How to Use Neuroscience to Develop Successful Leadership Styles

To be a successful leader, train your brain to slow down, prioritize, and read the environment.

LLG has an exciting new partnership to announce. We’re now blogging for Emergenetics International. Here’s our first post:

Leaders can enhance their ideal leadership styles by becoming more perceptive of the brain’s thought process and, as a result, better able to regulate it. Read about one leader below who could have benefited from this:

Isabelle sits in her office. She’s writing a report that’s due in 30 minutes. She watches the minutes tick by on her computer’s clock. The phone rings. Bob wants to crunch the quarterly numbers with her. His needs aren’t as pressing as her deadline, but this deserves her full attention. Bob launches in and promises to only take five minutes. She’s already put him off a few times, so she acquiesces. Just then, an email from her boss arrives, and she opens it. “Wait, what did you say, Bob?” As he repeats his explanation, Isabelle skims the email to assess if it’s relevant to her upcoming deadline – the one in 17 minutes that will affect her spending power next quarter.

She hangs up feeling slightly uneasy because she missed some details in their conversation. It’s not the kind of leadership she promotes and, feeling guilty, she convinces herself to think about it later. Thirteen minutes to deadline. Isabelle’s shoulders and stomach are tense. She realizes that she has skipped lunch. The ideas aren’t flowing; in fact, they’re harder to access. Her work-life balance is askew; she often feels overwhelmed by juggling her job, family needs and children’s schedules. Her eyes land on a postcard her sister sent from Aruba. She’s so tired. Will sheever get to lie on the beach?

Back to the report. Her analysis is part of what she and her boss will use to predict advertising spending for the next quarter. She knows she can’t fudge this – her division is larger than most and important to the bottom line.

Suddenly, Isabelle hears laughter and smells freshly popped popcorn coming from the kitchen down the hall. Usually, she is flexible and will join the office staff if she can. She enjoys their company, but not today. She flies out of her chair and races down the hall. She slams the kitchen door shut without speaking to anyone and storms back to her office.

Five minutes left. Can she pound out this report?

One of my favorite neuroscientists, Evian Gordon, PhD (University of Sydney Medical School and founding director of the Brain Dynamic Center), has developed the largest fully standardized international database on the human brain. He describes a universal and dynamic four-part thought process we all use called the 1-2-4 model. It looks like this:

The brain has one overarching organizing principle – to assess whether we’re safe or threatened at any moment. Our brains are biased against negativity, which affects our perceptions of others and vice versa. Think about how Isabelle reacted to her situation. She was unable to thoughtfully respond because she didn’t exercise clear boundaries for herself and her relationship to her environment. Her rude response will now have potentially large ramifications because she lacked the ability to prioritize and simplify. Moreover, she might be making decisions that are inaccurate, potentially affecting the health of the company.

We process information in two ways: non-conscious and conscious. Our brains scan the environment every one-fifth of one second to pick up on cues. The brain reacts to these cues without our conscious awareness. In Isabelle’s case, she started her day in a state of overwhelm. This set into motion a type of processing that put the brain on high alert and thinking at a disadvantage. Concentration and focus are affected, which made Isabelle hyper aware of her environment rather than the task at hand. She needed to analyze, assess and extrapolate in her report but wasn’t able to in her current state of mind. Ideally, we want to be aware of our surroundings, but not a victim to them.

Finally, there are four parts to the thinking process: Emotion (non-conscious), feeling, thinking, and self-regulation (conscious). In Isabelle’s example, once she became a victim to her environment she temporarily lost the ability to regulate her responses to it. Isabelle isn’t alone. Leaders like her often stumble with the challenges of everyday life. I see many leaders try to make quick decisions without taking the time to reflect. This type of pattern has a snowball effect and results in forgetfulness, lapses in concentration and self-modulation–none of which fall under the kind of leadership styles anyone wants to put forward. It impacts decision-making and has a trickle-down effect on business and relationships. In order to self-regulate with accuracy, leaders must learn to slow down, prioritize and become adept at reading their environment.

