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February 09, 2010

Neuroscience's Lessons for Leadership

Simone Gubar
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Understanding some basic lessons from neuroscience can make you a more effective leader — and help you avoid mental practices that carry serious risks for your health, according to executive coach and author of Your Brain at Work David Rock.

On February 5, 2010, Rock joined Columbia University professor of psychology Kevin Ochsner, a leading researcher on the neuroscience of emotional regulation, for a workshop organized by the School’s Program on Social Intelligence as part of its “Science Meets Practice” series. Columbia Business School professor Hitendra Wadhwa moderated the discussion.

The workshop focused on emotional regulation — feeling the right emotions at the right time — a skill that is especially important in the workplace. Negative emotions are powerful: they can significantly reduce functioning in the prefrontal cortex, the region in the brain that supports higher intellectual processes, said Rock.

Ochsner gave two scenarios to explain how emotional regulation works in a stressful situation.

The typical response: You try to suppress your feelings. This turns out to be more physiologically arousing than expressing what you feel. Studies show that suppression not only reduces short-term memory and causes your blood pressure to go up — it also raises the blood pressure of your colleagues. Over time, this can lead to long-term health problems like diabetes and cardiovascular disease for both you and your peers.

A new response: Try a “reappraisal” strategy and decide to see the situation in a different way so as to prevent an emotional response. For example, if your boss criticizes your presentation, you might adopt the perspective that she is having a bad day, or focus on what you will do in your next presentation.

Ochsner explained that suppression and reappraisal cause very different responses in the brain: while suppression increases activity in areas involved in generating emotional responses — diminishing the brain’s capacity for higher intellectual functions — reappraisal reduces activity in them. So choosing to reappraise rather than suppress can literally prevent a negative emotion.

How to become more adept at reappraisal?

Practice mindfulness and pay attention to the present in an open, accepting way, Rock advised. Mindfulness enables you to turn off the brain’s “narrative circuit” — conscious, active thought — and activate “direct experience,” giving you a more accurate perception of reality and allowing you to be more flexible in how you respond to the world.

Rock believes that people will be more effective leaders if they can consciously move back and forth between these two modes. It’s a premise based on science: studies indicate that people high on a mindfulness scale have a greater ability to shape how they react and what they do than people with a lower capacity for mindfulness.

Photo credit: MR McGill


by Ora Shtull | February 09, 2010 at 10:44 PM

As an Executive Coach, I hear of many techniques senior execs use to increase mindfulness - from long-term meditation to in-the-moment deep breathing. Some professionals, however, struggle with the concept of "being present in an open way." I'm eager to hear new, unique ways to stimulate reappraisal or mindfulness. Please share. Many thanks, Ora, Executive Coach

by Ali Merchant | April 02, 2010 at 8:55 AM

As a director at a large textile exporting company, the breadth and complexity of which can get overwhelming, I have found going to the washroom in the middle of a heated meeting helps me refocus. Even just washing hands or simply staring in the mirror helps me regain a sense of the big picture and presents an opportunity to think about something from another angle, i.e. stimulates reappraisal. P.S. It must be noted that in Pakistan there is a concept of private attached bathrooms in offices, so going to the washroom isn't such a chore :)

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