Feature of the Week

July 6, 2014 11:40 pm

A way into the hearts and minds of managers

Neuroscience©James Ferguson

When Rob Pearse signed up for a three-day leadership programme at Ashridge in the UK, it was because one aspect had piqued his interest. “The only thing I knew about the course was that it was based on research of heart rate monitoring,” says the executive from Newey and Eyre, the UK electrical wholesalers.

As Mr Pearse was put through crisis scenarios at Ashridge, he wore a heart variance monitor continuously for 48 hours. His heart-rate readings were correlated with a video recording of his actions and reactions, to help isolate stress points.

A moderately increased heartbeat when under stress improves performance, says Ashridge researcher Lee Waller, but too much pressure has the opposite effect, triggering flight. “If you push people too far they will see it as a threat.”

The course at Ashridge is one of a growing number of programmes that bring medical techniques and equipment into the business classroom. Heart rate monitors, eye scanners and even brain scanning machines are increasingly being used to help executives manage the stressful parts of their job, make ethical decisions or even potentially be more innovative.

At Ashridge the heart rate monitoring programme was designed following research into what most top executives find stressful, including giving a speech with no preparation, or having a difficult conversation with a subordinate.

In Australia, Cameron Newton, associate professor at QUT Business School in Brisbane, also uses heart rate monitoring to research stress trigger points for executives. His work monitoring managers in Australia and Europe shows some surprising geographical differences. “One of the biggest stress points in Europe is commuting,” he says.

And it is not only the office that produces stress. Prof Newton tells the tale of one female executive in Australia whose stress level readings were low at work but soared once she went home to her 10-year-old daughter and lackadaisical house husband.

Perhaps the most extreme and controversial techniques that have found their way from the hospital to the business school involve the latest magnetic resonance imaging machines, which use magnetic fields and radio waves to form images of the brain. To date, these techniques have been used in isolated pockets of research, but that is changing.

One of the more recent exponents is Maurizio Zollo, professor in strategy and sustainability at Bocconi University in Italy, who is using the scanners to discover why some managers are more innovative than others.

“From neuroscience we know there is an ancient area of the brain that switches between exploration [creating new products or models] and exploitation [improving the quality of existing products] and back again,” says Prof Zollo. “Those managers who can switch more rapidly and easily are those who perform [innovate] best.”

The use of brain-scanning techniques has been used for several years in the US – at the Goizueta school at Emory University professors used MRI techniques with EMBA students to assess which of them were making ethical decisions.

These kind of techniques are important because they bring a different aspect to skills teaching, says Rick Gilkey, who holds a joint appointment between the business school and the medical school – he is an associate professor of psychiatry. “On the MBA we teach tools and techniques that are logical. But emotion is data and it is important data,” he says. “If you are going to talk about strategy ... you’re going to ask people what they feel as well as what they think.”

The importance of emotion in the trading room has been a long-term research project for finance professor Andrew Lo at MIT Sloan, who has specialised in analysing the data gleaned by wiring up traders at the Boston Stock Exchange. “We learnt a lot about the role of emotion in decision making,” he says. “The most skilled traders used their emotions to their advantage.” On the downside: “There are times where you should not be making trading emotional decisions because you are in emotional distress,” he adds.

The use of brain-scanning in a business school context is seen by many as controversial and by others as unhelpful. At Warwick Business School in the UK, for example, Gerard Hodgkinson, professor of strategic management, believes brain-scanning risks oversimplifying human behaviour and can therefore be misleading.

He argues that effectiveness in the workplace goes well beyond the workings of the brain and that insights from sociology, anthropology and psychology are important. But he acknowledges that the headline grabbing potential of neuroscience in management theory will ensure continued research in this area.

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No surprise then that other techniques in cognitive psychology are also finding favour in business research. Peter Bryant, a professor at IE Business School, is also a keen exponent of such tests to investigate the thought processes of entrepreneurs. However, he uses a less complex technique, the “stroop effect” test, which uses flash cards on which conflicting information is printed – for example the word “red” is written in blue.

The difference between the responses of entrepreneurs and corporate executives to the test was measurable, he says. “In the first microseconds, entrepreneurs were processing more quickly. They were quicker to embrace the conflicts and dedicated more brain energy to their resolution.”

So can business people learn to be more entrepreneurial?

Prof Zollo plans to look at how business schools can change executive behaviour. “We want to understand what impact interventions have to change the cognitive patterns. The idea now is to move from mapping to learning interventions and the third stage is to improve our capacity to teach, based on what we learn.”

Helping executives practise their emotional responses in an academic environment should help them perform better in a live crisis situation, believes Megan Reitz, leadership programme director at Ashridge. The aim of the heart monitoring is to create “muscle memory” she says. “When you have to do it when it really, matters, you do it almost automatically.”

Time for reflection

Neuroscience is proving popular in business school in more ways than one. The popularity of using neuroscience research to teach leadership in its corporate programmes has persuaded the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management that there is a market for an open enrolment programme on “Neuroleadership”.

The theme of the two-day course centres on the idea that managers can make their teams more effective by encouraging and rewarding them, rather than criticising them. The Frankfurt school believes managers in Germany are more likely to give credence to measurable results from the world of science, presented by a neuroscientist, than the same message presented under the guise of “soft skills”.

Sonja Thiemann, head of Competence Centre Management at Frankfurt, believes the biggest problem is that 80 per cent of leadership patterns are unconscious, and most managers do not reflect on their behaviour – reflection will be a big element of the course.

“Executives’ main task is to bring employees from survival mode to growth mode, to create a home base where people are encouraged to experiment,” she says. “I’m convinced that we now have pressure in companies to change and to reflect seriously on management behaviour.”

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