With President Obama pledging $100 million to a project set to unlock the brain’s hidden secrets, and similar initiatives taking off in Europe, we are entering a new era of scientific discovery.
On a smaller scale closer to home, related research is happening at the Florey Institute in Melbourne. While the pioneering work aims to cure debilitating brain disorders in the future, it is likely to have an impact on the way we conduct business, too.
“Because scientists are now able to measure brain activity and study how this impacts the way we behave and make decisions among other things, the field of leadership is rejuvenating in a way never seen before,” says the program’s leadership specialist Silvia Damiano, founder of the About My Brain institute.
The scientific training approach, centred around neuroleadership, is already big business in the West, thanks to Australian leadership consultant David Rock. Now based in New York, Rock coined the term in 2006 and co-founded the NeuroLeadership Group and Institute.
So what exactly is neuroleadership?
Rock’s ideas revolve around SCARF principles, a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others.
The acronym refers to the five domains of social experience – status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness – which are said to trigger the same threat circuitry that physical threats, such as pain, activate.
“We are learning that a number of HR processes that look logical actually work directly against the way the brain functions,” says Rock.
Kirk Fisher, of Workplace Training Advisory Australia, is hopeful such advances in brain science will help transform outdated HR practices.
“Neuroscience is really at the cutting edge of our field. Now we know so much more about the brain. We can actually see things happening on an MRI that we didn’t know about before,” he says.
American psychiatrist and obsessive-compulsive disorder expert Jeffrey Schwartz, who has worked with Rock, saw brain shifting occur when he assisted Leonardo DiCaprio on the film The Aviator.
But how will all this boost our future HR leaders?
Many, including Schwartz, whose teachings are embedded in cognitive behaviour and mindfulness (focusing attention to gain a clear perspective), are sceptical about its longevity.
“My feeling is that neuroleadership is not being taken up as widely as people would like to believe. One of my questions is whether neuroscientists who know nothing about business can develop much that is really relevant to business,” says Schwartz.
“How a person directs their attention has a very significant effect on how the brain gets wired and I am applying this kind of reasoning to business,” he explains.
Rather than rolling out specific neuroleadership programs, the newest course from the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM), the Accelerated Leadership program, focuses on dealing with difficult business situations and helping make high-potential employees wise beyond their years.
The rise of neuroleadership
The rise of neuroleadership has raised questions about what’s working and what’s not in people management.
“We need to hear employees but we need to have some framing techniques on how to create interventions or look at things from a different perspective. We are seeing evidence from brain research that when people are in a highly emotional state it turns off some of their rational thinking,” explains Saunders.
In another slant on the theme, Tiffany Gray, director of PRISM Brain Mapping Australia, has introduced a brain-based behaviour-mapping tool to companies. It shows the behavioural preferences that relate to work performance and can provide an analysis of a person’s personality traits.
It is also useful in recruitment for producing job-requirement benchmarks against which candidates can be assessed for behavioural suitability.
“PRISM allows organisations to set up for success from the start to maximise their talent and optimise their performance,” says Gray, who runs Melbourne’s Neuroleadership Interest Group, part of Rock’s NeuroLeadership Institute. “There were about 120 people at the last meeting and interest is growing,” says Gray.