Brain MRI

If you have read a new business book, done executive training or attended a leadership summit recently, you have probably seen a slide, diagram or animation of the human brain.

Excitement about neuroscience is high. Where it intersects with leadership studies, it is lighting up the prefrontal cortex of coaches, marketers, executives and, inevitably, a few charlatans and snake-oil salesmen.

Brain science talks were hugely oversubscribed at this year’s World Economic Forum, leading some management academics to mutter about the days when business professors, not scientists, were the Davos crowd-pullers. At one session, Tania Singer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences revealed preliminary research that shows intensive exercises in empathy, perspective-taking and mindfulness can break selfish habits and change “the brain’s hardware” so people become more altruistic. Robert Shiller, an economist, told the same audience such results could shake the fundamental underpinnings of orthodox economics. The research has implications for management, too.

For decades, people studied organisations as though managers were interchangeable, like the “homo economicus” that Prof Singer’s research challenges. Then researchers started to identify the different types and mindsets of executives and what impact their behaviour had on their companies. Now, “I’m reading everything I can get my hands on about neuroscience,” says Abbie Smith of Chicago Booth business school, who has looked at the benefits for companies that appoint “frugal” executives. “We take as a given that these behaviours reflect mindset. But the question is: what can change?”

Brains can: that much is known. Well-publicised research showed a few years ago that the posterior hippocampus of London’s black-cab drivers enlarged over the years it took them to memorise the layout of the UK capital — “the Knowledge”. If the latest science makes it easier to work out how to change executives from one “type” (selfish, say) to another (altruistic), it could open up whole new possibilities for training and development.

Caution is in order. As neuroscientist Molly Crockett pointed out in her Ted talk called Beware neuro-bunk, more people agree with the findings of a scientific article with a picture of the brain than the same article unillustrated. “Do you want to sell it? Put a brain on it,” she concluded.

Even where the neuroscience is sound, sometimes it merely explains notions that were already clear from psychological or behavioural studies. There are also ethical concerns. An unscrupulous boss could use brain-training techniques to make his team better at pursuing bad or short-term ends (another Davos panellist pointed out that, without an injection of values, brain exercise could produce lethally accurate “mindful snipers”).

Or an executive could use more direct methods, of which cognitive enhancing drugs are the most obvious, to juice up her own performance, without regard for the side-effects.

Despite this, I think leaders should pursue positive, sound scientific methods to improve how the brain performs, just as chief executives should work out enough to minimise their risk of heart attack.

As a byproduct of her work on brain injury, Barbara Sahakian of Cambridge university found entrepreneurs were better adapted to taking “hot” decisions, such as making a risky investment, than their managerial counterparts. Extrapolating from those results, companies could design courses to make the risk-averse better at hot decision-making. Take London cabbies and their bulging hippocampi. As technology makes command of The Knowledge less important, and disrupters such as Uber attack their closed market, perhaps they should now retrain so their brains become more entrepreneurial.

One mundane hurdle is time. Prof Sahakian uses games to make training more enjoyable. But a new book, Neuroscience for Leadership, by a neuroscientist, an executive coach and a psychologist, points out that to develop some of these skills still “depends on tremendous motivation and will, and years of practice, reflection and feedback”. Most chief executives do not have years. But their successors do. One day, neuroimaging will tell recruiters more about their potential — and how to realise it — than their MBA certificates ever did.

Twitter: @andrewtghill

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