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The founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute believes
the secrets to high performance lie in our ability to master
humankinds greatest asset: the brain.
Interview by Karen Christensen

Research shows that the brain requires three things to func- a good nights sleep, which is critical. For some of us, that means
tion optimally. What are they?
moderate stress. People tend to think we need low stress eight hours. Whatever your needs, even a slight reduction will
to function at our best, but that isnt true. Most problems related
to poor performance arise when people are already at a moder- make moderate stress, positi
ate level of stress, and they suddenly experience very high stress. of your life, the more your brain will function at its best.
The second requirement for optimal brain functioning is positive
, or emotion, which creates the right neurochemistry for Y o u h a v e f o u n d t h a t w o r k p la c e e n g a g e m e n t is c lo s e ly lin k e d
our conscious and non-conscious processes to function at their to the brains threat/reward function. Please explain.
best. If you experience negative emotions consistently, your cor- Neuroscientist Evian Gordon has shown that the over-arching
tisol levels will be too high, and you wont experience the healing organizing principle of the human brain is to minimize danger
and maximize reward. I found it very interesting that, when you


This document is authorized for use only in Prof. Christopher Abraham's GMBA/DXB/Leadership Excellence course at S P Jain School of Global Management ? Dubai, from December 2016
to June 2017.
Being threat-focused increases motor functions and heart
rate, whereas a reward focus opens up perception, increases
creativity and tends to improve collaboration.

compare research on employee engagement with Neuroscience threat-focused is adaptive; but if youre not, it is substantially
research, lots of common themes emerge. Neuroscientists have less effective particularly with respect to perception, cogni-
found that when people are in the reward state, they experi- tion, creativity and collaboration. Being more threat-focused
ence increased cognitive resources, are generally more creative, increases motor functions and heart rate, whereas a reward
solve more problems and have a wider field of perception all focus opens up perception, increases cognition, increases cre-
of which is consistent with definitions of workplace engagement. ativity significantly and tends to improve collaboration. On the
For example, the reward circuitry in the brain of a bank employ- other hand, what we think of as workplace engagement occurs
ee who is highly engaged would be highly activated. As he goes when people are in a towards state: they are moving into a proj-
about his work, he would have good levels of dopamine in his re- ect and moving towards their goal. There is evidence from many
ward circuitry, including the pre-frontal region and anterior cin- different domains of Neuroscience that the towards state is
gulate cortex, and only moderate levels of activation of the threat far more effective for achieving the things that matter, at work
circuitry. We could even measure an individuals overall engage- and in life.
ment with life, which would include levels of engagement when
at work, at home and in leisure activities. Which workplace scenarios are most likely to create high lev-
The point is, in a sense, we humans have two gears: forwards els of reward responses?
and backwards. We are always either minimizing danger which My colleagues and I have found that the key is to create an atmo-
is sort of a backwards response, a pulling away or were trying sphere that promotes Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness
to increase reward, which is a forward response. We monitor the and Fairness. We call this the SCARF model. Lets look at each
world according to these two responses, every second (actually, element in turn.
about five times per second), determining threats and rewards First is Status. As humans, we are constantly assessing how
unconsciously to maximize our chance of survival. social encounters either enhance or diminish our status. With-
Of course, these two systems have different value in differ- in the brain, feelings of low status actually provoke the kind of
ent environments: if youre in a dangerous environment, being cortisol elevation associated with sleep deprivation and chronic

