Do you know for certain how to improve the leaders in your organisation?  Only a handful of hands went up in the room and yet over one hundred had been raised earlier when asked if improving leadership was part of their role.

David Rock

I was in a large room overflowing with learning professionals to hear David Rock talk about neuroscience in leadership. Rock is an Australian now living in the New York who has published four books including his latest ‘Your Brain at Work’, he is Director of The NeuroLeadership Institute and editor of the NeuroLeadership Journal. He and Stephen Thomas, Lead Professor, NeuroLeadership Institute ran four sessions where there was standing room only at the recent ASTD ICE. Through the sessions Rock and Thomas explored improved design of learning, more effective organisations, recruitment and selection and improving leadership.

Science is starting to understand the brain and through the neuroscience of the brain, how it works. Rock’s key gripe with the learning and HR community is that we do not follow the evidence and the science to select our leaders better, create effective work environments or help leaders manage better.

At a more basic and personal level he is exasperated that we are taught “dental hygiene, but not brain hygiene” and yet our brains and how we use them are fundamental to our success in a knowledge economy.Your Brain at Work Other than the fact that Rock is an excellent and entertaining communicator who makes the complex seem simple, one of the things I appreciated about the presentations was the fact that he didn’t claim that there was a simple magic bullet or formulae. This is work that needs careful thought, but the good news is that there is solid evidence that can be applied to improve work. The challenge for the L&D and HR community is whether we want to examine and test the evidence and apply it to our work?

The evidence suggests:

  • The capacity of leaders to recognise the need for development and self and social awareness decreases with status. – How do we engage them in learning and improve self awareness?
  • Only 10% of employees do their best thinking in the work place. – What does this say about the way we design work?
  • The more we need people to remember learning in the long term, the more we need to space the training out. – What does this mean for learning design?
  • Our brains decide 5 times a second whether to engage or not. – What does an awareness of this do to help a leader or learning design?
  • Our brains automatically work out our status differential to other people and a lower status makes us feel bad. – How does this impact on leaders who automatically have higher status and organizational behavior?
  • The key for learning is how to focus people on the status reward for learning, not to activate the threat response. Feedback and getting something wrong is creates a threat response. – What are the implications for learning design and coaching?
  • The brain likes to be able to predict and have a say in the future. A feeling of having choice dramatically impacts stress levels. – Implications for leaders and organization behavior?
  • 40% of feedback interventions make things worse. Forced rankings: the noise and threat caused far outweigh the benefits. – Effective performance management and despite all the training and work to improve this only 60% is effective? Do forced ranking do more damage than good?
  • Thinking is insight work solving different questions. 59% people do their best thinking first thing in the morning. – How do we structure work? Do we help people do their creative work first, 2nd the important stuff and then the rest?
  • It is important to create work spaces with no distraction for creative and important work. – What does this mean for office design?

These are just some of the points Rock made and if like me you are intrigued by the questions then the good news is that there is a wealth of material out there to explore. Rocks uses the SCARF model as a starting point for a lot of his work and for anyone in L&D  and HR it is a must to understand. There is also material available from the NeuroLeadership Institute, his blog and on twitter where Rock posts regular updates to the research in the neuroscience field.

Where will the evidence take you?