Leading with the brain in mind.

Why is collaborative leadership more important than ever?

Traditional command and control leadership styles that were prevalent in the industrial era when people were paid to perform routine tasks are not as effective in today’s working environments. Now in the knowledge era where people get paid to think, new forms of leadership are beginning to emerge and take hold. The study of Neuroleadership offers significant insight into why command and control leadership styles trigger threat responses in the brain and do not serve the social and emotional needs of followers. In tandem with this, the complexity of business has increased significantly because of increased competition and global and virtualization. Leaders need to be able to un-tap the potential of followers across distant and diverse boundaries, and leverage the benefits of collaborative thinking.

The ability to collaborate, and foster collaboration between others is an essential 21st century leadership competency. In a recent CEB survey of over 23,000 senior leaders globally, they reported that the amount they have been asked to collaborate with others has increased by 63% increase in last 3 years. Further to this, a study by the Centre for Creative Leadership says that 86% of senior executives believe collaboration to be ‘extremely important’, yet only 7% feel they are ‘very effective’ at doing so.

How does collaboration serve the well-being of those who participate?

Neuroscience has uncovered that our brains want to maximize reward and minimize threat, and that these needs dictate much of our motivation and subsequent behavior. Humans have a fundamental need to belong and to be accepted. Research has shown that the quality of our social connections is the largest factor in our happiness over the long-haul; more so than health or money. When collaboration goes well, people greatly benefit from the social connection and networks with others and the reward of group success.

What gets in the way of collaboration?

On the other hand, working collaborative with others is not an easy terrain to navigate because “the social world is the source of tremendous conflict, and many people never master its seemingly chaotic rules” (Rock, 2009, pg. 152).

While it’s increasingly important for us to collaborate, and there are social benefits for participants, people’s natural inclination is to not socialize outside of their group, and hard wired to evaluate others to be potential friend or foe. Unfortunately, the default of the brain is to perceive others as foe which makes collaboration difficult. This is because humans have a default negativity bias in the brain which means that we are more attuned to threats than to rewards because they are more relevant to our survival. Given the default negativity bias in our brain to expect a threat, we need to train our brain and the brains of others to see similarities or relatedness to others. There is significant research to show the benefits of in-group cohesion, and the destructiveness of out-group hostility. We like people who we consider in our group, while hostility is much more easily triggered for those we see out of our group. The consequences of low relatedness, or out-group thinking, are hostility, silo thinking, and Schadenfreude (taking pleasure from the pain of others). On the other hand, we tend to be more empathetic, and accepting of those we perceive to be in-group. “A feeling of relatedness is a primary reward for the brain and in the absence of relatedness generates a primary threat. A sense of relatedness is what you get when you feel you belong to the group, when you feel part of a cohesive team” (Rock, 2009, pg. 159).

The SCARF model by David Rock relates to motivation and our behaviour. The model is based on important discoveries in neuroscience about the way people interact socially and what can trigger a threat and reward response when interacting with others. The model SCARF is a great tool for leaders evaluate how ‘Status’, ‘Certainty’, ‘Autonomy’, ‘Relatedness’, and ‘Fairness’ are at play for those involved with the collaboration. Other things to consider when leading collaboration are the downside of emotional contagiousness, group think and social conformity, struggles to find consensus, ambiguity of roles, social loafing and group conflict.

What can a leader can do to set the stage for effective collaboration?

Given the neuroscience behind the importance of relatedness for the well-being of a brain, and the implications on organizational cohesiveness and collaboration, it is paramount that a leader prioritize a culture of in-group thinking for all.In order to tap into the positive benefits of the social brain and collaboration, a leader should:

  • Foster in-group thinking and acceptance of all. A leader can increase relatedness between co-workers, branches, or divisions by fostering shared goals, and finding likenesses.
  • Foster respectful disagreement and make sure that all voices are heard.
  • Foster individual and team accountability.
  • Anticipate and plan for possible threat and reward responses (SCARF)

Sandra McDowell, MA, PCC

Author Sandra McDowell is a Certified Executive Coach with a Masters in Leadership and a Certificate in NeuroLeadership, and Vice-President Communications & Culture for First Credit Union & Insurance.

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