What Leaders and Managers Need to Know About Neuroscience

| November 8, 2013 | 1 Comment

BrainHow often have you sat in a meeting and been overwhelmed by the undercurrents – emotions below the surface? Your emotions and those around you. Body language that portrays outright hostility to complete abdication. On the rare instance that the conduct is called out, the individual denies its existence. Developing a greater understanding and how to effectively respond to these behaviors requires knowing how the human brain works. This is the first in a two-part series on why Neuroscience matters.

 Flight, Fight or Freeze

The real threat to your team is their reaction to threats that occur unconsciously in the brain. When people feel threaten the limbic system goes into motion – unconsciously and under a second. The limbic system is the part of our brain that evaluates our environment for threats and rewards. It is a finely-tuned processor whose primary goal is to ensure survival. The reaction to a threat or reward is biological and quick – within a fifth of a second. This is automatic and unconscious. It is important to understand that our brain processes ‘social’ cues in the same manner it processes ‘physical’ cues. Take a moment to think about a physical threat you encountered. What was your biological response? Was your blood racing, did your stomach tighten? Now think about a time you felt threatened at work – perhaps in a meeting or performance review. What was your biological reaction? They were probably very similar.

Dr. David Rock, in his book Your Brain at Work, and his colleagues at the NeuroLeadership Institute, www.neuroleadership.org  have provided a wealth of insight on how our brain operates, especially as it relates to relationships, communications and teams. Neuroscience is not new; there have been numerous articles in the last decade. It is fascinating to me to see the convergence of thought by many of our leaders in the area of leadership and organizational development. Patrick Lencioni, Daniel Pink, Daniel Goleman and others point to the importance of trust, belonging, intrinsic motivators and the ability to manage oneself.  These factors are directly connected to and influenced by how our brain processes our environment. I would suggest that those who manage and lead organizations would be well served to have a solid grasp of what the Neuroscience field offers in the understanding and motivation of people.

A model has been developed by Dr. Rock in order to better comprehend how the impact of the limbic system manifests itself in the work environment. The model is labeled SCARF.

  •   Status
  •   Certainty
  •   Autonomy
  •   Relatedness
  •   Fairness

I will focus on the first domain, Status, and address the other four domains in an upcoming issue of Musings on the Cove.


Have you ever wondered about the over-reaction of a colleague when you were simply trying to offer feedback that you thought was helpful? More than likely your helpful comments were viewed as a threat to their status. Their brain will process this exchange just like a physical threat. Remember, the limbic system is fast, a fifth of a second. The unconscious biological feeling of threat is very real and will often not be ‘managed’ by the individual with a conscious evaluation of the information.  To do so would require that the person be aware that their limbic system has been triggered and consciously pull themselves back from snapping at the other person.

Status is about where we fit in to the group. When people feel their status is elevated the ‘reward’ circuits in their brain are activated and when we think our status in the group is dropping, our ‘threat’ circuits kick in and we move into a fight, flight or freeze mode. Conversely the reward or approach response, as labeled by Dr Rock, “… is synonymous with the idea of engagement. This state is one of increased dopamine levels, important for interest and learning. There is a growing body of research that indicates that people perceive more options when trying to solve problems, solve more non-linear problems that require insight, collaborate better and generally perform better overall.”

So, what do we do with this information? First, we need to recognize the impact the limbic system has on how we perceive our world and how we react. Second, understanding of the importance of status on a person’s sense of well being, of feeling safe, of feeling valued matter greatly in how we as leaders and managers relate to them.

Much to think about. In the upcoming newsletter I will offer specific suggestions on how to optimize an employee’s feeling of status.

Take care, Julia


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Category: Neuroscience for Management, Newsletters


About the Author ()

Julia Hill-Nichols, SPHR, is the founder of LeadersCove, LLC. With over 30 years experience in operations and human capital management, Julia is gifted in the art and science of bridging strategic imperatives and a company’s human capabilities—executing for success, meeting bottom-line objectives and enlivening the people who are the organization’s lifeblood.

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