Thoughts and behavior weave together like a tapestry to create a picture people experience of us. (And remember, the brain holds onto negative thoughts longer than positive ones.) Leaders need to understand how their thought process interacts with their behavioral choices to create unintended messages. In fact, I would argue that it’s most important to focus on behavior because it’s all one has to indicate intention. I advise leaders to give behavior language such as, “I’m overwhelmed and need to shut my door in order to meet a deadline.” Or, “You all know how I save deadlines until the last minute, which can make me look a little nuts…” These simple statements give others a window into their actions and help avoid potentially damaging feelings. The goal is to use clear communication to adaptively manage emotion, feeling and thinking so that the prefrontal cortex can step in and effectively regulate actions.

Brain awareness is both profound and subtle because it’s personal. The same is true for the Emergenetics Profile, which I use with individuals and teams on a regular basis. I’ve found that like the 1-2-4 model, it integrates the understanding of thought and behavior, opening its subject to the nature of perception. As you use the Profile, think about it from this perspective – What does the Profile reveal about your unique potential? Where could you give language to your behavior so that people better understand your motivations? And what are your desired leadership styles? When done right, leadership is a life-long learning process andEmergenetics is a foundational tool that helps people deepen that journey.

You Aren’t Who You Think You Are

(Another version originally appeared at

Imagine receiving feedback, whether through a work-related performance review or a more personal channel, that unveils a vastly different reality than the one you believed. What would you do?

That’s exactly what happened to neuroscientist Dr. James Fallon. In 2006, Dr. Fallon was conducting two studies, one on the clinical research of murderers and patients with psychopathy and schizophrenia, and another on imaging genetics of Alzheimer’s disease (he participated in the latter as a control patient). During this study, it was brought to his attention that one of the control subjects contained the identical brain patterns of a psychopathic killer. This meant that the orbital cortex — the gray matter associated with ethics, morality, suppression of impulsivity and aggression, and social adjustment — was inactive. Dr. Fallon felt that the responsible thing to do was to break the blinding that protected privacy and inform the subject.

Here’s where things became interesting. When he looked up the name associated with the privacy code, it said “James Fallon.” He was staring at images of his own brain.

At first he denied the possibility, initially believing that his studies were flawed. It wasn’t until 2010 that he started to pay attention to the results. He asked friends and family their opinion of him. Psychiatrists examined him. To his surprise, he learned that they all believed he had psychopathic tendencies. After 50 years of secret-keeping, his mom relented and shared her personal stories of his early life problems. A test for psychopathy confirmed it. He was a “pro-social” psychopathic and borderline categorical psychopathic. His orbital cortex was inactive and he shared all five major gene variants linked to hostility.

As did he and many others, I started to wonder why, if he shared these traits with psychopathic killers, he hadn’t evolved into a full-blown killer himself. His answer is simple: he believes that nurture won over nature. He points out that he had a “charmed childhood — never abused. Nobody has done anything bad enough to turn me into a killer.” In other words, his genes did not become his prison sentence!

What struck me about his story is what he decided to do with the information. Yes, he went through a period of denial, but who wouldn’t? Then, instead of continuing to deny reality, he looked for possibility. He empowered himself and others with his knowledge. He is now using the knowledge he has about himself and mobilizing to help families and children with similar issues.

We’ve all had moments when someone unceremoniously delivers information about who they think we are. We’re left to traverse the vast gap between their perceptions and our view of ourselves. Since many of us work in organizations, the time we have to ignore or refute unwanted feedback is short; either we accept and learn or move on.

I remember sitting through my first 360 review and discovering that my boss and colleagues thought I was aloof when I didn’t share my point-of-view. They failed to understand that I was seriously pondering the issue so I could present a practical solution for our corporate culture. (If only Emergenetics had been in my toolkit at that moment in time!)

I cared deeply about my work, and I wanted to ask questions and give solution options that made sense. I couldn’t believe others perceived that as “aloof.” I was left to lick my wounds and to figure out how to change my behavior so people better understood me. I was lucky to have a mentor whom I trusted. I took my feedback to her and she explained the perception in more detail so I could wrap my head around it.

