Modern leadership seems to be more about enlightenment, less about chopping off heads.
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Leadership used to be quite simple. You just needed to climb a mountain of broken bodies to the peak, picking up bags of money on the way, while issuing orders and knifing rivals.
Once you got there, you could issue orders in the confidence that they would be obeyed. Otherwise, like Henry VIII, you could make dissenters a head shorter with a nod to your human resources executioner.
Today, it seems, leadership has become a quest for enlightenment. No longer suitable for those “red in tooth and claw”, leaders must be Zen-like in their wisdom and self control in order to get the troops to stop deserting and do their very best.
“Off with their heads” no longer works, apparently.
This modern approach to leadership is not about being nice (although that usually doesn’t hurt). Neuroscience – the study of the brain – is able to give us clues about what people need to be able to do their best work, and that generally does not involve fear and an unapproachable leader.
David Rock, the founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute in the US, used his 2013 NeuroLeadership Summit in Sydney last week to talk about his three big research projects for the year.
1. Accelerating wisdom
Rock has isolated five major neurological components of effective leadership, which would not appear unfamiliar to your average Buddhist monk.
By explaining these components, he hopes to help leaders “develop wisdom”.
- Goal focus: Most leaders have bucket loads of this already, says Rock.
- Self-regulation: The ability to manage impulses is also usually well-developed in leaders.
- Social cognition: This is the ability to “read” what is happening to the people around them and is where many leaders come unstuck.
- Insightfulness: The ability to notice subtle connections and social cues and the ability to read the patterns.
- Mindfulness: This ability supports the others and involves the ability to perceive subtle changes.
2. Transforming the performance review
Rock says the average performance review is a self-defeating process. Managers aim to turn their employees into a series of metrics, so they can be graded and paid accordingly.
However, often, the employees often feel threatened and the process becomes corrupted as people become less than honest in trying to secure their jobs or bonuses.
Rock says only 14 per cent of companies are actually happy with how they manage performance. He says the adjustments that employers are making in changing structures and gradings is ineffective “tinkering”.
“There is a philosophical shift that companies need to make – you can’t be a judge and a coach at the same time,” he says.
“Many performance review systems increase people’s sense of being judged, as they put in more and more measurement and metrics.
“You get less real conversations. People are less honest. How do you have a quality conversation that actually grows people when those people feel threatened?”
Rock says about 3 per cent of companies in the US are throwing out their performance reviews altogether, pointing to California-based IT company, Juniper Networks, with 9300 employees.
Juniper Networks’ vice president of global total rewards, Vineet Walia, explained this decision to human capital company Mercer: “Traditional forms of measurement are fine for most companies, but we discovered it was counterproductive for us.
“Some of this is explained by brain science and supported by ground-breaking work in neuroleadership. It wasn’t the catalyst for change, but it helped reinforce that we were going down the right path,” he says.
“For example, in brain science, we learn that performance appraisal fires up a threat state in the brain and limits the ability to hear messages. Performance discussions are not the time for shutdown.”
Rock says the results of scrapping the performance review for Juniper include greater motivation and engagement.
While many may think that it would be harder to reward people appropriately for their effort and contribution, Juniper found the opposite. Rock says the differentiation in pay between the bottom and top performers became wider.
“They have a greater ability to give bonuses,” he says.
“Manager discretion turns out to be a smarter system than a complex system.”
Rock says he is talking to three organisations that have sacked the performance review. “They are thrilled with the results. People are more motivated.”
3. Checking Bias
Rock’s third research project looks at how to mitigate bias in organisations – an area he feels has been neglected.
“There are hundreds of books about how biased we are, but little work about how to do it differently,” he says.
Rock says the NeuroLeadership Institute has distilled the 150 biases into four major “pockets”, based on neurological function. Rock says he will divulge those biases at a summit in Washington in November.
A three-step program will lead people to accept, label and mitigate those biases.
“They have to accept that every bit of a system is inherently biased,” he says.
Rock is an Australian who has lived in New York for the past two years, having founded the NeuroLeadership Institute, which researches how the study of the brain can improve leadership, management and coaching. It also provides courses on the subject to masters degree level, with 400 students enrolled.
Rock says the institute has 150 research projects on the go, with one involving an organisation of 50,000 people.