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Leadership Interactions: How Are You Lighting Up the Brains of Your People?


Wed Oct 31 2018

Leadership Interactions: How Are You Lighting Up the Brains of Your People?

The greatest of all leaders understand that methods, tools, technologies, protocols, and systems do not achieve results. People do. Therefore, it is people with whom organizational leaders must form a long-lasting, positive, emotional connection. This connection is actually a physical connection in people’s brains. So here is a question to ponder: Do the high-performance areas of the brains of your people light up when you walk into the room, or when you walk out?

A deep connection between the leader and team members raises everyone’s level of energy, engagement, motivation, and performance. Neurons (brain cells) that fire together wire together, as neuroscience data demonstrates. As a result of that process, there is a neurochemical performance cocktail that leaders can create in the brains of their people that drives performance based on the personal connection leaders create with their team members.


Are Your Connections Positive or Negative?

Relationships, by their nature, require consistent tending. The quality of care you put into these relationships translates into either a negative or a positive experience. If you behave poorly during an interpersonal exchange, that experience is considered negative and the other person’s brain registers that encounter in experiential emotional memory (EEM); conversely, if you conduct yourself well, that experience is counted as positive. The more these interactions are seen as negative, the less likely you are to develop connections. If you want to increase the positive experiences and thus enhance your connections, you must improve your individual leader behavior.

In this context, leaders are self-aware and serve as role models of responsible, professional behavior. Team members, in turn, become highly collaborative in a responsive behavior based on the how the brain processes experience relative to trust, compassion, safety, and hope. Consequently, team members understand what the organization is trying to achieve and how their behavior and performance contribute to furthering the interests of the organization. Trust and accountability are not just expected; they become a cultural norm leading to higher performance. This connection creates the elements that foster engagement.

Inspiring Others to Embrace Change

What makes people alter their behavior? The answer is volition—a purposeful, intentional choice. People choose to change their behavior when they have a compelling interest to do so. Sometimes the reason for such a decision boils down to dissatisfaction or unhappiness with the status quo; the consequences of not changing are too hurtful or unpalatable. Richard Beckhard and Rubin Harris offer this classic equation regarding change resistance:

dissatisfaction x desirability x practicality > resistance to change

Dissatisfaction is an emotional reaction so negative it prevents a person from continuing routine or usual functioning. Although it is a negative experience, dissatisfaction provides a motivation to change. Desirability is the emotional reward for making a change; it is the “what’s in it for me” driver. Practicality is the realistic, attainable, and emotional acceptance of the change. It is willingness and trust to believe in a doable alternative to maintaining the status quo.


Keep in mind that when it comes to behavior and the brain we are talking biology, not psychology. Functional MRI (fMRI) studies show that beliefs are generated by complex recurrent firing of patterns of neurons accompanied by subtle but very specific changes in hormones and neurotransmitters. This brain activity is developed by experience and linked to the feelings that experience engenders. In other words, our brains are hardwired by experience and feelings about dissatisfaction, desirability, and practicality. The stronger the positive or negative feeling and the more frequent the experience, the more we become hardwired to behave the way we do. To change behavior, you must first use experience to change beliefs. A person must be convinced that the change will improve performance, outcomes, and workplace satisfaction—it must fire up the positive feedback areas of their brain.

Transformation is directly linked to the cause-and-effect relationship of our thinking. Nothing changes until our thinking changes. You can behave your way into better thinking only if you are willing to trust the new behavior.

Say No to the Status Quo

Influential leaders are highly dissatisfied with the status quo. Volition enables dissatisfied leaders to make a choice to bring back emotional meaning and purpose to their work. In addition, volition increases the desirability factor in the change equation. People will likely voluntarily change their behavior if they are told the “why” (the conviction) before they are taught the “what” (convincing) and the “how” (compelling). This concept has existed in neuroscience and in clinical psychology for a long time. Simon Sinek has been able, most recently, to talk about “begin with why” in a way that is resonating throughout multiple industries and leadership boardrooms.

All great innovation is inspired by the concept of “why”—the purpose, the cause, and the belief in what many peak performers refer to as the urgency imperative. If you inspire me by raising my level of dissatisfaction with the status quo, raising my level of desire by demonstrating the benefits, and showing me that what you are asking me to do is practical and achievable, then you increase the likelihood of me embracing the change. To change behavior, you must first use experience to change the thinking and emotions around previously held beliefs. Experience generates knowledge and emotion that inform future experiences. The more positive the feelings and the more direct the link to experience, the more likely thinking and beliefs are to change. When thinking and beliefs change, so do behaviors.

One of the key characteristics of influential leaders is their ability to stimulate volition in themselves and among their followers. They do this by creating a sense of urgency, living a life with purpose, and pursuing excellence. When we choose to take this step in our leadership behavior, we will see profound impact on our resulting outcomes, goals, and objectives. As research indicates, actively motivated and engaged team members work harder, and have less instances of loss, reduced errors, mistakes, tardiness, and sick leave. This occurs because the connection forged through behavior change impacts those who work with us to pursue excellence and focus less on the conviction of just doing their jobs.


As Simon Sinek suggests, “If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.” If you believe that change is hard, wait until you are experiencing the painful effects of not changing. Life experience provides little mercy to those who are unwilling to change.

For a deeper dive, be sure to join me December 14 for the webcast, Leading the Brains of Your People to Higher-Level Performance.

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