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Modern leadership: is neuroscience the solution to toxic leadership?

17th May 2019
leader holding out toxic bottle to employees
iStock/erhui1979

A toxic work environment is detrimental to workers’ mental health and productivity, so how can you recognise the signs and reform your office culture into a healthy and happy one?

It’s all too easy to ignore a toxic culture and dismiss low level grumbling as the unfounded complaints of an insignificant minority. It’s also common to blame a negative atmosphere in the workplace on a set of inexplicable factors beyond our control. More often than not, however, a toxic culture starts at the top.

A traditional view of effective leadership has been about leading from the top down, maintaining strong control and being authoritarian.

We’re accustomed to seeing alpha male type personalities who achieve results at all costs and expect others to do their bidding without question.

In a changing world where agility is essential, however, the ability to collaborate, coach and get the best out of people is becoming far more important than overt displays of strength and power.

Bad news travels fast

Douglas Adams (best known, of course, as author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy) observed that, “nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special rules”.

There is an evolutionary explanation for this, and toxic leadership will spread quickly through an organisation for the same reasons.

Neuroscience shows us that our brains scan for threat before all else – three times faster than we are cognitively aware of.

By communicating in-line with the way our brain has evolved, people will make much more effective connections at work, with the added benefit of better business outcomes.

While this was very useful for avoiding hungry predators on the savannah, in the 21st century workplace the impact is at best demoralising and at worst damaging to our mental and physical health.

This tendency to look for the bad in everything has kept us alive as a species, but in the modern world it is killing us.

What’s more, a happy relaxed brain that is not on red alert is a brain that performs at its best.

A working environment that’s free of fear will get the most from the people in it, but a toxic culture is an enormous waste of potential brainpower.

Spot the signs

Leaders should take notice of the warning signs in their team. Whether it’s aggressive work styles, bullying masked as harmless fun, or a widely recognised group of moaners on smokers’ corner or in the break room.

All of these symptoms will affect a team’s wellbeing and morale, and if ignored will inevitably spread.

The good news is that it’s possible to keep the limbic system soothed and as calm as possible, and create a work environment where our pre-frontal cortex is able to engage.

By communicating in-line with the way our brain has evolved, people will make much more effective connections at work, with the added benefit of better business outcomes.

The C words

By combining a coaching style with an understanding of neuroscience, HR teams and business leaders will foster better, more productive cultures.

There are four underlying principles, which can be adapted to suit different circumstances and individual personalities, starting from the knowledge that the brain works from the bottom up.

C is for connect

The limbic system settles when we feel safe. It knows there is no danger and works out (in nanoseconds) that its owner is being valued and not judged.

Leaders and managers need to connect with their teams in order for people to be fully present and ready to contribute.

This act of checking and tuning in to how people are feeling may sound time consuming, but in my experience it’s a very worthwhile investment.

C is for compassion

Humans cannot help judging other humans. The brain assesses in an instant whether it considers someone to be part of the in-group, and we are incapable of switching this off.

We need to recognise and notice our judgments of others and, in the moment, deliberately work beyond them.

It’s important to commit to including everyone in a way that is compassionate and judgment free, because the difference in the neurochemical response of the brain and body of someone who feels judged and someone who feels valued means the brain either shuts down, or creates learning and the capacity to contribute.

C is for curiosity

Curiosity is king – or queen. Ask. Ask everyone in the business what their opinion is. Be curious. There must be a reason why every individual is there, and if not, your business structures really do need refreshing!

In the spirit of genuine curiosity, allow each brain to have an opportunity to share what it is thinking and feeling. Diversity of views makes for better business decisions.

C is for control

People need time to think and time to speak. Give them control of their own airtime and have a commitment that people will not be interrupted.

This is very rare in my experience. Genuinely allowing individuals full control of their airtime to share and finish their thought is a high-quality way to generate ideas – and hear and feel what is going on for people. Full brain potential is tapped into in this way.

The other positive by-product of allowing each individual the time they need to share their thinking is that the overall quality of thinking improves, as others in the room have the time and space to reflect and build on ideas that are coming forward.

Think again

By taking these simple steps, it is possible to work in-line with how the brain has evolved – through its emotional system and then into its cognitive system.

Any productive work place must take this into account and create an environment of psychological safety.

If all of the limbic systems are settled down, and all of the brains in your business feel relaxed about participating, you will have a culture that is genuinely inclusive. If not, then you are simply not being effective.

You also need to think carefully about developing your own leadership style and the style of the senior managers in your team.

Interested in this topic? Read How to navigate toxic behaviours during conflict.

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