Use neuroscience to become a better leader

Want to unlock the secrets of your brain to release your leadership potential? Here's a handy starting guide from Orion leadership expert Jan Hills.

by Jan Hills
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

How has your week been? Many of the leaders we speak to say they have had a week where they are tired, forgetful, short-tempered and don't really enjoy what they do. Sound like you?

We call this being brain-fried. It describes how your brain feels when it is being overloaded, and is usually explained away as 'stress' or 'having too many things on my mind'. But there is another way. Some leaders are discovering how to be 'brain-friendly' using learnings from neuroscience to change their working habits. These leaders get much better results from their team, are more effective, and say they enjoy what they do.

So, what do they do know that you don't? Here are a few pointers on how to go from brain-fried to brain-friendly.

Ask questions a lot

The human brain is designed to find and study patterns. We also have an innate desire to discover new connections within those patterns. This is why leaders who ask a lot of questions, prompting employees or colleagues to come up with their own answers or solutions, tend to get better results.

This theory is backed up by neuroscience. We get a chemical reward when we come up with an idea or solve a problem - our brain generates its own natural high by releasing a rush of neurotransmitters like adrenaline. This theory has shaped many professions - there is a reason why coaches and therapists often ask questions rather than giving answers. It helps the solution to stick. If you frequently ask questions of your staff, they will also get into the habit of generating answers and solutions for themselves, which takes weight off your shoulders as they will feel empowered to make their own decisions in future.

Make important and creative decisions early in the day

Mornings are usually the most productive time of day for the brain. Don’t waste them doing mundane tasks. Focus on the big stuff early and read your emails in the afternoon when your brain is less efficient.  

Use your stress

Neuroscience shows that the brain learns best when information is provided in small chunks when you are slightly stressed. This is why some people produce their best work when up against a tight deadline. If you are worried about a situation, try to use that energy proactively to find a solution. However, there is a fine line between feeling a bit under pressure and totally snowed, so don't push this theory too far by leaving things to the last minute or working yourself into a frenzy.

Deal with the 'threat' of change

The brain always picks up on feelings of threat before anything else. Change is therefore usually perceived as a threat unless the benefits are made explicitly evident. And not just the benefits to the company, the personal benefits to the individual. If you are introducing something new to your staff, show them what's in it for them to override the natural 'fear' response. 

Sleep more

One of the kindest things you can do for your brain is let is sleep. This is when it processes complex data and rebuilds itself. Try and organise your working life in a way that leaves time for you to get eight hours every night. Remember: you only get one brain. Look after it.  

Jan Hills is senior partner at Orion Partners

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