The Neuroscience of Leadership – Are You Causing People Pain?

by Jennifer Miller on March 25, 2013

in Communication, Leadership

Band Aids that Say OuchWhen your employees make a bonehead mistake, do you give them a good whack upside the head to show them the error of their ways? No of course you don’t. If you’re a good boss (and I know you are) even though you might be tempted to give them a little thump, instead you offer some form of coaching or feedback, right?

A whack upside the head hurts. And did you know that giving feedback might also cause pain? According to an emerging field of science called NeuroLeadership – a term credited to Dr. David Rock of NeuroLeadership Institute the brain treats “social pain” in the exact same way it responds to physical pain. NeuroLeadership is the science of mapping how the brain processes information related to key leadership activities such as creating vision, developing strategy and developing talent in the workplace. Dr. Rock says this emerging science can help leaders better understand the reactions of their employees.

Take the example of giving an employee feedback. If the employee perceives that the feedback is unfair, he or she may experience the discomfort of “social pain”. When a person receives what he or she perceives to be unjust feedback, there is a biological response– elevated heart rate, perspiration, and so on. While no physical intervention happened, the brain is still receiving signals that say “Ouch!”

Does this mean you should avoid giving feedback because you might “hurt” them? Not at all! This information is helpful to leaders because they can watch for signs of upset in their employees and help to manage the conversation – “I know this is hard to hear, Kris, but we need to discuss it.”

Plus – as Dr. Rock points out – leaders are typically driven, goal oriented individuals. Most likely, they haven’t given thought to the biology of their employees’ brains. He observes, “People who’ve spent their entire career focused on goals may fail to develop their people circuitry.”

It’s easy to label an employee’s reaction to feedback as “emotional” or “defensive”. That tends to set up the feedback receiver in a negative light. If leaders instead frame what they see as a normal biological reaction, they can then watch for visual cues that will help them modulate their message. In this way they can stay true to the purpose of the feedback which is to give their employee a chance to learn from his or her mistake.

Image credit: superdumb / 123RF Stock Photo

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