Philippa Lamb: Hello I'm Philippa Lamb and I'm at the 2013 NeuroLeadership summit in London to hear how developments in neuroscience are transforming our thinking on people management. What can brain function tell us about what it takes to be an effective leader and are there neurological reasons why some long established management techniques just don’t work? Here to shed light on that before he goes back on stage, I have David Rock, co-founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute and Peter Cheese, Chief Executive of the CIPD.
Now David, tell me how is neuroscience relevant to people development?
David Rock: Well neuroscience is for the first time really getting in kind of behind the curtain at what’s driving how we function and we're able to really understand the truth about what motivates people, about what drives their behaviour, about our actual limitations, about what we're capable of and it turns out a lot of our assumptions, expectations and beliefs about human functioning are actually incorrect. In the same way that we thought the world was flat for a very long time and we developed some technology and discovered we were wrong, for a long time we thought people were motivated primarily and mostly by money, for example, and now we've developed some technology and discovered that was wrong. So there are many, many findings that are coming out literally because we can test our hypotheses using technology that even a decade ago didn’t exist.
PL: And this is literally on the ground looking at how the brain responds to situations using imaging technology?
DR: Neuroscience is a very big field. There are very granular studies being done in literally hundreds of labs looking at what goes on in these human interactions and a big reason we can do that now is the technology. So scanning is one, EEG is another, QEG is another, there are some new technologies coming that are much more mobile and portable just starting to be used. There are many things that are actually being studied now, for example, how is it that I know what you know? How is it that I successfully persuade you of anything or not? How is it that I motivate you in any way and what goes on in the brain when we succeed or fail at that?
PL: So Peter, this is new ground for HR is it? How transformational do you think it’s going to be?
Peter Cheese: Well I think it could be very transformational. I mean I've made the observation that I think HR over the last decade or so has become very obsessed by process and trying to make things more efficient and all the rest of it. I do believe we need to go back to the roots, to the foundations, which in essence is always about the person or the people; you know, how people learn, what motivates them, how you engage them, how they work best in teams and all these sorts of things which to some degree we probably did understand through traditional, if you will, behavioural, psychological research. We all know about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and so on but I think the neuroscience stuff is lifting this to a whole new space. I'm determined that for the HR profession that we do go back and rethink some of these basics and then rebuild in a sense of, if we understand this is really how people learn and what motivates them and how leadership works and so forth, then we should go back and revisit and put in place a better process.
DR: I think there are two things that the research is doing and they’re equally important. The first is the research is validating some things that we were already confident we knew but giving us a real scientific basis for why we need to follow certain practices.
PL: So things such as why change is so hard for people?
DR: Yeah like why change is hard and the fact that it is actually difficult and really understanding why it’s difficult biologically and therefore maybe taking it much more seriously. So I think there's two buckets. There’s one bucket of research which is explaining things we already sort of noticed and knew and then there's another bucket of research which is telling us actually we have this completely wrong. And so there are these kinds of surprises about human functioning. An example is you brought up Maslow; it turns out Maslow is probably wrong that our social needs actually live on the same level as our physical needs when it comes to what motivates us. In fact we've got a session today; someone who’s feeling left out or ostracised, for example, is going to be just as distracted at work as someone with, say, a broken leg. The pain is the same type of pain in the same pain region of the brain and we need to actually value social interactions in an entirely different way because of this finding. So I think it’s both. There's validating what we knew and then there's also this bucket of surprises that are important.
PL: Quite a lot of unlearning for HR to do?
PC: Well there could be, I mean I think many of us would acknowledge in HR as I've said that we've got a little bit too obsessed with process. If you talk to managers and the rest of the organisation, if you will, they’ll often complain about the fact that we build too much process, we make it too complicated and all the rest of it. We've used an example today of things like competency frameworks and leadership competency frameworks which have multiple dimensions to them and then all these sorts of different habits and behaviours that we want leaders to be able to do and actually again the neuroscience will show that that’s not right, it’s too complex and you've got to reduce it to things which are much more memorable, easier to embed and then will sustain a behavioural shift over time. Now some of this stuff I think we have increasingly recognised intuitively is right. I think what the neuroscience does is give this a really solid foundation and says, “and this is why it’s important. This is genuinely how you will get more out of people when you deal with things like their social needs in a much more profound way.”
PL: I'm intrigued by what you’re talking about today and it’s this issue around building executive wisdom in young senior leaders or CEOs, who do tend to be younger now. Tell me how that works?
DR: It’s a big session we're about to go into this afternoon at the closing session of the first day here. We've been pulling apart this question of what are the neural bases or neural processes involved in someone who is wise as a leader and there's no such thing in the brain as one particular place for any function. In the same way in a city there's no one place that sales happens; you know, in a large city like London sales is something happening everywhere and the brain and a city are close together metaphorically. In the brain there's no one place that wisdom occurs, there’s not a wisdom region but we've found over a research project in the last year that there are five neural processes and each process involves many, many different regions joined together into a network but five neural processes that are central if someone’s going to be wise. It’s a framework we're just presenting for the first time today that can help organisations think about leadership and wise leadership in a different way both to assess and to develop. And essentially the five processes are being goal focused, which is usually a strong suit for leaders; it’s this ability to hold an uncertain future in mind better than anyone else can, see something other people can't see yet and be motivated by that future. So that's this ability to be goal focused, especially with intangible things. So that's one capability. We're generally pretty strong at that, we select well for that but offsetting that, almost at a seesaw effect with that actually, is social cognition which is the ability to recognise and, even better, predict the social reactions of people to various interactions, various situations.
