Updated: Jul 18, 2018
In a world of fast-paced change that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA change) what can leaders do to ensure their staff stay engaged and keep performing even when so much is unknown?
I’ve recently completed a Diploma of Leadership, Coaching and Mentoring
(through the fabulous FIREUP Coaching) that has focused on how valuable
lessons from the field of neuroscience can be applied to individual, team and
organisational culture and performance. In my leadership and coaching work,
I’ve been incorporating these lessons, including the work of organisational
anthropologist, Judith E. Glaser, who uses her knowledge of neuroscience to
help people across the globe develop the skills to have better conversations,
build stronger relationships and improve performance in the face of complex
Neuroscience informs us at a whole different level about how we approach
leadership development and change management. As a leader in your
organisation, are you creating a brain-friendly workplace? Are you being
Did you know that every conversation we have evokes either trust or
mistrust? The brain processes these two responses separately, in two different
areas. Mistrust triggers the lower, more primitive brain (the amygdala) and
activates a threat response. On the other hand, trust activates higher-level
intelligences (via the pre-frontal cortex) such as integrity, empathy, and good
The amygdala is responsible for the actions of fight, flight, freeze or appease and once activated (when we mistrust) cortisol is released, our brain goes into
lock-down, our access to the higher thinking part of our brain is limited and
we are unable to engage with others. We actually can’t think properly! This
results in lower productivity, lower innovation and lower success.
On the other hand, when we access our pre-frontal cortex, via a feeling of
trust, oxytocin is released. The pre-frontal cortex enables us to collaborate
with others, have good judgement, be strategic, handle difficult conversations
and build and sustain trust.
The question for leaders is – how do you create an environment of trust in
your workplace so that your staff can perform?
Here’s a checklist, based on Judith Glaser’s work, that you can use to
evaluate your organisational or team culture or even to reflect on your own
If we are in environments of mistrust we are operating out of the emotional part of our brain and this may limit access to our brain’s higher thinking ability - the outcome is that our performance is impeded.
You can imagine the difference in an organisation’s performance if people at all levels have the skills to create environments of trust.
How do you, your team or organisation perform against these behaviours?
In times of radical change which many organisations are experiencing as “the new norm” you can see that there is potential for staff in different parts of the organisation to feel excluded from decision-making or information, or that they are having change imposed and have limited choices, for example. The result is an environment of mistrust with staff operating out of their amygdala.
They are limited in their ability to access the higher functioning part of their brain that would enable them to consider new ideas, change their perspective and potentially get on board with the change.
How are change programs, communication and engagement programs or even team meetings designed and executed in your organisation? What could you do in leading change to up regulate oxytocin by adopting strategies and behaviours that include listening to understand, transparency, appreciating, sharing success, developing ideas with your staff etc.?
How about yourself? If your behaviour involves telling rather than asking or listening, the need to be right, withholding information, excluding people, dictating or if your response to someone else’s idea is “no, that will never work”, your interactions with others could be creating mistrust. You have an opportunity for growth here!
The great news is that we can all develop better skills to foster environments of trust through the conversations we have. We can also regulate our own behaviour when we experience a mistrust response ourselves. By being observant to our own reactions there are strategies we can use to get out of our amygdala and be able to access our pre-frontal cortex – hint – breathing is a key skill here!
So as a leader in your organisation, are you creating a brain-friendly workplace? Are you being a neuroleader? I encourage you to experiment by identifying three simple changes you could make to your own behaviour, or in the work environment, that utilise these valuable lessons from neuroscience about building trust.
It might be to listen more, to spend time at the start of a team meeting checking in with how everyone is doing, it might be asking someone’s opinion rather than telling them what to do. Have a go and see what happens! Creating environments of trust, particularly in times of VUCA change, is a smart business choice for leaders - the results are high performance and more engaged staff.
If your organisation or team is involved in significant change, or if you want to encourage better performance or engagement, I encourage you to get in touch and have a conversation with me. I incorporate the work of Judith Glaser, and others forging ahead in the neuroscience field, into my workshops and coaching work and give participants an opportunity to reflect on how effective they really are at connecting and engaging with others.
