change is so hard at an individual and systemic level, and how to make it easier
  • The neuroscience of mindfulness
  • Why it’s often so hard to think clearly and how to make better decisions
  • The anatomy of an ’aha!’ and how to have more of them
  • Driving performance through understanding the goals of the brain
  • How we know ourselves and others
  • The neuroscience of social networks, and why the social world is so important
  • Learning about the brain in K-12 education
  • Teaching leaders and managers about the brain
These topics will be discussed by a great line-up of presenters including Jeffrey Schwartz, Amy Arnsten, Kevin Ochsner, Matthew Lieberman and David Rock. Take a look at the program on the NeuroLeadership web site. The program is
designed to give participants time to digest the ideas, connect with each other and talk with the experts.

It's only three weeks away. Now is the time to register!

Posted by Michael McKinney at 09:49 AM
| Comments (0) | NeuroLeadership


Are You a Socially Intelligent Leader?

Daniel Goleman has an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review that updates his previous work on social intelligence and leadership. In Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership, Goleman writes that the most relevant finding coming out of social neuroscience is that “certain things leaders do—specifically, exhibit empathy and become attuned to others’ moods—literally affect both their own brain chemistry and that of their followers. Indeed, researchers have found that the leader-follower dynamic is not a case of two (or more) independent brains reacting consciously or unconsciously to each other. Rather, the individual minds become, in a sense, fused into a single system.”

Not surprisingly, he writes, “Leading effectively is, in other words, less about mastering situations—or even mastering social skill sets—than about developing a genuine interest in and talent for fostering positive feelings in the people whose cooperation and support you need.” Authenticity is the key here.

The discovery of mirror neurons by Italian neuroscientists has led us to the understanding that when we detect someone else’s emotions, our mirror neurons reproduce those same emotions creating a kind of shared experience. In a recent study, one group was given negative performance feedback with positive emotional signals; the other was given positive feedback but with negative emotional signals. Later, the first group reported feeling better about their performance than did the second group. Goleman concludes, that “if leaders hope to get the best out of their people, they should continue to be demanding but in ways that foster a positive mood in their teams….Here’s an example of what does work. It turns out that there’s a subset of mirror neurons whose only job is to detect other people’s smiles and laughter, prompting smiles and laughter in return. A boss who is self-controlled and humorless will rarely engage those neurons in his team members, but a boss who laughs and sets an easygoing tone puts those neurons to work, triggering spontaneous laughter and knitting his team together in the process…. [T]op-performing leaders elicited laughter from their subordinates three times as often, on average, as did midperforming leaders.”

How can we become socially smarter? We improve by doing. Our behavior creates and develops neural networks, so we can strengthen and create new neural patterns by practicing being more socially aware and by fine-tuning our communication style.

One might assume that women are better at this than men, but studies have found that “gender differences in social intelligence that are dramatic in the general population are all but absent among the most successful leaders.”

The article is free and is found over at the Harvard Business Review web site.

Related Interest:
  Book: Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships
  Book: Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ

Posted by Michael McKinney at 05:01 PM
| Comments (0) | NeuroLeadership


Out of Context: Work-Family Conflict


"There is no such thing as a firewall between personal issues and work productivity. That’s because we can't have two brains we can interchange depending on whether we are in our office or in our bedroom. Stress in the workplace affects family life, causing more stress in the family. More stress in the family causes more stress at work, which in turn gets brought home again. It’s a deadly, self-feeding spiral, and researchers call it “work-family conflict.” So you may have the most wonderful feelings about autonomy at work, and you may have tremendous problem-solving opportunities with your colleagues. But if your home life is a wreck, you can still suffer the negative effects of stress, and so can your employer."

Posted by Michael McKinney at 09:32 AM
| Comments (0) | NeuroLeadership , Out of Context


The 2008 NeuroLeadership Summit

Global NeuroLeadership Summit

This year, the Global NeuroLeadership Summit will be held in two cities--Sydney (September 10-11) and New York (October 29-30). Register now.

Posted by Michael McKinney at 09:36 AM
| Comments (0) | NeuroLeadership


Neuroscience Enlightens Leadership: David Rock Interview

As research into the mind develops, we will see it being applied to more and more areas of human behavior. Most recently, international business consultant, David Rock applied it to the art of leadership and coined the term neuroleadership. Neuroleadership uses neuroscience to inform the art of leadership. Some have confused it with some sort of science fiction brain research that attempts to recreate the perfect leader’s mind.

