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¿How can we use Neuroscience to become better leaders?

Critter brain and Smart Brain

Let me start my explaining that our brains have two key parts as far as we are concerned. What some call our more primitive brain – the part that is concerned with the lower essential functions of our survival – what Christine Comaford, aptly calls the Critter brain. And we have our thinking brain, or the executive brain, the neo-cortex. Our smart brain if you will. This part is the human part. It's where we think about thinking, it's what separates you and me from the apes.

There are two big problems when it comes to developing leaders:

1. Change is hard

Firstly, the lack of transfer into the workplace because change is hard. We don't like to change because it is uncomfortable. Indeed, why should I change at all? I've succeeded thus far doing it my way, why should I change? We resist changing. Our defenses go up because we see anything new or different as a threat. Or at least our critter brain considers this as a potential threat – so my stress chemicals are already in production and already shutting down my choices because I'm not really thinking (consciously) with my smart, executive brain, I'm using my critter brain. I'm focused on survival. As soon as I'm out of that training or coaching, I can go back to being smart again.

Make a safe place

Change is hard. Try switching the way you cross arms

So coaches and trainers must ensure they create a safe place in their training or coaching. One that allows the critter brain to stay alert, but relaxed. Not defensive or protective. Then the smart brain inside each one of us can be engaged. And, since it's a safe place, I'll try this new behaviour out. Maybe it will be useful in the real world.

2. The world is not a safe place

The moment you get distracted, you'll miss the most obvious signs.

The second problem is lack of transfer because the real world is not a safe place without distractions and pressure.

IRL the pressure is on and we default back

A trainer or a coach can show a leader how to behave in a given situation. But back in the office or on the factory floor, the pressure is on and your brain's “natural” behaviours will dominate how you respond.


My favourite example for leaders concerns a situation where even the very best people turn into monsters. Now, I'm going to say that you are a very nice person. Gentle, kind and you would be forgiving if I made a small error.

If, on the other hand, I accidentally forgot to indicate and swerved my car into your lane, directly in front of you and took your space in the traffic. You might transform for the kind, gentle, forgiving person into the incredible hulk.

Driving is a high pressure, dangerous situation. Your critter brain is acutely aware of this fact. Your nonchalant, I've been driving for twenty years “smart brain” is deceiving you. Anything, and anyone who dares to remind your Critter brain about the serious dangers, causes the critter brain to raise the stress level – with some people, to DefCon 7

EAT less, ATE more TEA

Knowing what is happening is both a comfort – it's not me, it's my neurochemicals.

And, it helps coaches and trainers understand what is actually happening inside the brain when we ask someone to change a long term habit and how to transition this new behaviour into the workplace world of high stakes and high pressure.

¿What is a Neuroscience (brain) hack?

A work around to make your mark in a simple way.

But simple is not always easy.

#2 Astounding Power of the Pause

A hack is a work-around that enables you to easily choose a specific way of responding to a given situation, or to achieve a particular solution. It is not necessarily the very best way to do something, but it is typically a quick route to the desired solution.

One of the most powerful hacks I share with every client is AdvantEdge Hack #2 – The Astounding Power of the Pause.

It's incredibly simple but that does not mean that it is always easy to do.

Most leaders, for example, have a habit of speaking a lot, and listening a little. They might interrupt others, or they might speak their mind., The power of the pause is to STOP, breathe and think.

It takes a bare second or two.

Then the leader listens more deliberately. Thinks clearly and then may choose to respond with insight. What this hack does, in the main, is not change the thinking at all. It merely interrupts the self-talk, the processing that is happening inside the brain just for a brief moment to re-engage the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. The smartest part of the smart brain.

¿How would you define the Virtual Leadership Game?

The Virtual leadership game is how effective you are, in a highly competitive and fractured world, at encouraging, inspiring, engaging, and challenging your people whilst you are physically separated.

It's how you can win in this competitive, fractured and broken world

How to Inspire, motivate, challenge, lift, encourage, engage, direct, elevate and edify yourself, your team, your business.

¿How are leaders currently playing this “Game”?

We want our Leaders to elevate hope in our lives. And they're not doing that

virtual leadership - is not being well executed currently
Most leaders are sitting in the back waiting for this whole thing to be over and complaining that no-one is fixing the problem.

And they communicate very poorly in the virtual world. They have no virtual presence!

The biggest problem is due to the fact that human beings are social creatures. We work best in groups or tribes. Most of our communication with others is unconscious. We feel empathy for others because we can sense that they are sad, for example, or joking, or they are serious. The words haven't changed, but the body language, tone of voice and the tiny facial expressions are different.

Unless the other person is a decent actor and can deliberately express their emotions clearly and accurately, we can't read their emotions.

Plus, in the virtual world I can't see you well. Even with a good high definition video – I usually don;t see all of you. And I especially often don't see your hands.

And when I don't see your hands, my critter brain is having a small panic attack. What of she has a weapon hidden there? Am I safe? Not sure. Do I belong to this person's tribe? Not sure. Am I safe? Still not sure. and so on, every moment of every conversation.

