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Proof From Neuroscience That Bad Leadership is Really BAD!

24/06/2011 17:11


While many organizations are following in the footsteps of Southwest Airlines, VISA International and other global giants by discovering the advantages of relational leadership (people-orientated leadership), many others remain skeptic. However, evidence that it really pays for leaders to be “people-orientated” (as proposed by Elton Mayo early in the 20th Century),1 is also emerging from the field of social neuroscience.

It is general knowledge that our “survival instinct – known as the ‘minimize danger and maximize reward’ principle or the ‘approach-avoid’ response – is a powerful reaction controlled by the brain. The basic mechanism of this protective response is that when we encounter a stimulus (anything we see, hear, feel, etc) our brain either labels it as ‘good’ and prompts us to engage in it (approach it), or labels it as ‘bad’ and prompts us to disengage from (avoid) it. In this way we are drawn to physical rewards in the form of food, shelter and money while most of us will try to avoid being robbed, being caught in a hurricane or falling prey to a lion.

However, what’s new is that a great deal of the motivation which drives our social behavior is also governed by the ‘minimize danger and maximize reward’ principle. David Rock, Co-Founder of the Neuro Leadership Institute, developed the SCARF model which incorporates the survival principle with a framework of five factors that activates a reward or threat response in our brains during social situations. These factors – which can also be described as five basic social domains within which our brains respond to apparent threats and rewards – are status (relative importance to others),certainty (being able to predict the future), autonomy (a sense of control over events), relatedness (a sense of safety with others), and fairness (perception of fair exchanges between people).

As Rock explains in SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others – his seminal article on the topic – perceived rewards or threats in these five domains “activate either the ‘primary reward’ or ‘primary threat’ circuitry (and associated networks) of the brain. For example, a perceived threat to one’s status activates similar brain networks to a threat to one’s life. In the same way, a perceived increase in fairness activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary reward”.2

These findings have enormous implications for leaders and managers. When a leader or manager behave in a way that humiliates employees, cause uncertainty about the future, feel they have lost control, become alienated from the group or feel they’re being treated unjustly, a (subconscious) ‘disengage-avoid’ reaction takes place in the brain. This can have a severely negative impact on coveted employee attributes such as job satisfaction, commitment, motivation and productivity. In fact, it can even impede creative thinking and the ability to perform difficult tasks. Rock refers to several neurological studies that showed “even subtle effects of this approach-avoid response can have a big impact on cognitive performance… Someone feeling threatened by a boss who is undermining their credibility is less likely to be able to solve complex problems and more likely to make mistakes.”2

So ‘bad’ leadership – leader behavior that undermines our social needs for status,certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness – really is BAD! Seeing that he’s the expert, here’s how Rock puts it:2

“Although a job is often regarded as a purely economic transaction, in which people exchange their labor for financial compensation, the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system…

“Leaders who understand this dynamic can more effectively engage their employees’ best talents, support collaborative teams, and create an environment that fosters productive change. Indeed, the ability to intentionally address the social brain in the service of optimal performance will be a distinguishing leadership capability in the years ahead...”

1. Smit, P. J. & Cronje, G. J. de J. (2002). Management Principles – a Contemporary edition for Africa, (3rd ed). Cape Town, South Africa: Juta, p. 43.
2. Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. Neuro Leadership Journal, 1, p. 1-9. (

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