When we’re given feedback that is in opposition to our perception of ourselves, our brain goes through a series of processes that can send our limbic system into high alert mode. We feel mental stress because of the interplay between what we think is true and what we’re being told. We hold beliefs about how things are supposed to turn out, and when the outcome is different from our expectations, our brain starts to grapple with the discrepancies. It makes us anxious when the two don’t fit together. Many of us work in feedback-driven organizations, but, sometimes, just being told we’re going to receive feedback antagonizes us because we’re not necessarily wired to accept others’ perceptions. The brain becomes a battleground to determine if we’re safe or under threat.

In my case, and I venture to guess Dr. Fallon’s as well, the knowledge that behavior was misunderstood and eventually could stand in the way of professional advancement didn’t sit well. My mentor asked me to take some time to observe my behavior and how others reacted in different situations. Then I could come back to her with clarifying questions about the feedback. After that we would start to put together bits and pieces of information to construct a narrative about my personality and behavior.

As a result of this experience, I ask questions to help me understand why I come across a certain way, and then I become very curious. The first time I did it, I tried on many different ways of approaching others to see how they best reacted. I asked their point-of-view. I gave them language to understand my behavior. Then I tracked their responses backward to my behavior to increase my awareness and approaches to others.

My life is much easier now because I understand how to use the Emergenetics model and map my thinking to my behavior. This is what Dr. Fallon did (without using Emergenetics). He started asking his family members and friends what they saw. To his surprise, he realized their observations were spot-on.

I enjoy processing information internally and working through problems to find the optimal outcome. When working with a group, however, I now know how crucial it is for me to speak up and let people know I’m quietly working on a solution. My silence doesn’t mean I’m disinterested.

I now teach others that simply giving language to a behavior helps people feel more comfortable. When left to interpretation, behavior can lead to perceptions that can either be too abrupt to handle, hard to hear, or so foreign it takes us a long time—if ever—to integrate them.

Dr. Fallon was shocked by his psychopathic nature but he eventually adapted and thrived. He’s putting his passion to work. I recommend Dr. Fallon’s book, The Psychopath Within. He has a lot to teach us about acceptance, self-reflection and nature vs. nurture.

The Neuroscience Behind Building Relationships and Why They Matter

This post originally appeared at Emergenetics International.

Ever walked into a room for a networking event and looked for someone you know? I have. When I don’t see someone I immediately recognize, I start to look for someone who looks friendly or approachable. When I do see someone I know, I watch his or her face to see if I can drop in on the conversation. Often my look will catch that person’s attention, and we start talking. We’re social beings, and we constantly carry on neural conversations with one another even before we open our mouths.

Certain neurons in the brain are believed to make up the neurological underpinnings of imitation, emulation and empathy. Located in the brain’s social system, motor command neurons fire when we reach out to

pick something up. A subset of these neurons, roughly 20 percent, also fire simply when we watchsomeone perform the same task. Isn’t that amazing? According to V.S. Ramachandran, Ph.D., of The University of California at San Diego, the mirror neuron is different from the motor command neuron because when it fires we’re actually adopting another point of view. Dr. Ramachandran believes that the mirror neuron is also the foundation for culture and how we’ve learned and grown over the millennia. For example, animals learn to adapt fur coats over thousands of generations to adjust to the climate. However, a child could watch his parent kill an animal and make a fur coat and learn that skill in that moment in time. The abilities to imitate, emulate and identify make our culture Lamarckian–the philosophy that an organism can pass on characteristics that have been acquired during its lifetime to its offspring.

Think about the organizations we work for. They’re also Lamarckian in nature. Learning spreads horizontally across the organization as well as vertically through legacy initiatives. Organizational culture is a living system that organizes people, adopts beliefs and creates behavioral structures we all follow. We choose the organizations we work for because the culture feels familiar to us. It might be subconscious, but psychologically speaking, we’re attracted to behavior that we understand. Within these structures we tend to copy and identify with our leaders because of a natural desire to please and belong.

