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How Leaders Lead

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Through advances in neuroscience, we are can now see inside of the brains and minds of people who are experiencing different emotions. What astounds scientists is the dramatically different "brain landscape" for people who are in fear states, compared to those who are in states of joy, happiness and trust.

What this surprising difference in our brain's activity is showing us is profound and is changing the very foundation for how leaders lead. Most leaders don't realize that punishment and embarrassment is not only an outdated strategy for employee motivation -- it is a harmful -- with both short- and long-term unexpected consequences.

Once a person has been triggered by fear -- let's say from an angry boss, a yelling, or merely a passive-aggressive or blaming boss who is embarrassing that person in front of colleagues -- a cascade of neurochemicals starts in the lower brain.This cortisol bath sends messages to the other parts of the brain and propels it into hyper-gear to protect the person from harm.

This triggered reaction is not momentary -- it is sustained over a half-life of 13 hours or a full life of 26 hours. If the leader continues to irritate, embarrass or outrage the employee during the next period of time, the cortisol and associated chemistry continues its cascade and the person is now in a prolonged state of fear -- what scientists call Amygdala Hijack.

Parts of the brain needed for building trust, for thinking clearly, for empathy, and getting along with others are now closing down and strategies for self-protection prevail. This includes talking with people who can console them or help them think through what just happened so they can make sense of and work through their bad feelings. This person needs to find solace with others to alleviate their fear and pain -- and so begins their journey to find comfort from others who care about them.

What quells the brain's fear state is trust, empathy and support. When someone shows concern for our state of mind, and our feelings, our chemistry makes a shift. We become calmer, we can gain composure, and we can think constructively..

The hormone oxytocin is a neurotransmitter associated with bonding behaviors. New scientific research is suggesting that oxytocin in the most prevalent hormone in the heart and the brain, and drives our need for social contact. This hormone's power is the newest discovery in neuroscience and may explain why isolation is so painful (lack of oxytocin), why loners die young, and why rejection can be more painful than physical pain. Some scientists call oxytocin the "cuddle hormone" because its affect on making us feel cared for, and its power to create and restore a feeling of well being, is as good as a mother's hug.

Leaders don't need to physically touch another person or hug them to produce this caring affect. Instead they can touch someone's heart with words of sympathy or support, or they can validate someone's concern and trigger a more positive mental and physical state of mind.

What is most exciting about this new science of human behavior is the knowledge that our heart acts like more like an orchestra leader of our states of mind than as a solo musician. Capable of reading the chemistries of our interactions, our heart sends messages to the brain through a large number of pathways, instructing our brains how to interpret and respond to our moments of contact with others. With this information from our heart, our brain guides us to either reach out to others to connect, or to withdraw from others in fear.

Inspired leaders will be further inspired as they come to understand the neuroscience of we -- how interactions with others lead to either protection or growth -- to high levels of either distrust, or trust. These states of mind driven by our millions of minute-by-minute neuorchemical reactions, translates into how we build trusting relationships with others, how we communicate, and how we shape our relationships.

For example, when a leader trusts that an employee will be able to tackle a project successfully, and the employee does, something happens neurochemically in both of them. There is a shift in the employee's confidence that can be directly connected to increases in neurotransmitters -- like serotonin and dopamine. When the leader praises and supports the employee publically, this also unlocks another set of neurochemical patterns that cascade positive chemistry throughout the brain. Highly motivated employees describe the feeling as an almost drug-like dopamine state. When this state of positive arousal comes with appropriate, honest and sincere praise, employees will take more risks, they will speak up more and push back when they have things to say, and be more confident with their peers.

When employees are given honest feedback, it drives patterns of intrinsic motivation that energizes them or motivates them to access new skills and talents. Yet when the interaction feels judgmental, or embarrassing, a whole different cascade of neurotransmitters occurs, creating a very different brain landscape driving our future interactions.

How engagement and interactions impact us is a science that all business people must understand and practice. There is a neurochemistry behind praise that actually triggers neurochemical shifts, which have a ripple affect and impact our levels of "confidence" and "social composure." Employees instantly become better and more competent..

Once these chemicals are released, they provide the ability to sustain commitment even under stress -- which means that a person will have greater intention and attention to staying on target longer to get a result -- rather than bailing out midstream and only achieving a fraction of what they could otherwise accomplish.

Rather than "replacing employees who aren't cutting it" or punishing them for not achieving expectations, leaders can learn new practices to use with employees that help release or trigger skill-building -- propelling mediocre employees to become better and ensuring good employees become even greater.

Source: Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results - Judith E. Glaser; (Publisher: BiblioMotion/Fall 2013)

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