Combining an art with a science has its limitations. There is the idea that when applying a science to the study of any area including leadership, one can make it as mechanical as possible. This is rarely the case. There are no shortcuts to leadership, but there is the hope that neuroscience can enlighten our understanding and add substantially to the form of best practices in leading people. We talked to David Rock to try to gain a little insight into this new field of study.

LeadingBlog: To begin, what is neuroleadership?

David Rock: Neuroleadership is the study of leadership through the lens of neuroscience. Neuroleadership explores central elements of leadership such as self awareness, awareness of others, insight, decision making and influencing, and applies what we are learning about the brain in these instances, thus building a neurological theory base for the “soft skills.” The field is not attempting to measure leaders' brain waves to find the “secret” of great leaders.


Stories We'll Never See

Unfortunately, the Si-Fi version is not to be. No brain transplants or brain sorting. And it would be so much more fun to market ... in a "made-to-stick" sort of way.

LeadingBlog: So, it isn't really scientists running around in white coats saying “We can build a better leader?” No brain transplants?

David Rock: Correct. It's more like scientists running around saying 'what is going on in the brain when someone solves a complex problem through insight, and how can we therefore increase leaders' abilities to have or facilitate insights'. As we better understand the mechanisms involved in everyday leadership activities, better leaders may emerge, but it wont be through brain transplants or direct use of technology. The technology, like EEG and fMRI, is there to test theories.

LeadingBlog: What brought you to connect the two fields of study – neuroscience and leadership?

David Rock: David Rock: I was personally trying to find the best science to explain the art of influencing people. “Getting people to do what you want” is still the hardest question for many people in business. I spent several years on this question, reading, writing and teaching in this area. At one point, it became very clear that neuroscience provided the most coherent and complete explanation for what goes on when we try to drive change. I ended up writing a book on this (Quiet Leadership), then a paper (The Neuroscience of Leadership), both of which became popular. The NeuroLeadership Summit in Italy in May this year was the first test to see if there was really a field emerging here or just a few of us with this crazy idea. Based on the global response to the Summit it's clear that many people are hungry to bring more science into leadership development, specifically a “hard” science like neuroscience.

LeadingBlog: What can we expect from neuroleadership?

David Rock: Bear in mind it's early days, so expect it to take a few years for major findings to emerge. However, you can expect to see business schools globally building neuroscience into leadership programs; books written on various aspects of the field; science that explains how to be better at influencing, leading, training, learning. To start with, we need to do a lot of work at the level of one-to-one leadership and as this theory base grows it will become more about the systemic application of the research. We will see research on every aspect of leadership, including change, engagement, incentive, feedback, presence, trust, teams, etc.

LeadingBlog: Self-awareness is critical to leadership. The lack of it explains why we go off on tangents and end up with consequences we never intended. What is self-awareness from a neuroleadership perspective?

David Rock: That's one of the main focuses of the field, understanding self-awareness in a new way. There is some excellent neuroscience being done on “active” versus “passive” brain processes. Active processes are ones which we are aware of, passive occur beneath conscious awareness. We need both, as passive processes are far more efficient, active processes work in serial and are very tiring. The neuroscience is showing that the concept of observing your own thoughts is central to our ability to choose between active and passive. Coined “the impartial spectator” by Adam Smith, without this ability, we are always to some degree on automatic. There is a specific part of the brain that lights up when we choose to step outside the flow of experience and observe behaviors, and make a choice. So self awareness is not a soft concept, it has very real correlates in the brain, and it has an impact on how data is experienced and interacted with. There's a LOT more to say about this of course.

LeadingBlog: If I have been hardwired a certain way, can I change it?

David Rock: Yes, we do all the time. The key is the brain only really goes forward; you can't go backward. You can't get rid of wiring you don't like. You can only create new wiring. That's because the process involved in change in any way requires attention - requires focusing your attention - and attention changes the brain. Attention creates or embeds circuits focused on. So we can change, but we need to learn to put our attention on new circuits not the old ones. That's often hard as old circuits are easier to bring attention to—there are lots of them—than newer more subtle circuits. It's like trying to find a car, versus a needle, in a haystack.

LeadingBlog: Some don't come to self-awareness naturally. Is there a physical reason for it or is that strictly a function of environment and experience?

