Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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How your boss shapes your brain

Published 14 November 2013 11:40, Updated 26 November 2013 12:10

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How your boss shapes your brain

Dr Connie Henson says the environment shapes our brain and our boss shapes the environment we work in. The culture is mostly formed by what the leaders say and do.

It is a frightening thought, isn’t it? The person who pays you, who rules your workplace, can also reach inside your head and twiddle your neurons.

They can, because leaders set the tone in organisations and reward the behaviours they like, so they have a huge influence on how their employees work and think, says Dr Connie Henson, a consultant in leadership development.

“The environment shapes your brain and your boss shapes the environment you work in. The culture is mostly formed by what the leaders say and do.”

What neuroscientists know is that the brain is “plastic” and that repeated thought patterns create physical changes in the brain (an idea popularised by Dr Norman Doige in The Brain That Changes Itself ).

The impact of this in the workplace is that coaching, nurturing leaders will help produce confident, innovative employees. Overbearing bosses will produce workers whose only aim is to cover their own backsides and they will be more prone to ill health.

“Managers who rule by fear have an impact on people’s thinking – not just how they feel, but how they think”, says Henson. “They develop thinking patterns, neurological patterns that are shaped by that environment.”

“Fear puts them in protection mode. We can’t get to high-level thinking until our survival and protection needs are met.

Out of left field

“There will be a lack of creativity, defensiveness, blaming, a lack of wanting to take responsibility and a lack of collaboration.”

If the first time you put forward a “left field” idea your boss tells you that such suggestions are not the way things are done, you will be reluctant to try it again. Yet, giving those wild ideas “air space” sometimes sparks something incredible for the organisation, she says.

Henson says leaders have to create workplaces that are psychologically safe. “Where people can make mistakes and the consequences don’t have to be humiliation and abuse,” says Henson.

“When you feel valued, and when your values are tapped into, it stimulates parts of the brain that make you work harder and longer and allow you to put up with more hardship.

“You are willing to risk more out-there ideas, innovative ideas.”

While CEOs set the tone from the top, people’s immediate bosses will have the biggest effect on their day-to-day thinking and working, says Henson.

Change is possible

Henson has co-written a book, BrainWise Leadership, with Pieter Rossouw and has a PhD in counselling psychology.

The good news is that, precisely because the brain is plastic, most people leaving a bad workplace for a good one will be able to adapt back into more positive and productive behaviours.

“People do recover,” says Henson. “People can change and do change”

So, just because you have absorbed the culture of an unhealthy workplace, it does not make you unemployable by one of the award-winning “employers of choice”.

“They are not victimised twice,” she says.

If people are in an unhealthy environment, they should get out if they can, she says. However, if it is just one person spoiling an otherwise good job, they may be able to wait them out and develop good relationships elsewhere in the organisation.

Finding a coach or mentor can also help. An external point of view can put things into perspective and help employees realise that it is bad enough to leave – because, sometimes, people in a bad situation become accustomed to the stress and lose the self confidence to do anything about it.

“Sometimes you need someone to help you see the options,” she says.

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