Case Study: How we used a Neuroleadership approach to assist an organisation during their NDIS transition
If leadership is an action, not a position, then anyone in an organisation, no matter what their role, can be a leader.
Imagine if everyone in your organisation was empowered and supported to develop their leadership capability and then brought that capability and attitude to work every single day, how would things be different? What could be achieved? Consider how this would impact on your organisation’s performance, processes, teams and people!
This approach was one that my colleague, Louise Thomson, and I proposed to our one of our clients, a health organisation, when they came to us seeking assistance in developing the capacity of their leadership team in order to facilitate a smoother transition to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) for their staff and clients. The NDIS involves rapid and transformational change for many organisations due to a new funding and business model which is radically changing business systems and increasing accountability and reporting requirements of staff, the majority of whom are motivated by caring for people.
We used neuroscience concepts to design a leadership program to assist our NDIS client to create an environment of trust and build fundamental skills in conversational intelligence so that staff could keep performing through a time of immense change and uncertainty.
We proposed a leadership program that not only involved the existing leadership team, but that also invited other interested staff from across the organisation to participate as “emerging leaders”. This was to create a feeling of inclusion, sharing and discovering together (key components of Judith Glaser’s Healthy, Thriving Organisations - refer Table 1 in above article). The key message was that, “everyone is a leader, no matter what their role”. We built into the program modules that included:
enabling people to discover the strengths of themselves and others,
facilitating conversations about the meaning of leadership in 2017,
exploring behaviours that the group wanted to demonstrate as leaders,
building skills in understanding and dealing with conflict and tools to have courageous conversations,
expanding people’s self-perception of their identity as a leader and identifying beliefs or behaviours that were holding them back.
By creating an environment of trust and inclusion the group of team leaders and emerging leaders was able to have valuable conversations, consider new ideas, and change practices, behaviours and attitudes in the organisation – all key ingredients to creating a brain-friendly organisation better equipped to navigate VUCA change.
“Since undertaking the workshops with Cynthia and Louise, we seem to have an increased awareness of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, which has supported a positive cultural shift across the service. The new shared agreement means that staff are less tolerant and accepting of the more dominant, negative voices in the group, and are more likely to abandon these opinions rather than follow behind them. This has led to certain individuals now feeling more confident to take up opportunities or give their opinions and feedback in open forums (all team meetings etc.).
There is a general air of improved confidence among those staff who attended the workshops, as well as an increased sense of accountability stemming from increased personal. This self-reflection and personal awareness has empowered these staff to lead in their own style, and contribute to the creation of a constructive and productive workplace.
This shift in behaviour has better positioned us as a service to respond to the turbulent health care reform (Carer Support Services, NDIS, Aged Care, Mental Health) that is impacting vulnerable people our staff work with. The increase in skills and awareness of many staff members has assisted leadership to implement service wide changes and to undertake a restructure, since leadership and team members are better equipped to cope with change.” Manager of Health Service
At a personal level participants reported significant change within their own capability and identity.
"I feel there has been an internal shift and I feel more confident in myself. I feel I am recognising my strengths more and am wanting to contribute even more positively to my workplace than I used to.
The idea of leadership has really resonated with me and I am more mindful of how I present and what I am offering to my workplace and colleagues. I have raised my own work standards, without anyone in the workplace asking me to. I have also reflected more on our organisational values and how they translate into work or personal behaviours. Having the opportunity to try out different conflict styles has allowed me to grow as a person and become more in touch with some of my strengths. The impact of this is that I was able to challenge people more and have an effective and stronger voice." Mandy, Emerging Leader Program Participant
We’re excited about using our “everybody is a leader” approach to work with other teams and organisations to assist them in creating environments of trust so they can navigate the radical change that is the new norm. If you’re interested in finding out more we’d love to talk to you about our existing programs or we can also design a program that is customised to meet your needs.