How studying neuroscience can make you a better leader

Neuroscience shows us that we can benefit from reflecting on our emotions, says David Cocks, and taking the time to think about how we feel can help us to become more effective managers

Back when I was working as a learning performance leader in the Northern Territory of Australia, a colleague and I had a long debate (aka, polite argument) about the need to remove teachers’ emotions from the schools they worked in.

Her point was that, as professionals, we should be able to suppress our feelings. After all, our students already ensure that schools are simmering pots of emotion, threatening to boil over at any time – especially in the 40-degree heat of the territory.

My point was that fighting your emotions can be bad for you. I wasn’t just speaking from experience; I was basing my opinion on neuroscience. Experiments in which volunteers engaged in emotional experiences and then attempted to suppress their emotions revealed that there were negative effects on their health and wellbeing.

This was one example where a knowledge of neuroscience has helped me as a school leader. Of course, learning about neuroscience is not only useful for school leaders in trying to win arguments. It can also help them to be become better leaders.

“The brain has needs and we are pretty much ignoring them in schools,” says Dr David Rock, an academic and co-founder of the Neuroleadership Institute, as well as author of Your Brain at Work (all research cited from this point in is referenced in Rock’s book).

I have found Rock’s writing particularly useful in my attempts to understand how to use neuroscience to inform my practice as a school leader. He coined the term “neuroleadership” in 2006 and his work focuses on bridging the gap between the ideas emerging from neuroscience and the practices of effective leadership in a range of organisations.

Neuroscience has, in only the past decade, already overturned many of the ideas about brains that held sway for much of the 20th century.

Myths being debunked by systemic peer-reviewed research mean that IQ is no longer considered fixed, talents are not innate but can be grown, learning styles do not impact on learning success and male and female brains are not distinctly different.

The education profession has already learned a lot from this emerging field, but I think there are further lessons that school leaders would benefit from taking on board.

Lesson 1: Quiet time comes before insight

Insight is that moment of innovation when we shout, “Eureka!” It is solving complex non-linear problems that often equate to the real world. Research has found that moments of insight can be mapped within the brain and are, as Rock describes it, “the moment[s] when the brain learns most intently”.

However, the crucial thing to note about insight is that, in the moments preceding it, the brain must enter a “quiet” state that is most associated with dampening visual input to the brain as well as a dip in conscious activity.

More often than not, Rock explains, these moments of insight come at points when we are engaged in a monotonous task; for example, at the gym, walking, driving or removing our focus from the problem.

To put this in the context of school leadership: if we expect to get exceptional creative output from our teachers in a single high-pressure meeting, we are taking away their ability to gain insight into problems.

But providing opportunities for breaks, moments of quiet contemplation or removing focus from a problem could work wonders. And the same goes for students in the classroom, too.

Lesson 2: Emotions are directly linked to learning

Emotions and learning are intrinsically linked. Vicarious emotions (when we see an emotion such as passion or disgust in others) directly influence the emotions and neural responses of our own brains.

Some research has shown that when our leaders are perceived to be in a positive mood, we view them as being more sincere and rate their efficacy more highly.

So, should school leaders be attempting to be happy all the time and suppressing their emotions? Rock doesn’t think so.

“Research shows that suppressing emotions actually makes them worse,” he explains.

However, learning to label and reflect on emotions through mindfulness techniques has been shown to have major benefits for the wellbeing of leaders, improving their ability to problem-solve and maintain a positive frame of mind.

The science behind the neuroplasticity of the brain (its ability to change and grow) has shown that mindfulness can have an impact on the brain in areas associated with learning and memory, emotional regulation and perspective-taking, all of which will contribute to more effective leadership.

Lesson 3: Humans are intrinsically social creatures

Our brains have evolved to a large extent thanks to our social natures. Biological research has shown a distinct correlation between social mammals and brain size, particularly in the neocortex. Social needs matter. As Rock explains, “Research shows that the pain of being socially excluded is experienced in the brain as physical pain.”

This helps to explain the negative consequences of keeping students back a year or moving them between schools, both of which have been shown to have long-term effects on student wellbeing and achievement.

Conversely, social connection is a positive influence and is deeply important for learning. Memories formed during social and collaborative learning are much stronger, longer-lasting and more detailed.

Therefore, if we want teachers to improve their practice, it is essential that we provide them with opportunities to develop through collaborative learning experiences. That’s something to remember when you are planning your next whole-school training session.

Lesson 4: Feedback is a threat

For a long time now, schools have been dutifully driving the feedback culture. As well as perpetually exposing our students to it, we are steeped in a culture of 360-degree feedback tools and professional development cycles for teachers and leaders.

When it comes to effective feedback, there are two viewpoints from neuroscience.

The first point is that the brain finds it challenging to self-regulate when it is in a threat response. And when someone says, “I’d like to give you some feedback…” we automatically go into a threat state. We don’t know what is coming and we have no control over the process. It is, therefore, key that leaders turn their school culture from one in which feedback is given to one in which feedback is asked for.

As Rock explains, “When you ask for feedback, it is a significantly reduced threat.”

Secondly, it’s important to understand that the brain is a habitual organ, and good feedback often needs to overcome or change those habits. Whilst our prefrontal cortex is able to work against these habits when we are calm, positive and in control, this process is easily disrupted. A lack of food, sleep or high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can put the brain into a survival state, making it less receptive. So for feedback to be effective in causing a change, we need to deliver it at times when staff are healthy, calm and able to use their higher brain functions to process it.

The neuroscience of leading and learning is a relatively new field; the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalogram (EEG) techniques in the past 20 years have led to huge gains in understanding of how the brain functions during specific stimuli, but there is still much to learn. The greatest opportunity for us as school leaders is to acknowledge the role the brain plays in everything we do and to be open to adapting our style in response to the new developments that are yet to come.

David Cocks is assistant principal at Bakewell Primary School in Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory. He tweets @davidjohncocks

The original article can be found here.