The Neuroscience of Leading
One of my leadership coaching clients had a challenging week. A direct report filed a grievance against her that my client feels is completely unfounded.
How would you react in that situation? Thanks to what neuroscientists refer to as the “negativity bias” of the brain, most of us wouldn’t handle it very calmly.
I recently interviewed two experts on the neuroscience of getting along with others. Dan Goleman (author or Emotional Intelligence, Social Intelligence, and several other best-selling books) described the brain’s natural reactivity. He explained, “The brain is wired so that if the amygdala [the threat detection center in the limbic system] thinks there is danger, it can hijack the rest of the brain in a second. The neocortex, or the thinking part of the brain, takes much longer to get the message. So, the amygdala is able to use kind of a hair trigger mechanism when it thinks there is danger to take us over before we have the full rational understanding of what’s going on.”
My client was initially upset when she heard about the grievance. Because she understands how her brain works, she caught her reaction pretty quickly and was able to stop herself from saying or doing something that would make matters worse.
In our coaching conversation, she was even able to keep her direct report’s mind in mind.
Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. Rick described my client’s ability to create a Theory of Mind. That’s the capacity to construct “a notion of what in the world is going on inside the head of other people…If someone is treating you badly, a really effective thing to do is to pause, have compassion for yourself, get on your own side and then try to look clearly at what in the world is going on here. Because you have paused, you are buying yourself time. Try to sense what the hurt is in the other person.”
When I asked my client what she thought was going on for the woman, she replied, “I don’t know exactly. I just know that something is wrong. She doesn’t feel safe enough to come and talk with me about what’s bothering her.”
My client decided that her best strategy was to give the woman a cooling off period while the grievance is investigated. In the meantime, her direct report has been performing her job well and talking with my client in a very professional manner.
Whenever possible, keep the mind in mind.
You can hear my interviews with Dan and Rick on Peace Talks Radio at http://www.goodradioshows.org/peaceTalksL85.htm.