Neuroscience and Leadership

What if you found out that you could increase your team’s smarts, enable them to be more creative, and increase the quality of their output by 10%. Would you be motivated to take action? What if the increase was 20%, 50% or 100%? If you found out that those increases could be produced by changing behaviors and creating environments that neuroscience has proven successful in terms of influencing behavior and results positively, would that influence you?

I would hope that your answers are “yes” to all three questions – not to wring the last drop of production out of your loyal team, but to increase their creativity, synergy and engagement collectively, as well as individually. In the last 10 years, neuroscience research has been staggeringly prolific, generating profound insights and understanding on what makes humans tick, especially when it comes to how humans perceive, react, relate, behave, decide, produce and create. Many of the old paradigms that organizations have depended upon, such as the carrot and stick approach to work production, are being dismantled as neuroscience research demonstrates its limitations, while simultaneously shining light on new approaches.

Neuroscience is emerging as one of the most important leadership fields of study for increasing organizational, team and individual effectiveness, and for understanding how human neurology functions to fulfill human potential. Below are some recent neuroscience findings that exemplify the importance of incorporating neuroscience research discoveries into workplace and leadership practices. For additional reading on the items below, go to the articles section under Resources page.

Neuroscience Finding – Tending the Social Emotional Field:

“The human brain is a social organ. It’s physiological and neurological reactions are directly and profoundly shaped by social interaction…Social pain is equal to physical pain, reducing engagement severely when experienced.”1

Workplace Implication
“Tending social systems at work and “the ability to intentionally address the social brain in the service of optimal performance will be a distinguishing leadership capability in the years ahead.”1

Neuroscience Finding – Inducing Change by Positive Engagement:

“Inducing the “threat response” is both mentally taxing and deadly to the productivity of a person- or an organization… impairing analytic thinking, creative insight and problem solving…”1

Workplace Implication
“Understanding the threat and reward response can help leaders who are trying to implement large-scale change,” influence alternative approaches to performance measures and shift our methods for meeting, collaboration and dialog.1

Neuroscience Finding – Producing the Big “Aha”:

Innovation and creativity need a relaxed mind and an unfocussed brain. Forcing focus on a problem can create an unreceptive brain environment for solutions to appear. 2

Workplace Implication
“Concentration… comes at a hidden cost of diminished creativity…If you want to encourage insights, then you’ve got to encourage people to relax.” Fun, relaxation, and de-stressing becomes essential for employees to engage in high quality problem solving and innovative insight.2

Neuroscience Finding – Best Practice Optimized Learning:

Optimized learning occurs when 4 criteria are attended to and met: Attention, Generation, Emotion and Spacing.3

Workplace Implication
Thoughtful planning and staging of employee learning results in increased retention and usability on the job. Optimized learning, particularly in the spacing of material to be learned, radically challenges typical organizational learning formats.3

These discoveries and countless more in neuroscience research are changing the landscape of leadership and organizational behavior. At Stephanie Barbour & Associates, we study and stay abreast of neuroscience research so that our methods and approaches are current with state of the art behavior change and best practice leadership.

We invite you to check our Resources page frequently for updated articles and materials.

1 D Rock, Managing with the Brain in Mind, Strategy & Business
2 J Lehrer, The Eureka Hunt, The New Yorker (see article on Resources page)
3 L Davichi, Optimizing Learning Keynote, 2010 NeuroLeadership Summit

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Transformational Somatics

We live in bodies, we move in bodies and we engage with others in bodies. We are our bodies. Our bodies are the home of our “Self.”

Our bodies are walking, living histories, shaped over time since birth, and are compositions-in-progress that are continually expressing our individually developed patterns of perceiving, thinking, emoting, behaving and moving. These patterns of being, by the sheer nature of interacting with our environment, become hard-wired into our body both biologically and physically, revealing themselves outwardly by our shape, expression, gestures, movements, and behaviors. The whole of this inner biology, which expresses itself outwardly through shape and movement, is called your “soma,” and it is the “me” that you refer to when you’re talking about yourself. It is the unique and complex set of patterns and behaviors that make up the “you” that relates and interacts with the world. Each person, each body, has an individual “soma-print,” a distinctive way of moving and shaping to the world, much like our distinctive individual finger prints.

