Managing Inside Out

Posted by: csjacobs | Posted on: June 10 , 2013 | Category: BusinessNeuroscience

Much has been written about managing upside down and inverting the pyramid. Even I have contributed to the discussion. The idea is that a manager should be supporting employees rather than commanding them, with fostering participation and empowerment the approaches of choice.

But what we're learning from neuroscience suggests that this isn't going far enough. When we use brain scans to watch the mind at work, it becomes clear that what we know is not an objective reality, but our ideas about it. And those ideas are a unique product of our genetic disposition and a lifetime of experiences.

The world exists inside, not outside, our heads.

As a result, all of us will see the same situation differently and will respond accordingly. The decisions we make participatively and the actions we take with our empowerment will not necessarily be aligned. We may be more engaged, but we can't be sure the organization will perform at a higher level in the areas that matter most.

To improve performance in a meaningful way, managers need instead to go after the mindset that drives the decision-making and actions. This is all the more important when we recognize that the brain operates through Darwinian natural selection and is driven by the selfish gene.

At the most fundamental level, we're looking out for our own best interests, not those of the organization. As one manager put it to me, "if it's a choice between sending my son to college or making a little more money for the company, it's a no brainer."

The cognitive sciences teach us how to shift mindsets. The mind works through narratives and we all spin a personal story about our lives. Leadership is telling a story that is more attractive to people than their own, so that they will adopt it and pursue collective, rather than individual, goals.

Such stories communicate an aspirational vision of the future that promises individual transformation through collective action, and make it clear what that action is and what thoughts and behavior need to change. It's like the King Arthur legend where the knights come together as equals at the round table to create a better society.

But for most of us, the quest isn't for the holy grail. It's to be part of a supportive team, doing more together than we could do alone and becoming the best at what we do, whether it's technology development, customer service, or sales.

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