David Rock: Some people haven't given it much attention, so their circuits aren't well developed. Others might be born with weaker circuits between emotions and words, which is a medical condition. There is very much a part of the brain that becomes active when we focus our mind on inhibiting mental signals; it's under the right temple in the brain.

LeadingBlog: Can it be developed or improved?

David Rock: We can improve self awareness the same way we can improve our ability to speak a language, play tennis or learn PowerPoint. We need to pay attention, and activate the relevant circuits regularly. The good news is small regular efforts can do a lot: it’s the same way we quickly learn to do something even more complex, like learning to drive.

LeadingBlog: From time to time, there is that moment when we "get it." There’s a breakthrough or a flash of insight. It is a moment when we experience a leap in learning. What can neuroleadership tell us about what is happening?

David Rock: There are some great studies now on insight. We know that insight occurs when the brain goes quiet for a moment. We know that insight is a very important moment in the brain; it packs an energetic punch, and represents possible long term changes in circuitry. Often we get an insight moment at surprising times, when we're doing other things. That's because the part of the brain we use actively, can drown out the signals from the rest of the brain. We know that anxiety decreases the likelihood of insight, and happiness and positive affect generally increases the chance of insight.

LeadingBlog: How would this affect how we work with or teach others?

David Rock: In so many ways! For example when we start to value insight as the moment at the heart of change, we start to create ways of facilitating it. The great thing about the energy of insight, which is partly adrenaline, is that it drives people to take action. Insight engages people, it makes people get up out of their chair literally, and want to drive change. This is one important lesson from the science: insight is not helpful to long term change, it's central to long term change. But each person needs to have their own insight, not just listen to their leader's insight.

LeadingBlog: Some of mankind’s biggest achievements have come by the rearranging of the old in a new way or seeing old concepts in new ways. It would seem that is what you are doing here.

David Rock: Indeed. One of the best feelings in the world is when we see an existing situation in a completely new light. Making new connections between unexpected elements turns out to be a wonderful way of generating positive feelings in the brain too. It's what we do when we do a crossword puzzle, read a book or watch a movie.

Neuroleadership is about helping leaders understand how their own and their people's minds and brains ACTUALLY work, replacing our current guesswork. Humans have a long history of incorrect assumptions about the world. We think for example that rewards motivate people. Actually it is anticipation of a reward that motivates, the reward itself does little. And the anticipation is closely linked to attention. We think that punishment drives change. Actually punishment or the threat of it focuses attention, and it’s attention that drives change. However punishment can send attention to some less than helpful places too. So if we know that attention changes the brain, let's get better at understanding attention, instead of focusing so much on reward or punishment. When you look at attention, you see that it's very closely tied to our social world, then you begin to see just how much of an impact human beings have on each others' attention, whether we like it or not. So this is perhaps a whole new area to explore, which might have greater benefits than only studying the carrot and stick. And all this just comes from seeing that attention is the active ingredient in change. My point is, having a new frame of reference, as well as feeling good, may be more useful than we realize at first.

LeadingBlog: The result of bringing these disciplines together is for leaders to gain insight on how to best help others to think better - for themselves. This would seem to be quite significant.

David Rock: Leaders have established their own, often non-articulated, scientific theories for how people work. The science will help build leaders more accurate understandings of how we work, so we can become more effective at leading. Leaders are after all by nature rational beings, and so they should be. This field provides a rational science to explain many things that are not being given enough attention in the workplace. By speaking to leaders and organizations about human issues, in the language that they are used to, we can hopefully improve how workplaces function.

Posted by Michael McKinney at 09:10 AM
| Comments (0) | Interviews , NeuroLeadership , Thinking


Neuroleadership and You

Business Week presented a “We don’t know what to think about this” piece on Neuroleadership. Neuroleadership (a term coined by David Rock) is the combination of neuroscience with the art of leadership. The combination of an art and science gives clues to the limitations of this new field of study.

There is the hope that when applying a science to leadership, one can make it as mechanical as possible. Neither is benefited when this is the goal. If we want the science to bring us laboratory results that we can apply in the real world, we will be disappointed. I would agree with Warren Bennis, quoted in the article as saying, "It's full of possibilities. What worries me is people being taken in by the language of it and ending up with stuff we've known all along."