30 / Rotman Magazine Spring 2013

This document is authorized for use only in Prof. Christopher Abraham's GMBA/DXB/Leadership Excellence course at S P Jain School of Global Management ? Dubai, from December 2016
to June 2017.
anxiety. One study found that the neural circuitry that assesses feel trust and empathy about others is shaped by whether they
status is similar to that which processes numbers: the circuitry are perceived to be part of the same social group. This pattern
operates even when the stakes are meaningless which is why is visible in many domains, from sports (I hate the other team)
being the first off the mark at a green light feels so satisfying. to communities (those people on the other side of town always
Understanding this can help leaders avoid organizational prac- mess things up.) Whenever you meet someone new, your brain
tices that stir threat responses. One common threat is the custom automatically makes a friend-or-foe distinction and then expe-
of offering feedback. The mere phrase Can I give you some ad- riences the person accordingly. In terms of workplace implica-
vice? puts people on the defensive, because they perceive the tions, this means that teams of diverse people cannot simply be
person offering advice as claiming superiority. Inside your brain, thrown together. They must be deliberately assembled in a way
it is the cortisol equivalent of hearing footsteps in the dark. that minimizes the potential for threat responses to arise.
The second aspect of neural engagement is a craving for The last element of neural engagement is Fairness. The
Certainty. When an individual encounters a familiar situation, perception that an event has been unfair generates a strong
her brain conserves its energy by shifting into a kind of automatic response in the limbic system, stirring hostility and undermin-
pilot, relying on long-established neural connections in the basal ing trust. The cognitive need for fairness is so strong that some
ganglia and motor cortex that have, in effect, hardwired this situ- people are willing to fight and die for causes they believe are just
ation and the individuals response to it. This makes it easy to do or commit themselves wholeheartedly to an organization they
what she has done in the past, and frees her to do two things at recognize as fair. People often engage in volunteer work for this
once; for example, to talk while driving. But the minute the brain reason; they perceive their actions as increasing the fairness
registers ambiguity or confusion if, for example, the car ahead quotient in the world.
slams on its brakes the brain flashes an error signal. With the In organizations, leaders who play favourites or who appear
threat response aroused, the driver must stop talking and shift to reserve privileges for people who are like them will arouse a
her full attention to the road. threat response in employees who are outside of the circle. The
At work, not knowing what will happen next can be pro- old boys network provides an egregious example: those who are
foundly debilitating, because it requires extra neural energy, not a part of it always perceive their organization as fundamen-
which can undermine performance and disengage people from tally unfair, no matter how many mentoring programs are put
the present. Breaking a complex project down into small steps in place.
can help to create a feeling of certainty. Although its highly un-
likely that everything will go as planned, people will function bet- What does deep engagement look like?
ter because the project now seems less ambiguous. This occurs when people experience rewards from all five do-
Third is the Autonomy factor. As long as people feel they mains of SCARF. One way to accomplish this is to undertake a
can execute their own decisions without much oversight, stress task that you perceive will improve the greater good. In doing so,
will remain under control. Because our brains evolved in re- you are improving your status in the eyes of yourself and others;
sponse to stressors over thousands of years, they are constantly you are decreasing uncertainty by solving some kind of social
attuned, usually at a subconscious level, to the ways in which problem that didnt have a solution; you are acting autonomous-
social encounters threaten or support the capacity for choice. A ly, making choices instead of complaining about the problem;
perception of reduced autonomy for example, when someone you are connecting with other people to facilitate change and you
is being micromanaged can easily generate a threat response. are reducing unfairness in the world in some way. Thats why vol-
When an employee experiences a lack of control, his or her per- unteering for socially-valuable projects is so deeply rewarding.
ception of uncertainty is aroused, further raising stress levels. By
contrast, the perception of greater autonomy increases the feel- You are an advocate of quiet leadership. How do you dene
ing of certainty and reduces stress. Leaders who want to support this approach?
the need for autonomy can give people latitude to make their When I say quiet, I am literally referring to the interactions that
own choices, allow them to organize their work, or maybe even take place between a manager and his or her team. In most cases,
set their own hours. the role of a leader is to try to grow or develop people in some
The fourth aspect is Relatedness. In the brain, the ability to way. What we have found is that, if you are trying to create a be-

Rotman Magazine Spring 2013 / 31

This document is authorized for use only in Prof. Christopher Abraham's GMBA/DXB/Leadership Excellence course at S P Jain School of Global Management ? Dubai, from December 2016
to June 2017.
The mere phrase Can I give you some advice? puts
people on the defensive. Inside your brain, it is the
cortisol equivalent of hearing footsteps in the dark.

haviour change, the best way to do that is to facilitate insight into order to increase their insight-generation capability are:
the mind of the person youre trying to change. When we learn
something through insight, we recall it and it is more powerful, a) being solution-focused, even when significant problems
because insight changes the brain immediately. Unfortunately, are at hand; and
the more you tell someone what to do, give advice and make sug- b) being able to bring another person to his or her own
gestions, the more you will inhibit insight, particularly when the insights, rather than trying to convince them of your
issues are personal or emotional in any way. Quiet leadership is answers.
about having change conversations in such a way that you with-
hold your suggestions and answers; instead, you focus on bring- These might sound easy in theory, but they are terribly difficult
ing the other person to their own insights. in practice, and they really change the game dramatically for the
effectiveness of conversations.
Your research indicates that a 500 per cent improvement [!] in
insight generation can be achieved by following a few simple In a recent study [by Carnegie Mellons David Creswell], peo-
rules; please explain. ple who were distracted from what they were doing performed
What we did is, we measured peoples effectiveness at generating better on a complex problem-solving task than those who put
insights in others before and after a training session, in exercises in a conscious effort. Why would this be?
based on real-life work challenges. What we found is that with Once you get to a certain level of complexity, the con-
just a little bit of training just one or two days you can see a scious brain becomes pretty much useless at problem-solving.
dramatic increase in your effectiveness. That 500 per cent num- And it doesnt take a lot once you get to about four vari-
ber you mention came from some data we pulled from about 320 ables, you lose the ability to process. At this stage, what weve
participants in programs we ran around the world; when we work seen in lab studies is that if you give people time to cognitively
directly with individuals, we often get an even higher average. try to solve a complex problem, they dont do very well, and if
The two main muscles that people need to learn to flex in you give people the opportunity to guess, they dont do well; but