Last month I wrote about Jack, the c-suite executive who wanted to affect change across his organization. He is one of the rare executives I’ve worked with who isn’t afraid of change. He’s more concerned about his people as they navigate the change process to adopt better patterns of behavior. He wants to ensure that they’ll be well taken care of as they move toward the nimble organizational culture he envisions. He believes this will help his team better respond to a fast changing economy. Before he starts though, he needs Peter, the CEO, on his side and for people around them to see that Peter supports this change initiative. This is why the relationship between Peter and Jack is so important. Building relationships is the genesis point for creating change. In today’s culture we can’t make strides without working well with other people, thus the quality of our professional relationships is essential. Understanding the neuroscience behind them helps build awareness of our behavior.

Let’s take a deeper look at Peter, the CEO. He’s youthful, smart, logical and very focused on building a sustainable business that will deliver positive returns in the long term. He believes he’s redefining his company in the marketplace. The press agrees and has been hot on his tail for the past six months. His senior team consists of ten executives, of which Jack is one. Jack stands out as a front-runner to eventually replace Peter. Jack knows this and has worked hard to put himself in positions so he can learn directly from Peter. Peter has reciprocated to Jack.
Peter is considered a people person, although Jack is more talented at understanding people’s points of view and working them into decisions. This has worked to Jack’s advantage as he built rapport with the senior team and his division. He’s described as a divergent thinker who looks for out-of-the-box solutions to problems. The senior team values, respects and trusts Jack. Some try to emulate his style. Traditionally, Peter and Jack have enjoyed a solid, positive relationship.

However, little issues were cropping up and the senior team was starting to notice differences in how they communicated. For example, in good times, Peter may have had an idea and Jack would pick up on it and tweak it to their business needs. Now the conversations go nowhere. Or Peter would start to grill Jack on decisions he’s made rather than trusting, as he had before, that Jack knew what he was doing.

Both men were under emotional stress because Jack’s division was lagging in sales in several key markets. Jack and his team had tried everything to no avail. He hates having to package the message and Peter doesn’t like to do it either. They were both stressed over the same issues and each one wanted to be right. Instead of keeping the problems behind closed doors, word was spreading that Peter and Jack were in trouble. If they didn’t turn their relationship around, it would inhibit progress because it would affect others’ ability to focus on their work. These two men hold leadership roles in the organization. If they’re arguing, the focus will be on them rather than important market trends that are affecting the health and outcome of their business.

My solution was to teach them both something simple about their brains to help them understand why relationships are so important to their business. In Peter’s case, I talked with him about the neuroscience behind building relationships, how we’re constantly reading one another and how the quality of our relationships teaches everyone around us how to imitate, emulate and empathize. Peter changed the course of his relationship with Jack in one instant. He went to Jack’s office and asked him what he needed. He didn’t talk behind a closed door, and others heard what was said and saw the two men smile. This not only relaxed Jack and his team, it put the men back on track in their relationship.

This engagement was one of the most satisfying ones I’ve ever experienced because both Peter and Jack have open mindsets and were willing to take a chance to change their culture in order to turn their business around. It’s working, and I look forward to reporting back in with an update. And remember, the Emergenetics Profile is an excellent resource to use to build rapport among teams. It gives people a framework for understanding their personal behavioral styles and behavior tendencies. Knowing these things can go a long way in helping folks develop best practices for building relationships in the workplace.

Developing a Growth Mindset

The Significance and Science Behind Lifelong Learning

Too often, organizational training and even personality profiles box people into rigid categories. In my experience, this turns people off to learning because they’re given band-aids to meet short-term needs, but long-term development goals aren’t addressed. Such an approach feeds the notion that having a strong toolkit is the end goal. While this is easier than seeing learning as a lifelong process that evolves over time, it defeats the purpose of learning. The first step to developing a mindset of lifelong learning is to gain understanding of your self and then to look for ways to grow from the inside out. This is where leadership development starts and is the origin of good communication, which is exactly what the Emergenetics Profile reveals. And, that’s why I believe it is so powerful.

