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Gray Matter(s)

New research offers a glimpse into the brain's responses to differing leadership styles, but before HR can use such information to affect positive change, executives must first embrace the concept.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014
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Academic research is mapping out how brains respond to different types of leaders, and resonant, or more "connected," bosses appear to activate areas of the brain associated with openness to new ideas. Further research is showing that coaching that incorporates visioning sparks parts of the brain that help solve complex problems.

An initial study, published in "Leadership Quarterly" in 2012 and led by researcher and author Richard Boyatzis from the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, used functional magnetic resonance imaging - or MRI -- to record brain responses of a group of executives prompted to think about significant incidents with leaders. The findings showed that recalling emotionally important situations with resonant leaders activated the brain's default mode network, sometimes called the brain's "social" network, and activated attention in ways that allow a person to be open to new ideas and emotions. Memories of leaders perceived as dissonant, or disconnected, suppressed the same network and activated brain regions correlated with negative emotions as well as avoidance, narrowed attention and decreased compassion.

"This is not magic," Boyatzis says. "One of the things that motivates people -- millennials, gen x-ers or boomers -- is if they think the organization is investing in them, if it's interesting to be there. You do have to provide new experiences and opportunities for individual development.

"What this string of research is pointing out is that the instinct of most HR people to focus on coaching, developmental assessment, training and career paths is important."

A parallel study led by Boyatzis and Tony Jack, a cognitive scientist at the university, found that coaching others with a positive emotional approach associated with thinking about possibilities rather than problems activated areas of the brain associated with visioning and areas that allow for broader thinking and complex problem solving. That study, published in 2013 in the journal Social Neuroscience also showed that an approach to coaching focused on fixing a person and arousing guilt activated negative emotions and a narrower, inward focus.

The findings that managers motivate best through connectedness and coaching that inspires falls in line with research from Towers Watson, says Marie S. Holmstrom, the international consulting firm's talent-management and organization-alignment director.

She says the firm continually finds in its research "that direct managers have such an impact on employee engagement -- their belief in the company, willingness to give discretionary effort -- and that impact can move from just traditional engagement to both engaged and energized."

"When we talk about designing the manager role and building manager capabilities," she says, "we are looking at what managers are doing to build that enthusiasm and sense of accomplishment among employees."

The firm's manager-training curriculum teaches employee interactions that are emotionally in-tune rather than directive-driven, Holmstrom says. The model starts with mindfulness, or understanding an employee, and ends with action.

"Some managers move to action first and are more directive," she says. "That's what's very disengaging for employees."

For HR to affect this kind of change at a direct-supervisor level, executives must first embrace the concept, Holmstrom says.

"These behaviors need to be modeled at the top. Start with executives to ensure that they are listening and reflecting, especially with complex issues. What's more impactful is really to understand whether they are enabling and equipping their managers. Are they holding managers accountable for coaching employees with this less directive, more collaborative approach?"

Towers Watson's 2012 Global Workforce Study showed that about three-quarters of respondents who labeled their supervisors as "effective" said their manager listens carefully to different points of view before making a decision. The same study showed that engaged employees are twice as likely to be productive and present than disengaged employees.

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"Employees are telling us that their managers are effective by encouraging new ideas, and new ways of doing things," Holmstrom says.

The challenge for HR lies in ensuring managers and leaders are allotted time and capacity to develop employees and that managers are held accountable for that aspect of their work, she says.

"The HR executive really has to figure out how to restructure roles of managers to not only build their capability but to also give them the time and resources they need to really build their people," she says.

Executives want to spend more time connecting with employees, according to a 2012 CEO survey from global management and HR consulting firm BPI group, says Robyn Clark, BPI's talent solutions practice managing director.

"What we found is that most leaders, including CEOs -- and we find it in our work, too, not just surveys -- spend more time in what we would call short-term activities, solving problems. Almost all leaders wish they could spend more time strategizing, being creative, looking at the marketplace in a new way and spending more time developing people to their potential."

The survey asked respondents to write in -- not choose from a list -- what made their best leader or manager the best, and more than 20 percent wrote the same answer: "coached, mentored and developed  me."

Hiring managers and succession-planning committees can and should work to hire, and promote, for the type of leadership qualities that lit up brains in Boyatzis' studies, such as connectedness and an ability to coach and develop individuals, says Tricia Dupilka, talent solutions practice director at BPI.

"If HR uses only the technical competence as part of decision-making criteria, they're missing the critical piece of leadership," she says. "Clearly, behavioral interviews are part of that. You can use assessments, too, for personalities and propensities for being able to do those kinds of things."

Looking at 360-degree results is another option, she says, adding that some organizations are hesitant to use those, "but you just have to be clear about how you're using it. What employees think of you is generally pretty valid."

"It's easy to train and develop people around technical competence," she says. "People can grow in leadership capability, of course, but it takes the right mindset to do that."

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