It’s worrisome too that we live in a time when some people will not accept common sense unless there are numbers behind it or a scientific study proving it beyond all doubt. There are those also who cannot find value until they have spent enormous sums of money on it. For them, the combination of science and leadership is priceless.

The problem with rushing to apply a science to any field is that passion often overrides experience; we tend to throw out conventional wisdom and common sense in favor of the new. In the excitement, we begin to look for absolutes where there are none and never will be.

Comparing brain waves of leaders—moral/immoral, successful/unsuccessful—to create a kind of yard stick or means of selection is off the mark and beyond the scope or intent of neuroleadership. If we are looking for it to replace intuition, judgment and thought we are mistaken. If we want to say, “This is a good brainwave for leaders and this is a bad brainwave,” we don’t understand the human spirit.

I wouldn’t expect neuroleadership to provide all kinds of new ideas. It will look at old ideas in a new way. This is often the key to finally bringing us the depth of understanding necessary to adapt ideas to a specific situation.

What neuroleadership can do is reframe ideas in terms of how the mind works. Specifically, how we learn, retrieve memories, experience and interpret our world. This will provide guidance to best practices. It will reinforce some practices based on solid neuroscientific research. Conversely, it will provide sound reasons why some approaches feel forced or don’t work at all. If they go against the way the brain is wired, we are just spinning our wheels. Good to know.

Leadership is not a science and scientific methods applied to it will never make it one. But, if neuroleadership will help us understand why we make the connections the way we do, if it will show us why we need to allow people to think and learn in ways that are best suited for them, as opposed to forcing people to all think in the same manner, if it will help us to improve and leverage our own and other people’s thinking, then it will have done a big service. I look forward to what we will find in this exciting new combination.

Posted by Michael McKinney at 06:57 AM
| Comments (0) | NeuroLeadership , Thinking


Neuroscience in the Workplace Podcast

In this recording, David Rock speaks with John Case, CEO of Electrolux Home Care Products North America about how neuroscience links to the performance strategies implemented in his organization. John first heard David speak in Las Vegas and found that neuroscience helped to explained why his business strategies have worked.

MP3   Listen Now / Total time: 36:29 minutes

Posted by Michael McKinney at 08:44 AM
| Comments (0) | General Business , NeuroLeadership , Thinking


The NeuroLeadership Summit and Why It Matters to Executives

Global NeuroLeadership Summit

The First Global NeuroLeadership Summit is about a month away. The Summit still has a few places open, so if you want to attend, you should put in an application as soon as you can.

The organizers have decided decided to film the Summit. This will allow the filming of several important neuroscientists—such as Matt Lieberman, Stellan Ohlsson and Kevin Ochsner—who are important to the field but are unable to attend the Summit. This will film be available online after the Summit.

The Summit will focus on the latest discoveries in neuroscience and how those discoveries can be used to help organizations:
  • Increase the level of employee engagement
  • Drive cultural change
  • Improve decision making
  • Assist in the development of high performance leaders
  • Improve the performance of individuals and whole systems
  • Achieve strategic and tactical business goals
A new article, Why Neuroscience Matters to Executives by David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz is available on the strategy+business web site. Here are a few key thoughts from that article:
The study of neuroscience has provided us with a deeper understanding of why people find change so unsettling....The more we understand the phenomenon of change, the more effectively we can manage it. Neuroscience shows us why some common practices work well, such as allowing people to take ownership of a new initiative. It also explains why some don’t succeed. For example, using threats or incentives to implement organizational change is rarely sustainable.

Regular sustained attention — which is what meditation is, after all — can change one’s neural circuitry. Meditation helps the brain overcome the urge to automatically respond to external events; that kind of focus is a very important skill.

Another important idea is the concept of a quiet mind. A noisy mind can develop when the brain is overstimulated. Emotions such as fear or anxiety can also contribute to the noise by increasing stress levels. Too much stress arouses the amygdala, a structure that is closely connected to the brain’s fear circuitry. We all know the feeling of being upset by something at work, then not being able to concentrate for the remainder of the day. In short, a person’s capacity to use his or her prefrontal cortex, also known as the working memory, can be impaired under conditions of peak stress, fear, or anxiety. This can result in a decreased ability to make rational comparisons among competing objectives.

Posted by Michael McKinney at 12:12 AM
| Comments (0) | NeuroLeadership , Thinking



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