PL: So this is empathy?
DR: There is empathy; social cognition is the ability to preferably predict ahead of time, not just empathy but to imagine an interaction and predict ahead of time what’s going to happen so you make a better decision. And certainly empathy is a part of it, that tends to be more in the moment. And what we see is it’s actually this capacity to imagine other people’s minds switches off when we’re goal focused. We've hired generations of people who are very goal focused who haven't spent much time thinking about the minds of others. So there's a sort of seesaw there. And then you have another component which is insightfulness, which is the ability to make deep connections and that capacity also switches off when we're goal focused. The more intensely focused we are on our goals, the harder it is to let quiet signals bubble up. And there's another one which is also very important which is self-regulation, which is the ability to manage and control your impulses, change yourself in any way. And then the final one is sometimes called mindfulness, we call it direct experience which you can think of as the width or thickness of your cabling coming into your attention, like how much data per second can you process? How much information can you perceive directly in the moment as a leader? And the wider your bandwidth, the more granular you can get into any of those other four domains, the better you'll be at actually adapting across those domains. So it’s a combination of those five and the interaction of those five we think makes for wisdom.
PL: And obviously as you say this is new, it’s early days with this but is your sense, Peter, that this thinking is something that can be transformed into tools that HRs can use on the ground?
PC: Yes I think we have to be able to translate this into practical tools, if you will, frameworks of understanding, rethinking maybe how we do learning, learning programmes, leadership development and so on. And I think that's why, to the early question about could this be transformative of some of our thinking? I think it can. But then we have got to be able to make it practical and pragmatic. But I think some of the ideas that David has touched on there, so this seesawing, so sometimes we use language like IQ and EQ which is the emotional and social versus the intellectual, technical, analytical and imagine those two, you know you can build each one together, which you can, but equally all the brain sciences, neurosciences, showing that they do seesaw against each other so we now have to think, I think, very differently and it is bringing a different sense of understanding about what we mean by emotional intelligence and how we develop it and how important it is. It links all the way through in terms of practicalities like how do we recruit on attitude and recognising the kind of EQ sense of what’s important in creating the right kind of cultures and the right sorts of values in organisations and really getting the power of collaboration and all those other things is about understanding those things in a very practical way.
PL: We’re talking about this as if it’s down the line in the future but we probably should make the point strongly, shouldn’t we, that organisations are already putting the sort of science you’re talking about into practice on the ground?
DR: We know from the case studies that are coming back to us that really thousands of organisations are applying the research in creative ways.
PL: And they’re seeing measurable outcomes?
DR: Seeing measurable outcomes. I mean certainly in our work we're doing very careful case studies, very careful measurement. One of the projects we're involved with was the Nokia Siemens networks transformation and we were the main change initiative that helped them go from the bottom of their market to the jewel in Nokia’s crown over about 18 months and we actually educated pretty much the entire organisation in how to go through this change by understanding the brain. In fact more people got involved in our learning programme than ever watched the CEO present anything so it was a very popular learning solution to help the whole organisation go through change. So there are quite a few cases of organisations integrating this work at small, all the way through to quite large, scale and the idea for us is just shifting the balance away from things that maybe looks right through observation towards let’s test out theories and use theories that actually have a real basis to them in research done in the lab.
PL: So I have to ask in closing Peter, it’s interesting stuff this isn’t it? Is this the next big thing, the big thing in people management?
PC: Yes we always have to be careful of the next big thing in a sense. I think this is bringing us something new. I think it is reinforcing many of the ideas which we've been developing in recent years about notions such as engagement and so on but with a real science and hard fact to drive it. I think it sits therefore together with some other ideas around behavioural psychology. I mean an example I would give is that I think whilst neuroscience is teaching us how the brain works it’s not teaching us what we think. We still need to focus very strongly I think on ideas such as, for example, ethics and morality and values and that is an important part of the debate for the future of HR as well because creating the right cultures begins with those sorts of ideas. What neuroscience is teaching us is if those things are true then how do I best embed them? How do I make the learning stick? How do I change the behaviours of people in much more profound and sustainable ways? And I think when you put these sorts of ideas together I think that is creating a very transformative base for HR for the future.
DR: I think Peter’s right. I think the place for the research is not necessarily the most important thing, it’s more like the most foundational. It’s like let’s start with the biology. There are other things that may be much more important in designing a learning solution or a change programme but you can't ignore the biology. It’s kind of exciting at the moment because it’s new; it’ll become in time just a part of something everyone learns. That would be one of the goals, that you go in and learn about leadership and organisational effectiveness, of course you’re going to learn about the actual biology of what happens and for us that's as they say, a no brainer.
PC: I'm very excited about this. I think what we're trying to do with the CIPD is to help to think about where is HR going as a profession? But the other part I talk about a lot is the shifting context that we are in a context and a time now, some people might even describe it as a perfect storm, where we have got to make a difference in terms of behaviour and cultures of organisations. I think there's widespread recognition that the issues of failure that we've seen are not just about regulation or control, they’re about behaviours and cultures and values and that spreads across so many different sectors of society and business. It’s about rebuilding trust and all those other ideas. So the context is driving, I think, the need for HR to step up in many of these ways and I think this is giving us a new foundation of science to say, this is the way in which we really will make a profound and sustainable difference.
PL: Peter, David, thank you very much indeed.
PC: Thank you