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Use your brain (science) to lead change

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills,People Management

Thanks to breakthroughs in neuroscience, we can better understand how the brain works … and help your team outgrow bad habits.

  1. Trying to change any hardened habit requires keen attention, leading to actual physical pain. Not surprising, then, that people do whatever they can to avoid change.

  2. False expectations block change. Human brains have become powerful at detecting what neuroscientists call “errors.” These are perceived differences between expectation and reality.

    Error-detection signals—produced by something new, strange or different —can muscle aside rational thought.
So, when it comes to breaking bad habits, traditional models for motivating people don’t work. One model assumes that if you give people the correct information about what they’re doing wrong, and the right incentives (the “carrot” method), they’ll automatically change. Doesn’t happen, does it?

What does work?

Here are your new tools:
  • Ask questions. Brains are pattern-making organs with a desire to create new connections. If you ask questions about a problem, you set the stage for creating new neural pathways. This phenomenon is the scientific basis for leadership coaching.

  • Let your people solve problems. When they do, the brain emits “happy” chemicals that stimulate and reward them.

  • Pay attention to what needs to change. People learn what they focus on, so provide gentle reminders regularly. Attention to a new area continually reshapes brain patterns.

  • Cultivate moments of insight. If your customer service reps expect customers to behave like troubled children, they will treat customers that way. But if they see customers as experts making valuable suggestions, they’ll create new mental maps.

    Use training to help excite employees about new ways of thinking, reinforcing it with follow-up coaching and practice.

  • Offer training in small doses. Given the limits of working memory, small but steady doses of learning will be digested more easily than large chunks of time in workshops.

  • Leave problems in the past. Asking why an employee didn’t reach a goal will simply focus attention on his nonperformance and encourage excuses. Instead, rivet your attention on creating new habits. Ask “How can we do better?”

  • Expect great things. Expectation shapes reality. If your people believe a medicine will heal them, or believe it when you express confidence in them, they’ll get better. Encouraging words like “Yes, good, that’s it” will keep new neural pathways open.
—Adapted from “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, strategy + business.

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