Much of your brain is hardwired from birth. Our primitive reflexes make us hyper-alert for bad news. Our brains detect negative information faster than positive information, and we have a stronger memory for painful experiences than pleasurable ones. This hardwiring ensured the survival of our ancestors.
But the world has changed, and we now know more about how our brains can best help us in today’s world. Studies in brain science have revealed that our prefrontal cortex provides thinking processes that allow us to override the primitive instincts that no longer serve us. It gives us the ability to make choices about our behavior – IF we are intentional.
Brain science shows us the old excuses don’t hold up.
Far too many leaders are unaware of the effect of their actions on others, leaving a wake of anxious people in their path. We can’t let them off the hook for this anymore. Brain science has demonstrated that we have the ability to become aware of the effect of our actions AND even more importantly, that through our prefrontal cortex, we have the ability to consciously consider our actions.
Far too many leaders have used the excuse, “I’m too old to change. Others need to figure out how to adapt to my style.” That excuse doesn’t hold up anymore either. We now know that the human brain continues to grow and learn throughout our lives and that we are capable of changing at any point. You might not want to change, but you are never too old to change.
Three lessons from brain science that can increase your effectiveness as a leader.
1. When you are emotionally triggered, take a breath. And then take another one. Hold off on responding when you are angry or annoyed. We don’t have a choice about our feelings, but we do have a choice about how we respond to them.
It might give you relief to lash out, but too often trust is broken and repair is difficult, especially when this is a pattern. Our prefrontal cortex allows us to override our reactivity, to choose to delay the immediate gratification of relief at the expense of others, and to wait until our rational thinking returns before taking action.
2. Take responsibility for your relationships. Be aware of the effect of your actions on others and how they experience you. If you really want to know how you affect others, you need feedback from them. But unless people feel safe enough to speak the truth, they will only tell you what they think you want to hear.
It can be helpful to ask for anonymous feedback, but that should just be a first step. The real power of feedback comes during a conversation where, instead of giving explanations for your behavior, you listen and try to understand.
3. Choose words and take actions that benefit others. Acting with kindness toward others actually affects your brain. It increases your level of oxytocin (associated with feeling good) and further develops your prefrontal cortex.
It is important to speak the truth and to give negative feedback when it is warranted. But when you consider your words and deliver the bad news with compassion, the effect is quite different on both the other person and on yourself.