When it comes down to measuring how people think and behave, I choose the Emergenetics Profile time and time again. It sets the tone for learning in a positive and expansive way, unlike other profiling tools. After learning how to use the Profile, I’ve enjoyed watching people light up while gaining insight into themselves and others. It’s real treat to directly observe such growth.

In a recent post for Integrated People Solutions, I talked about Dr. Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking work on mindset. In this post, I’ll talk about the science behind Dr. Dweck’s work, how mindsets can evolve over time, and how the Emergenetics Profile supports that process.

There are two mindsets: growth and fixed. Someone with a growth mindset shows that intelligence and abilities grow over time. By embracing challenge and coupling that with a love of learning, the growth-mindset individual is also resilient. This kind of person finds sources of inspiration in the success of others, and seeks opportunities to apply that learning to their own growth. On the other hand, the fixed-mindset individual believes that his intelligence, skills and talent are fixed traits, there to make him look good. The focus is on looking smart and avoiding ridicule. This person develops a record of success rather than developing his talent, and his talent alone motivates his success.

What about the science? Can we actually see how mindset affects our brains? In a 2006 study, Mangels, Butterfield, Lamb, Good and Dweck studied EEG pattern differences in the brains of growth vs. fixed mindset participants. Study participants responded to difficult questions and then were given feedback about their answers. The researchers wanted to observe when their brains showed interested or attentiveness to the feedback they were given. It turns out that people with a fixed mindset became fixated when the feedback directly implicated their ability–they wanted to know if they were right or wrong. However, when the feedback turned to new information that could assist in their growth, their brains showed little interest.

Conversely, study participants with a growth mindset paid close attention to information that would help them grow and stretch their knowledge. Their priority was to learn. For me, this has vast implications for organizational development. When I’m working with individuals, I look for signs and ask questions to tease out whether someone has a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. It impacts one’s ability to use divergent thinking, problem solve, and develop creative insight so important to business success.

My Story of Change – A Fixed Mindset Sees the Light

One of the things I love about Dr. Dweck’s work is that there’s hope for all the fixed-mindset people out there. Although it’s true that having a growth mindset is more advantageous in life, those with fixed mindsets can “grow into” the growth mindset.

When I was young, I was more interested in looking good or being right than I was in progressive learning. Adulation propelled me forward. It was part of the environment I grew up in. This all changed when I moved to France and made that country my home for six years. Although not for everyone, one way to overcome ego (and a fixed mindset) is to live in a country that doesn’t care about what one has to say, unless it’s said in perfect French and without a foreign accent. Of course, I didn’t move there to overcome my ego. I was a university student keen on majoring in French. It seemed logical to live and breathe the culture I was studying, so I decided to finish my degree in France. Once the joy of arriving in France wore off, the learning process became painful.

My French was awful, and I often slunk to the back of the room to avoid being called on. It took six months to get up the courage to buy cheese from an actual person or to even talk to a professor. Until that point, I would purposefully go to Carrefour (the American equivalent of Costco) to watch people interact. I would buy what was on the shelves but avoid any exchange with salespeople. I didn’t want to open my mouth and sound hopelessly American. How embarrassing! My perspective changed when I finally started to understand the language and customs.

My teachers were unassuming and delightful children, ages four and six. As their au pair, they taught me the language by forcing me to read, play and interact. They fostered my inquisitive nature, which grew over time and now has developed into an ongoing thirst to put myself into uncomfortable situations that allow me to expand. Failure is no longer something that makes me freeze in my tracks. Rather, it’s just part of the growth process and something that I use to my advantage to overcome adversity. Today I run a start-up, and it’s overwhelming most of the time. However, if I focus my attention on how to learn what I don’t know and surround myself with people who can help educate me, I feel I succeed over time. My evolution is truly a lifelong process.

So, how might you work with the Emergenetics Profile to develop a growth mindset in yourself or others? One way I use the Profile is to look at it as the framework for a story. Sometimes, I ask people to tell me a story about themselves while keeping the Profile in mind. I ask for examples of their behavior because this encourages them to draw connections between their thinking and behavior. In turn, I watch behavior when they learn about their Profile and look for ways to explore insight. What do you think? Please write back and share your thoughts!