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Why do the best leaders lead with the brain in mind?

Leadership – what does this mean for you? What is the secret ingredient to being a great leader? It is quite simple really. The best leaders act in ways that support social and psychological safety of the people they lead. It is not rocket science but our understanding of how the brain drives behaviour has been largely absent from our leadership education programs.

For 15 years I have been working with leaders to help them understand how the brain drives behaviour and how they can use this knowledge to improve their leadership, their own performance and the performance of their team. How do I know this works? I can’t tell you how many senior leaders take me aside after doing some work with their people and ask “what have you done to my people?” The first time I was asked this question I was a little worried that I had done something wrong. I was relieved when one CEO who asked me this question said – “We have spent so much money on leadership development programs and coaching and nothing changed. You have done a few sessions with our people and they are acting differently. I thought I was going to have to get rid of Bob because nothing we did changed his behaviour and now his team is saying they don’t know what shifted his behaviour but he is a changed man”.

It turns out this happens a lot and has demonstrated to me time and time again how understanding how the brain drives behaviour and using this knowledge to lead effectively is the secret ingredient to great leadership and profoundly influences performance, innovation, engagement and wellbeing of the people we lead.

Leaders influence these outcomes or what I refer to as “lag indicators” (the result of leadership influence) through the degree to which they positively influence the social and psychological safety of the people they lead.

The degree to which a person feels psychologically safe is influenced by many factors and impacts the mental and emotional state of each person in a team. If we strip this idea back to its most fundamental aspect our brains’ key role is to keep us alive and safe. As such the critical assessment we make continuously can be encapsulated in one key question: Do I feel safe or not safe? Feeling safe or not safe is moderated by the social context we operate within (e.g a team, organisation, a neighbourhood, family). Humans are social organisms that live and work collectively in interacting populations and groups. Fundamentally humans are social beings.

Why are we biologically driven to feel safe?

For our brain to guide action to keep us alive and safe, a whole lot goes on in our brains and bodies that we are not aware of. Outside of your conscious awareness, you take in cues through your senses from the environment and match this with past experiences to guide the actions you take to stay safe. It is this predictive focus that means you are making assessments in microseconds that help you to deal with the world around you and to guide action and behaviour.

Whilst it is clear we rely on this to keep us physically safe we also rely on the same predictive focus to keep us socially safe.

In other words, we ask the fundamental question of – Am I Safe? – to protect us in the physical and social environment. As social beings, we are constantly assessing our social context we find ourselves in to determine our social safety in the same way we monitor our environment to assess our physical safety. In this assessment, we judge every social context and interaction with others and take in cues such as body language, tone, how I am greeted, how I observe other people interacting with each other and recall past experiences where we have experienced something similar to guide action. This assessment helps us to answer this fundamental question of “am I safe?” and come to a conclusion – I feel safe or I don’t feel safe.

Whether we feel safe or not safe fundamentally impacts how we engage and interact with others in that social context. While Amy Edmondson describes psychological safety as “a shared belief that a team is a safe place for individual and interpersonal risk-taking” it may be better defined as “an individual’s perception that they feel socially safe to engage in interpersonal risk-taking”. Each person’s experience of their social interactions within a social context is unique. The social norms developed within a group influence the social safety experience of each individual. A person’s feeling psychologically safe or not safe is a result of their assessment of the degree to which they have assessed a social situation to answer the question “am I safe?” in this social context. Psychological safety is an intrapersonal construct which is the felt experience which influences the mental (cognitive) and emotional (neurophysiological) state of a person. Our assessment of our social safety is an assessment of our interpersonal environment and whether I feel safe or not safe in this social context.

As such our feelings of psychological safety are moderated by our experience of our social context and our assessment of our social safety in that specific context, whether that is your primary team, another team you interact with or stakeholder groups you interact with outside of your team. And this also applies to customers too. From the moment your customers interact with staff it takes place in a social context and they, too, are assessing their social safety, which impacts on their willingness to purchase or engage with your product.

Leaders who understand how to lead with the brain in mind can act in ways that positively influence the social and psychological safety of their team. It will be these leaders who have the edge and will outperform leaders who aren’t equipped with this knowledge.

If you’re interested in building your ability to influence positive social and psychological safety of the people you lead, contact us to find out how we can help you position yourself as a leader of positive influence and take your team to new levels of performance and well-being.

Yes, NeuroCapability’s free webinars are back for 2021.

Wednesday, 17 February 2021, 12 noon QLD

This webinar discusses why the brain matters in leadership. You will find out how the brain drives all our behaviour and how, as leaders, we can improve psychological safety and social safety by leading with the brain in mind. This will not only supercharge your team’s performance, it will supercharge your own performance as well.

To register, click the button below.
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