Thursday, July 26, 2007

Neuroleadership--Evolving Business Practices Using Mind Science

People seek new and interesting ways to motivate (get people to do what you want them to do with them wanting to do it) and manipulate (get people to do what you want them to do whether they like it or not) their employees, spouses, children, friends, family, etc. Mothers are notoriously effective at brow-beating their children into a certain kind of behavior. I remember one high school teacher complaining about doing summer classes for adults, because she couldn't get them to do what she wanted them to like she could high school students. As people age, they get more resistant to, and less interested in being pushed around. As Britney Spears demonstrates, adults can be downright self-destructive when they carry the mantle of teenage rebellion into adulthood. They can make "loser decisions".

Businesses, made up of people very motivated to motivate employees to produce more and be happy doing it, have turned to science to exploit explore how the mind works. They want to know how people respond to images. They want to know how people make decisions. They want to know how people make moral judgments. Business Week has this to say:

Still, the people linking the two fields believe the "hard" science of the brain will someday offer fresh insights for the "soft" art of leadership. At Emory, researchers asked 16 executives to respond to PowerPoint slides about moral quandaries, such as acting on privileged information, while inside an MRI machine. They found that managers weighing ethical dilemmas use the part of their brain associated with early memories, which could mean moral thinking is formed early in life. This could indicate that sending leaders with an appetite for Enron-style accounting through ethics seminars will do little good, says Roderick Gilkey, a management and psychiatry professor who was part of the study.
Makes me think of all the toddler monsters running around. Perhaps the early moral training of a child does matter after all. Train up a child in the way he should go..but I digress.

Managers hope to find what works and what won't work when motivating people using tools like functional MRIs (fMRI) and EEGs. We'll see. Some fear it's just another management craze--we've been a few years without one:
If such concepts strike you as familiar management axioms, you aren't alone. USC's Bennis found Rock and Schwartz's article to be "filled with banalities" about leadership. And some summit attendees intrigued by neuroscience's promise for business were turned off by what they saw as Rock's attempts to carve out his own brain-based consulting niche. Rock says business leaders are drawn to scientific explanations; Schwartz says he hopes managers will be receptive to his attempts "to create a new language for self-awareness."
Since my business consulting company includes a fair amount of neuroscience, I'll list some business tips using some psychology and neuroscience(off the top of my head, in no particular order):
  1. Can a child do it?--Too many products, services, and business practices are too complicated. A person shouldn't have to slow down and struggle through a task that a manager or innovator wants a person to use habitually. Make it easy or it won't happen. Steve Jobs seems to intuitively get this. The rest of the tech industry is coming around, but it means getting rid of their superiority complex about tech.
  2. Stress behavior--A person can be one way in a normal every-day situation and come completely undone under stressful circumstances. The difficulty is knowing what a person perceives as stressful. Another challenge: some people manage stress far better than others. This is where behavioral interviewing and personality assessments are helpful. They can't reveal character, but they can reveal how a person perceives stress.
  3. Pain Avoidance/Pleasure Seeking: What causes stress? It is now known that psychological pain goes to the same part of the brain as physical pain. Our heart can be broken and it can ache. People will do all sorts of things to avoid pain. Pain can be a boss' disapproval. Pain can be social ostracism. Pain can be impossible goals. Pleasure can be inclusion, elevation, encouragement, accomplishment. People are usually quite simple this way. They will avoid the pain-givers and painful experiences and they will move toward those who make them feel good about themselves. Bosses who seek to control with demeaning aggression will often succeed only so long.
  4. Varied rewards: However, those bosses who try to be buddies with their employees (ditto parents with kids) will end up creating monsters. People who receive predictable rewards (Christmas bonus anyone?) no matter their accomplishments will tend to find that a disincentive to continue producing. This is where Marxists don't get human behavior--at all. They think that people will intrinsically do the right thing just because. But as my nurse friend found out in Russia, doctors and nurses with no rewards tend to not show up for work, leaving their critically ill charges on their own to die or survive. Here is how to reward Fido. It's also a good primer in understanding rewards for humans. A bit on conditioning here.
  5. The Beast in The Man: There are parts of the human brain that mirrors the reptile. A reptile is concerned about survival, nothing more. Eating, reproducing, defending, and predatory behavior is to survive. The behavior is instinctual. It is thoughtless. That is, there is no reasoning involved. Humans have this part of the brain, too. It's called the Limbic System and it is deeply embedded in the brain. When people seem irrational, it's because this part of the brain is controlling the system. The least evolved among us, The Cavemen and Cavewomen, seem to exclusively use their reptilian brain with a little reasoning thrown in to manipulate the system. Hopefully, they get fired. Normally, they just go work for the government.
  6. Double-binds: Bosses can inadvertently put their employees in double binds: a situation where there are no solutions. Employees, trying to please their boss will be at a loss to achieving the expectation. Statements like, "You know what I want" and the employee doesn't but risks not knowing by saying so.
  7. Frontal Lobe & Free Will: Most business situations are not life and death, they just feel like it. If people learn to take a big breath, usually before speaking, and engage their frontal lobe, they will be less likely to trip up doing or saying something stupid. Ultimately, people have free will. We are not automatons marching through life. In fact, one of the most disturbing phenomena is the criminal insisting that "he couldn't help it". This defense is used in business, too. One danger of the neuroscience exploration is to diminish the importance of choice. It may seem like a gut instinct, but most choices are made based on habit--making similar small decisions over and over. Ultimately this forms character. Character is how we can predict a person's reaction in a certain situation. Humans have minds, not just brains. They have choice.
The overarching problem in adult work situations is that they often reproduce dysfunctional family dynamics. Instead of adults acting autonomous, employees interact like competing siblings, their bosses act as imperious parents. The anxiety and frustration felt can seem juvenile probably because it was juvenile the first time.

It's no wonder that business has partnered with science to understand the psyche, the mind's development and how to help people "grow up" and interact in a healthy and productive way.

Humans are messy. Neuroscience may help people hone leadership skills, it may give insight, but there will never be a silver bullet.


David said...

"Most business situations are not life and death, they just feel like it"....there seems to be a trend of many businesspeople being unable to make even moderate-risk and seemingly-obvious decisions without endless analysis, debate, and agonizing.

But business is like air combat, in that if you fly straight and level for too long, you're going to get shot down. Turn left, turn right, climb, *something*.

Melissa Clouthier said...

Businesses start to stagnate when they remain in a defensive posture. They better have a mission going forward and the mission "don't lose market share" is defensive.

I think there is a point of no return when some companies get so big and unwieldy the crumble under their own weight. Wal-Mart and Microsoft are in dangerous territory that way.

Of course, that has always been a criticism of G.E., but they somehow managed to remain nimble by growing many legs. They're like the Tarantula of business. I'm sure they'd love the analogy.

David said...

Some of the most centralized companies are fairly small ones. What happens is that a founder/CEO is used to making all the business decisions himself, and never learns to properly structure the organization and delegate responsibility. He values the contributions of his subordinate executives as *specialists* technology, or sales, or finance, or whatever...but reserves all *business* decisions to himself. As the organization grows and its environment becomes more complex, he often becomes a bottleneck, but often doesn't recognize what is happening.

Bureaucracies can exist on a remarkably small scale. I once inherited the world's smallest bureaucracy--two women, both of whom reported to me (through subordinate managers) who disliked each other intensely although they worked on different phases of common projects. Although they sat across the hall from each other, they had created an elaborate tracking system for the assignment of blame when things went wrong on these projects.