So much of what happens at the workplace - interactions with co-workers, conversations with bosses - actually boils down to ... neuroscience?

That's what NeuroLeadership Institute Chief Executive Officer David Rock, who holds a Ph.D. in the neuroscience of leadership from Middlesex University, explained to a crowd of HR managers at this year's Society for Human Resource Management annual conference.

Rock said the key to better managers and leaders in the workforce is for them to know more about how human beings' brains are wired.

"It's important to continue priming for the potential for growth," Rock said to a packed ballroom in Chicago's McCormick Place. "People will go back to [their old habits that limit growth] if they aren't encouraged. The more we focus on assessment the more we prime for fixed mindset."

He explained that it all goes back to the nature versus nurture debate, or in the context of HR, the question, "are leaders born or made?" The answer is it's a bit of both, Rock said.

But, managers need to understand that if they believe in the fixed mindset, or the idea that people can't really change, they are aligning with the belief that leaders are born, not made. They will tend to categorize employees into tiers of good and bad and ultimately "limit people's ability to grow."

If managers are instead taught to think of all employees through a growth mindset, one that is open to assisting "born" leaders accomplish their highest potential and looking to "make" leaders out of others, the workplace will be a lot better for everyone.

 

What's the brain got to do with it?

To get even more scientific, Rock contended that managers need to understand that all humans are very attuned to social interactions. In fact, social pain, like loneliness, can often be helped by a painkiller because the area in our brain that feels social pain is so close to the part that feels physical pain.

Managers are an immediate threat to an employee's social world from the moment they walk into the same room as anyone who reports to them. This is because we're all wired to feel and analyze all social situations from the following perspectives:

* Status: This is our constant evaluation of feeling better than or worse than yourself or others around you.

* Certainty: We are always assessing the level of ambiguity about any and all situations.

* Autonomy: Our feeling of being separate, having use of our own will.

* Relatedness: Feeling some connection to someone. Rock said, "foe is usually our default," so creating shared goals can switch this into "friend."

* Fairness: We're always "intrinsically evaluating interactions as rewarding or threatening," he said.

Rock explained to the crowd that managers need to understand that any threat to one or more of these five areas can "last a lifetime" for that employee, since our social connections impact us so greatly.

A manager's goal should be to augment each of these five facets during their relationship development with an employee. In other words, make sure employees feel better about their status amidst others, provide stability about all projects and day-to-day activities, give them a sense of freedom, find a connection upon which to relate to each other, and think about how an employee will evaluate your actions as either rewarding or threatening.

"The brain is a bit like a forest, always changing, evolving, emerging," Rock said. "We're very easily primed one way or another." He added that images of the brain confirm this. When a brain is primed with the fixed mindset, it's dull and shows less change. When it is primed with a growth mindset, the photos show that a brain is susceptible to change.

 

How assessment factors in

As one might imagine based on Rock's theories, the process of providing feedback in the workplace must also be a delicate dance. Much can be learned from neuroscience about this as well.

First, he explained that self-assessments should be treated with a grain of salt. "People are massively biased," he said. "We are very biased about our own capabilities."

As a result, he told the employer crowd, systems need to be developed to work around this natural inclination. "It's not that employees are lying, it's that they just don't know [about themselves]," he said.

Rock's opinion is that the only way to assess employees fairly is to actually test them. "Give people the same test in the same way," he explained, while acknowledging that this sort of design may take some time to get buy-in from employers since it's so different from today's standard practices.

In the meantime, managers can think very carefully about how to provide assessments. Remember that anytime someone feels judged, they're biologically wired to clam up and become uncomfortable, probably to the point where they're not listening to what's being said.

Rock gave this advice about giving feedback and evaluations to employees: "Good managers help people see things for themselves" in terms of problems with projects or activities in the office. "It's the experience of seeing something you hadn't seen before. Insight changes the brain in a way that other things don't."

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