Managers: Neuroscience Research Suggests Loosening Your Reins

Managers - Neuroscience Research Suggests Loosening Your Reins

The command-and-control approach is out of vogue, and, as it turns out, also detrimental to human nature. Whether you’re an IT manager locking down access and permissions to IT-business collaboration tools, or a micromanager who forces a process on her employees to get work done, you may be negatively affecting business productivity.

Historically, leaders have controlled employees rather than connecting with them. According to neuroscientist and educator Dalton Kehoe, author of Mindful Management, this approach has had a negative impact on the conscious, neural needs that motivate people to work productively. Here’s why.

Inside the human brain, things get complicated when someone has the legitimate right to tell us what to do. One part of the brain knows that the situation requires attention, but the mirror neuron system suggests that another’s dominance is actually a low-level threat. We are fearful and we want get away from the person.

Dominant Doctors Are Perceived Negatively

The subtlety and power of this situation is reflected in the work of psychologist Nalini Ambady. She asked research study participants to listen to short recordings of surgeons talking to patients. The exchanges were filtered to preserve the intonation, rhythm and pitch of the surgeons’ voices, but they eliminated content.

Ambady then asked participants whether the doctor had ever been sued for malpractice. If the surgeon’s voice was judged to sound dominant, participants guessed that he or she had been sued. If the voice sounded less dominant and more concerned, the surgeon was put into the non-sued group.

Follow-up studies have shown that people don’t trust doctors who show dominance without concern. Patients who can’t emotionally connect to a doctor don’t do as they are told, but when they get sick again, they blame the physician.

Dominant Managers Breed Willful Employees

Similarly, if a manager speaks in a dismissive and controlling way, employees automatically resist what they’re saying. As John Zenger and Amy Cuddy have shown in their research, most managers unthinkingly emphasize their strength, competence, and credentials at work, which doesn’t emotionally engage their staff.

To feel engaged, our mirror neurons must mimic the emotions of connection and positive anticipation (optimism) while our manager is talking to us, rather than feelings of distance, aggressiveness or contempt. Dominance triggers low-level threat and our emotional energy turns inward for protection.

Fear of the Unknown is Documented in Neuroscience

Human beings are moved to pay attention to caring communication. We fear ambiguity and seek certainty. This need has been demonstrated in simple experiments of choice based on what is called the “Ellsberg Paradox.” In one experiment, people are offered a chance to win $100 if they pick the right color of marble, perhaps white, from one of two urns. Each urn is opaque and contains the same number of marbles. Participants are told how many black and white marbles are in one urn but not in the other.

The urn they take a chance on is the one for which they know the proportion. If they draw out the correct color, they are asked to play again and choose the opposite color. Almost inevitably, they go back to the urn they think they know something about. But logically, they’d have a better chance to draw out the opposite color in the unknown urn because no marbles have been removed.

We prefer taking risks in situations where we know our chances rather than in those where the odds are ambiguous. This is because our estimation of success is driven not by rational calculation, but instead by fear. When faced with circumstances in which we can’t anticipate what will happen next, the amygdala sends a jolt of negative emotional energy to warn of danger.

Be a More Effective Manager: Encourage Autonomy and Stay Cool

How can you get neuroscience on your side? Your first step is self-awareness. Are you an overly controlling leader? If so, a good strategy for decreasing your perceived dominance is to stop micromanaging and instead, give your employees the freedom to accomplish tasks in their own way.

Make your expectations clear at the beginning of a task, and once you are certain that everyone understands what needs to be accomplished, keep your hands out of it.  As long as employees are getting results, don’t be too concerned with process.

Do your employees implicitly trust and connect with you? If you are feeling a distance, encourage them to take the relationship up a level by speaking calmly and reassuringly. You don’t want them to see you freaking out, but at the same time you don’t want to hide or withhold critical information. Be the leader who is easy to read and predict, and who can be counted on for the true story. Transparency facilitates collaboration and keeps fears at bay.

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  • Dr. Sunil G. Deshpande

    The management of employee is the issue directly related to style of leadership you are following. The leadership attribute may be same but the style one may choose different for different situation.
    As the leader has to mange the human resource, which is living phenomena, major problem arises, why people will motivate to do the our work? This art of motivating people is the real test of manager.

    After studying the traits of Needs of employees of the backdrop of Maslow’s theory of need hierarchy, manager will design his strategies for human resource.