And if I can't quite trust you (not to have a weapon concealed there) my stress levels are on a constant state of alert.

Add onto that the fact that the size of your head indicates to my brain that you are about 4 or 5 meters away, yet, you are incredibly close to my eyes. Your head should be much larger than that. Are you near me, or far away. Do I need to shout so that you can hear me? Yes, probably, because you must be further away, so I raise my voice. And my brain is in a constant state of questioning where you are.

Now my smart brain is overriding all of these concerns. Of course you don't have a weapon. And you are in fact, some 20 thousand miles away, and I know that, because I'm really a lot smarter than my critter brain. Yet still, my critter brain is awash with stress chemicals and lacks the nice cuddly feeling of some oxytocin (the neuro chemical associated with love and trust) and I have very little dopamine, (my happy chemical) because, well, my brain's NOT HAPPY!

In truth. working virtually, even with the incredible technology we have available is exhausting our brains. And top that with the naive assumption that since I am not traveling to and from the office, I have a lot more time available to fill with yet more virtual meetings that exhaust me even more and achieve, for most people, far less than a live, in person meeting would. Because live and in-person – my critter brain is working for me, not against me.

In short, most leaders are playing the virtual leadership game very badly. They are limping around the field, half dazed, exhausted and have 70-80% of their communications ability stolen from them.

The virtual world is filled with misinterpretation, rumour, gossip and fear.

¿How can brain hacking help leaders become masters at the Virtual Leadership Game?

Empathy has flatlined. You need CPR

Empathy has flatlined – you need CPR

Clarity. WHAT I want, specifically. Command Intent

Purpose. WHY I want it (and WiiFM) – Simon Sinek – Start with why

Responsibility. WHO is responsible to achieve this (by WHEN). Because…

The first thing that brain hacking can do is help people understand why they are struggling in the virtual world. It's all in the brain. Our mirror neurons don't work well in the virtual world. So I'm not feeling how you feel about something, that is I have no empathy.

Now, if we know that the virtual world strips most of the emotion out of our interactions, we can choose to make up for this. If we know that the chances of being misunderstood because there is little or no empathy in the virtual world, we can deliberately do something about it.

So I suggest that leaders undertake some CPR to their communications. CPR is a three part brain hack to overcome the lack of empathy in our virtual communications.

If I'm not exactly sure what you want me to do, then as a leader, I need to be crystal clear about what I want from you. No ambiguity, no uncertainty. In simple language, this is what I want. Prepare a slide deck for this sales pitch. Is too vague. I want 3 PowerPoint Slides to pitch this widget to this prospect using the company template – ready uploaded into the video conference room. Email me when it's there with he link. Now that's getting close.

The next thing is to tell me WHY, you want it. What is the Purpose of me doing this. When I understand the purpose, I can link this to my needs, desires, and motivations.. As Simon Sinek says in his fabulous TED talk, Start with Why. I want this BECAUSE it allows us to sell more widgets at a profit which keeps our business going, pays the bills, keeps the lights on and enables me to pay you so that you can pay your bills, and save up for that holiday you can't possibly take until all of this is over.

Thirdly, R is for responsibility. Assign someONE specifically to be responsible for what needs to be done. If you;re asking a group or team to do something, assign responsibility to ONE specific , named individual to coordinate, report or lead this activity. Don't be vague, name an individual. You also want to sate WHEN you want this to be done, and again, be specific, be precise. Leave no room for doubt.

by tomorrow, is too vague. 12 noon tomorrow is too vague, 11am Singapore time, 11pm Mexico time Monday 11th October 2020 – now that's precise!

¿What results have you witnessed with your clients when applying this?

Biggest issue, is many leaders have never asked themselves:

Specifically what they want

or What the purpose is.

But when they STOP, PAUSE, Think. they get better and achieve great results

My clients have had terrific results from this and other hacks I share with them. The biggest issue for many in using CPR for example, is they have never bothered to be specific about what they want, and fewer have ever considered WHY they want it. They have assumed that all will be done according to their unspoken desires and are shocked when it isn't. But the smile flickered when these things don;t go well is entirely missed in the virtual world.

¿What is the most important piece of information our leaders should be left with?

Make your Mark by PAUSing!

A wife knows this power.

You will switch your brain from EATing to taking TEA. You will make better decisions. You will be considered patient, a listener, empathetic, generous, and wise.

Even a fool is thought wise if they keep silent (Proverbs 17:28)

If you only take one thing away today. STOP, breathe and think. Anytime you want to be sure that you are being clear, that you have heard correctly, anytime that you want to be sure that you are in control of what you can control. STOP, breathe and think.

Some worry that they will appear to be slow to speak and thus less competent. On the contrary, the person who pauses before speaking, now that person is seen as wise. And interestingly, people wait expectantly when you pause a moment longer than normal. Ask any woman who has learned the power of silence to make men sit up and take notice.

The ONE thing you can do, is to pause. Stop, breathe and think. Let your smart brain take over from your critter brain and you will make better decisions, achieve more and be a better leader.