Have you ever seen a friend from a distance and in the instant before you accessed their name cognitively, you knew who it was? And before you knew it you exclaimed to yourself, “That’s Pam!” In that moment before you knew their name, but you still knew who they were, you recognized them by their gait, by the familiar way they tilted their head and by the mood you associated with them. That’s an experience of recognizing a person’s soma-print. It’s my bet that you’ve experienced that, however I’ll also bet that you didn’t think, “Wow, that shape is SO Pam – that is the physical manifestation of all of Pam’s interactions with her environment since she’s been born. She’s walking, moving and behaving in a way that reflects her conditioned response to a zillion interactions – now patterns – of  her thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and interactions with the world! I’m witnessing history!” If you thought that, you’re one in a million. If you didn’t think that, you were indeed witnessing history!

The word ‘soma’ is an ancient Greek word that means, “the living body in its wholeness,” and is a term for how our particular physical shape and movement expresses itself in relationship to the world. Since birth we’ve interacted with the world, requesting, responding and engaging with it, developing patterns over time in thinking, emoting, behaving and moving. This personal set of patterns is an embodied biology of being, shaped during the course of our individual histories by the millions of interactions we’ve engaged in, in order to feel safe, cared for, and be in relationship with our parents, families, culture and environment.

So what does that mean? Why would you care about it? Consider again, that every experience you’ve ever had, from the moment you were born (and even before you were born since your family and the culture you were born into is a living legacy imprinting its history on you through its own intimate interactions with you) is an experience that your little self (once a baby) and now big self (as an adult) tries to make sense out of in order to determine a response.

You learned early on to suppress reactions that Mom and Dad didn’t like and to allow others that were agreeable. To suppress reactions that were disagreeable, you contracted your muscles, held your breath, and shaped yourself to contain the reactions that were impermissible, and to allow and generate the ones that were permissible.

The little boy, whose family taught him not to cry or show any vulnerability, learned to “contain” the sensation of those emotions in his body in order not to feel them or risk showing them. Later in life, invisibly to himself, he’ll continue repeating the same pattern of compressing his diaphragm and tightening his lips (if that’s how he senses vulnerability in his body) in order to contain the sensation and appearance of vulnerability in his body.

The little girl, who may have been trained to be polite, quiet and obedient, will contain her vibrancy, opinions, and independence, by sitting on her hands, tightening her throat, and distracting herself from the yearning of her curiosity by focusing her attention on something else. Later in life, invisibly to herself, she’ll repeat this pattern of tightening her throat, containing her energy, and distracting herself from what she really cares about when she has a chance to voice her perspective or take an important risk. To do otherwise would go against everything she knows, consciously and unconsciously, to survive. Said differently, to voice her opinion or pursue what she longs to pursue, would run counter to everything she (her body) has learned not to do in order to be accepted and belong.

Our shape, and our embodied way of being and moving, is a living composition of muscle contraction and expansion, that helps keeps us safe and accepted in the world. Over time, we assume a certain shape-of-being, in how we interact and move with others, events, and situations, that reflects what we think is possible for us and what is not possible in terms of safely belonging. These embodied shapings both serve and limit us, for it is very difficult to move and behave differently than what our embodied history tells us is true for our safety. This is why it’s very difficult to change longstanding behaviors from reading a book or from classroom type learning. Our bodies have “learned” what safety and acceptance is, and that knowledge is embodied in our biology – in our cells, tissues, muscles, neurology, chemistry, even our bones – and we’ve been practicing and habituating that biology and it’s resulting shape for years.

To change your future is to change your embodied shaping to the world – intervening in the pattern of engagement that you’ve occupied for years. To show up differently, to “do” differently, and to “be” different – to be able to engage in a different way of being with people and situations for the purpose of altering the outcomes – requires us to “rewire and re-shape” ourselves in order to generate a different set of behaviors to the interaction that we want to be different with. Rephrasing Einstein, who said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results was insanity, if we want to create a different interaction, embody a different presence, or create a different future for ourselves we will need to identify our embodied patterns and modify our deeply ingrained response. This is the art and science of Somatics, and it is profoundly transformative, life-changing, and generative.


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