32 / Rotman Magazine Spring 2013

This document is authorized for use only in Prof. Christopher Abraham's GMBA/DXB/Leadership Excellence course at S P Jain School of Global Management ? Dubai, from December 2016
to June 2017.
if you distract them for just a few minutes, and then give them a make different cultures process the world in different ways. In
chance to guess, they do much, much better. our globally connected world, its extremely important to know
The reason for this is that some of the deeper regions of the about this and to respect those differences.
brain that are activated when you first start to solve a problem
actually keep working under the surface, even if youre distracted What parting advice do you have for leaders who want to help
a little bit. Not if youre distracted into doing some really heavy their colleagues have more insights?
cognitive thinking, but if youre just lightly distracted, the deep- Respect the quiet. We cant solve complex problems with more
er problem-solving regions will keep working on the problem. effort; it requires switching off and quieting down the mind. In-
Weve actually seen this in brain scans. dividually, this means allowing for some downtime each day to
let your mind wander freely, whether its on the train or taking
You have said that speaking to executives about all of this a walk. Dont fill every waking moment with stimulation, be-
can be a bit like speaking to a classical musician about jazz. cause you wont get the downtime needed to have creative break-
Please explain. throughs. I suggest turning off all your devices for a few hours
The challenge is that many hard-driving executives have gotten each day and for a few days per week if you can manage it.
to where they are by being extremely goal-focused, and being Organizationally, we should be allowing people to have
goal-focused switches off the brain circuitry for thinking about quiet spaces when they need them. The open plan office is good
yourself and thinking about others. Another challenge is that for collaborative work, but it can be a hindrance for insight. Also,
high cognitive load which executives experience regularly the brain will tend to be quieter in the mornings, before the buzz
makes it very difficult to mentalize, to imagine being another of the day; try to allow people to shut themselves away without
person or reflect on your thinking. So there are all these people meetings for a couple of hours in the morning, rather than sched-
who are very goal-focused experiencing high cognitive load, and uling meetings first thing.
without much practice or experience, they are asked to reflect on
their thinking. For many people, this requires building up a whole
new set of mental muscles.

Tell us a bit about the emerging discipline of Cultural Neuro-

This is a relatively new and fascinating field that my colleagues
and I are now drawing on in our work. It involves cognitive neu-
roscientists and biologists and others who are looking at the basis
of cultural difference, particularly between different countries
and different races. What we are learning is that there are signifi-
cant cultural differences in how people process raw information.
For instance, there are differences in what people from different
cultures find rewarding or threatening. One example is, if youre
from the Far East, there is a 70 per cent chance that you will
have a gene that changes oxytocin uptake in the brain. What this
means is that you will feel both social reward and social threat
more acutely than other people; and one result of this might be
David Rock is the founding president of the NeuroLeadership
that you develop a more collectivist approach. The field is basi- Institute and CEO of Results Coaching Systems, which helps
cally tracing such traits back to a genetic basis. organizations grow their leadership teams using brain research
The fact is, different cultures have different genetic make- as a basis for self and social awareness. He is the author of Your
Brain at Work (HarperBusiness, 2009) and Quiet Leadership: Six
ups; weve always known there is individual variation, but now
Steps to Transforming Performance at Work (Collins, 2007). Sessions from
we know there is also cultural variation. Cultural differences are the 2012 NeuroLeadership Summit can be viewed at
not just skin deep there are unconscious biases involved that summits/2012Summit.

Rotman Magazine Spring 2013 / 33

This document is authorized for use only in Prof. Christopher Abraham's GMBA/DXB/Leadership Excellence course at S P Jain School of Global Management ? Dubai, from December 2016
to June 2017.