Science offers the solution to creating the leaders needed in a tough economy.

Management consultancy Orion Partners has launched a new leadership development programme based on the principles of neuroscience – the study of the brain. Orion has taken scientific research into how the brain works and applied it to understand what makes leaders more effective. They have also applied it to the design and delivery of a new approach to leadership development called BrainBox.

Understanding and applying the principles of neuroscience enables leaders to behave in harmony with how the brain works, improving the way they motivate and communicate with their teams and companies; essentially being more ‘brain-friendly’.

In just three months of continuous application of neuroscience principles to their leadership, managers can become more effective, says Orion, something more vital than ever in the current difficult economic climate. All BrainBox programmes will be designed specifically for each client and tailored to their needs but are likely to include an initial set of workshops, action based projects, coaching, plus access to BrainBox’s online social learning community. Each workshop and the overall programme is designed to maximise insight amongst participants rather than sharing theory and models. Each programme is likely to include approximately 50% of application based tools and exercises, including action-based learning. Following the workshops, participants will then spend at least 3 months working with colleagues and a coach, together with access to the exclusive online social learning community.

Examples of how neuroscience can create better leaders include helping people react better to change, and motivating people more effectively than just using financial reward.

Neuroscience suggests that to be effective, the best leadership development programmes should do the following six things, all of which are incorporated into BrainBox:

  • work the way the brain works – in a ‘brain-friendly’ fashion. The brain likes information to be delivered in small chunks. It likes information to come via several different channels and it likes time for reflection and discussion; BrainBox provides programmes designed in bite-size chunks to provide time for reflection – unlike most leadership development training that hurries through as much as it can in a day.
  • create insights rather than give instructions. People learn when they gain insights; that ‘light bulb moment’ when they make new connections for themselves. Learning works best when people are given the opportunity to deepen their own understanding and create their own ‘ah-ha’ moments. Hearing about somebody else’s insights just isn’t the same; BrainBox concentrates on prompting personal “ah-ha” moments – not throwing models and instructions at people hoping they stick.
  • create new habits. 70% of what we do is habitual. But to create change we have to form new habits. Habits form when goals and plans are reinforced (like using learning in work projects, coaching others or supporting colleagues). When new behaviour is rewarded and repeated regularly, it becomes habit; therefore BrainBox follows Orion’s habit model, providing training tools, social pressure and personal reward to reinforce new behaviour far beyond a one-day workshop.
  • make learning a shared experience. Humans are social creatures – the research shows that we are more motivated by social interactions at work then by money. So people learn best in a community where they can help each other, gain access to new thinking and share their own ideas and experiences. As the brain works best bouncing ideas off others, BrainBox builds up communities of leaders within organisations to support each other and reinforce their learning.
  • spell out –“what’s in it for me?” Understanding what’s at stake for the individual and making the change relevant to them is the first stage in making change happen. This is the difference between “why we need to change” and “why I want to change”; BrainBox uses 360 assessments to help people understand what change means for them and what they will gain from it.
  • measure results and feedback. Organisation must see a benefit from the programme. BrainBox collects data and tracks improvements to measure the impact the programme is having.

The following examples illustrate how neuroscience creates more effective leadership:

1. Helping people respond to change:
In a key project with a super-regional banking group employing over 50,000 people struggling to bed in a global structural change after 18 months, Orion Partners trained over 200 senior HR leaders and 90 business partners in five countries in neuroscience change leadership skills. Neuroscience has shown the extent to which change triggers unconscious responses in people – most of them defensive. Orion provided the insight, and practical tools and tips to help leaders understand how people were responding to change and to avoid and mitigate those unconscious responses. As a result the organisation was able to implement their strategic and service improvements more effectively.

2. Motivating people more effectively than just via financial reward:
In a study examining the effects of social reputation , subjects were asked to perform a task and received feedback from others about their personality that varied in positivity. In a second task, subjects were asked to perform a task in which money could be earned. Both social and financial rewards led to equivalent levels of activity in the part of the brain associated with reward. Further, while studies show that low and medium sized rewards achieve the desired increase in performance, high levels of financial reward were shown to be even detrimental to performance . This illustrates the brain’s reward systems respond to positive feedback as much as to financial incentives.

3. Brainstorming:
Neuroscience also suggests that traditional ways of solving problems – such as group brainstorming – may not be the best way to tackle complicated problems requiring creative solutions. When people discuss these sort of problems out loud or discuss them as a group, they tend to create assumptions about the problem and the solution that may hamper creative thinking. – which is counter-productive when looking for a creative solution to a problem. When it comes to solving large complex problems, groups don’t perform as well as individuals working alone. Instead, neuroscience suggests that the best way to find a solution is to create psychological distance from the problem. BrianBox has other techniques and tools which help leaders in this area, such as creating distance from the problem and taking a different perspective.

Jan Hills, the partner responsible for talent and leadership at Orion said, “We recently carried out research into twenty companies that feel developing their leaders was important to successfully executing their strategic goals. Almost all of them said they were struggling to do so successfully. Fortunately, cutting edge neuroscience research is beginning to show us how to develop people more effectively. People make better leaders when they know how the brain reacts to change and they manage themselves and their people accordingly. Also when more ‘brain friendly’ techniques are applied to leadership development people absorb the main messages more effectively, they change their habits in pursuit of new goals and they enthuse their teams to do the same. As leadership development is a big investment, the improved ROI is hugely important.”

Another important understanding that neuroscience has given us is that 70% of what the brain does is habit and creating new habits can take months. So BrainBox uses our habit model to help leaders speed this up.

Jan Hills commented further, “BrainBox’s social learning network is absolutely essential. We are all creatures of habit and it takes real effort to alter the pathways those habits form in our brains. Neuroscience has shown us that new habits help people deliver on what they say they are going to do and make the changes our industries need. That’s why we incorporate an exclusive social learning network for the leaders who take part in BrainBox. These leaders form communities during our face-to-face sessions and the online community helps to reinforce the learning and encourage continued practice. The design also gives employees time for reflection and – ideally – sleep, following their face-to-face sessions. That helps consolidate memory and learning. The social learning element of BrainBox also allows us to keep delivering information in small chunks and short bursts after the initial face-to-face sessions – as there’s a limit to how much the brain can take-in on an away day.”