Our understanding of the brain has changed dramatically in the past 20 years.

The field of neuroscience is bringing new insights into how our brains work and the opportunity to better understand why and how people behave, make decisions and relate to others.

A very simple model divides our brain into three areas. The reptilian brain controls our basic bodily functions and primary drivers such as eating, sleeping and sex. The limbic brain is where emotions, memories and habits are processed. The pre-frontal cortex is our brain’s executive centre responsible for higher order thinking.

The pre-frontal cortex is less of a decision-maker than you might expect. In fact, our emotions play a greater role in guiding our thinking and behaviour—what we think, how we think, how we make decisions and how we act on them. Even when we’ve made a rational decision, chances are our emotions made it first as the limbic brain functions faster. We then establish reasons to justify our gut reaction.

“Far from interfering with rationality,” asserts neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, author of the influential 1994 book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, “the absence of emotion and feeling can break down rationality and make wise decision making almost impossible.”

Emotions are designed to mobilise us to deal quickly with important interpersonal or threatening events. They are critical to our survival. Emotions contain data about ourselves, other people and the world around us. Remaining open to feelings gives us valuable early data points that help us think and act more intelligently.

Imagine, for example, you’re in a hurry driving to work. A change in the environment—the sound of a police car siren—triggers a rapid emotional response. The emotion makes you pay attention and generates thought. You realise you have been speeding, possibly endangering the lives of others. This motivates behaviour and you slow down.

Not all of our knee-jerk emotional reactions are effective of course. The key is to learn to harness both the emotional and the thinking areas of our brain to ensure we are managing our own emotions rather than allowing our emotions to manage us.

Our brains don’t like change. This is largely because we are wired to perceive changes in our environment as a threat, which biases perceptions and decision-making.

While individuals may be motivated by different factors, a fundamental organising principle of the brain impacts everyone’s behaviour: the urge to minimise threat and maximise reward. Neuroscientists call this the ‘walk towards, run away’ theory.

When we feel threatened, such as when faced with a proposed merger or restructure in the organisation or having to deliver a presentation to a large audience, we are inclined to avoid what seems threatening, rather than embrace it.

We need to work harder to maximise the reward principle to approach this new situation with an open mind. Positive emotions and positive relationships are two powerful attractors that engage our reward systems and open us to change, new ideas and strategies for thinking and action.

At the same time we wouldn’t be human if we couldn’t change. We evolved from single cell organisms over eons, so adaptation is our core survival mechanism. In fact we are geared to life-long learning and growth. Our brain cells are continually forming new connections and restructuring our perceptions and physiology over time. This process is known as neuroplasticity, and it happens thousands of times a day, giving us enormous potential to change if we put awareness, effort and commitment into making it happen.

“The brain is a far more open system than we ever imagined,
and nature…has given us a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself.”
Norman Doidge

The demands on leaders and anyone who wants to thrive at work are increasing. We need to perform, collaborate, innovate and remain agile to navigate complexity and succeed in today’s complex, interconnected workplaces. Neuroscience offers strategies to optimise the brain’s performance and increase people’s capacity to lead themselves and others in fast-changing global environments.

Neuroscience can be applied to help leaders and organisations:

  • Discover how neural wiring helps or hinders effectiveness, relationships and change.
  • Learn how emotions influence thinking, behaviour, performance and decision-making.
  • Increase creativity, empathy and learning in individuals and teams.
  • Leverage the brain’s reward mechanisms to ensure the success of leadership and change initiatives.
  • Develop brain-based strategies to enable collaboration, performance and success.
Our eBook explores practical, brain-based strategies to optimise your performance and your team. You will learn what the brain needs to function well and support efforts to change and grow; how to manage emotions in yourself and your team, and a range of helpful tips to boost your productivity, performance and wellbeing.

What is neuroscience of leadership?

NeuroLeadership is the application of neuroscience to leadership, a term coined by David Rock.

His SCARF model (Rock, 2008) highlights ways to generate strong rewards by increasing people’s sense of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, or Fairness. For example, an increase in people’s sense of status can activate the brain’s reward centres when people learn new tasks and receive positive feedback. Positive feedback in turn has been shown to increase dopamine, a critical neurochemical thought to help learning stick. An increase in relatedness also stimulates rewards the more people connect to each other and strengthen emotional bonds.

The i4 Neuroleader model created by Silvia Damiano and her team at About My Brain Institute, is a personal leadership model with the brain at its core. It is made up of four key competencies—Performance, Collaboration, Innovation and Agility—and underpinned by four brain and body processes that are often forgotten in leadership and organisations. They are abilities we can all develop.
i4 Neuroleader model

The effective functioning of the various components of our brains and bodies, which result in a healthy system.

Performing optimally requires basic abilities that above all require maintenance. Our brains and bodies form an integrated system and failing to take care of it may lead to poor performance and decrease our health and wellbeing.

The energy, enthusiasm and desire to act, as a result of feeling mentally and emotionally stimulated.

The emergence of virtual teams and a global economy requires us to develop the ability to inspire others, work fluidly across boundaries and collaborate with diverse groups to successfully accomplish our goals.

The mental faculty or recognising patterns and forming new concepts and ideas.

Discoveries about how the brain functions when an insight moment occurs has shed new light on how we can tap into our imagination. This gives us the possibility of being co-creators rather than passive observers.

Knowing something without the involvement of conscious reasoning.

Leading in a complex world where uncertainty and ambiguity are constant factors, requires us to intuitively anticipate and solve issues that appear more often in rapidly changing environments.

Triunel brain model

Neuroscience case study

Santos, a leading Australian resources producer, was embarking on comprehensive business improvement that involved major change. As a 70% failure rate is commonly cited for change initiatives designed to improve business performance because of people issues, Santos wanted to work hard to counter negativity and focus efforts on positively engaging people. We trained their team of change agent in how the brain is affected during change, ensure the success of the project.

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Want to start applying neuroscience at work? Here’s how we can help.

neuroscience of leadership consulting

Consulting services

We work with organisations to build neuroleadership capabilities and increase performance, collaboration, innovation and agility in organisations. We can design solutions that suit your business and help you get the most from the latest brain science.

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Neuroleadership assessment

Neuroleadership assessment

Would you like to learn more about your i4 Neuroleadership capabilities and start developing them? We offer online self-assessment, 360 feedback and team reports debriefed with one of our qualified experts.

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training and accreditation

Training and accreditation

Would you like to learn how to assess and develop neuroleadership capabilities? We accredit HR and business leaders to use the i4 Neuroleadership model and implement brain-based strategies in their organisations and teams. Inhouse and open programs are available.

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Neuroscience of leadership articles

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