The Leading Brain or how to improve your team and your own performances with neuroscience

Business books libraries are full of books from various ‘experts’ and ‘gurus’ that claim that have a magical wand to enhance peak performances through tricks and strategies. Most of them have small or no evidence to substantiate their statements.

The leading brain, the book of Friederike Fabritius, Neuroscientist and collaborator of McKinsey Consultancy firm, and Hans W. Hagmann, phD and founder of the Munich  Leadership Group, is based on various studies that divide what is truth and what is Folklore.

The Leading Brain is divided in three main blocks: Explanation of mechanism and status of peak performance , how to rewire the brain with habits that stimulate neuroplasticity, and how to establish the state of ‘flow’ for teams of people.

At the end of every part there is a simple yet effective summary of the practical tips and insight from each part.

The first part explains how our brain is mainly influenced by chemical reactions, chief among the molecules that govern our brain activities there are the “DNA”, Dopamine, Noradrenaline, and Acetylcholine.

“Dopamine,Noradrenaline and Acetylcholine at a molecular level”

Dopamine help us to update information and reward us with the good sensation of wanting more. Noradrenaline is the “Threat” detection molecule, it protects us from dangers and it is the best motivator when we feel slightly overchallenged. Lastly Acetylcholine helps to burn in our memory what we learn and can be stimulated by physical exercise, paying extreme attention, and when we are exposed to something novel.

There are different types of top achievers. They achieve the best performance on high or low arousal.If you get your best achievements under high stress and dread boring office work, you are like the astronaut ‘Gordo’ Cooper that operated with calm his capsule in the extreme situation of an emergency landing from space but fell asleep during the initial space capsule preparation. If you are more methodical and can focus on the long run, you are more similar to scientists like Louis Pascal that do not need external stress to perform at their best.

But what top performers have in common? In a nutshell they stay in reward mode at all the time, eat well, exercise and sleep. Moreover, they use different techniques to stay at the top of their game such as: label negative emotions to control them, reframe negative situations in opportunities, avoid as much as possible multitasking and distractions, and practice mindfulness.

The good news from the second part of the book is that adult brain neuropaths are not set in stone.  By changing our habits and put emotional rewards at the end of an effort, and by using routines that change our behaviour (for example setting rules like “if I do x then y”or “when x happens then y” ) we are actively changing our brain wiring.

“Adult brain neuropaths are not set in stone”

Habits are hard to form. It takes HUGE amount of effort to put a new habit in our daily life that changes our daily organization. One of the secrets explained in the book to master new habit is to use “Kaizen”

Kaizen is the practice of using small steps to advance, even if it is strongly associated with Japan, it actually originated in the U.S. Military as “continuous improvement” and then was translated in Japanese and became notorious during the transformation of Japan from Feudal to an Industrial Country.

Kaizen is composed by 6 parts

  • Ask small questions
  • Think small thoughts
  • Take Small Actions
  • Solve Small Problems
  • Give Small Rewards
  • Identify Small Moments

That helps the brain to learn incrementally rather than by force.

To train the adult brain to learn, a connection with an emotional trigger, either a reward or a threat helps the brain to retain the information while correct sleep consolidates the knowledge.

Lastly the third part of the book exposes how dream teams can be formed.

The best teams come from different minded people. In this book diversity is not intended as in gender, nationalities, cultures etc. but by different neurochemical and personality traits. You could have a team that look like the United Nations but have people in it that are like minded and do not innovate and lull in complacency. Studies using fMri (Functional magnetic resonance imaging) helped to individuate archetypes of people that have different brain activities and work well together.

In terms of skill development, it is better to develop the areas where the employee has talent and bring to an acceptable level the incomplete areas rather than to force growth. Cultivate trust is also important. That can be done by using methods summarized with the SCARF acronym:

Status, a leader should make people feel valued

Certainty, our brain is wired to try to predict the future, while a leader can not shed light on career progression, he can surely clarify the process

Autonomy, it is a stress protector, a true leader should let people work with their own style as long as they meet the required targets

Relatedness, a leader should try to build an environment of caring and inclusiveness

Fairness, Our brain triggers a reward response when we see other people treated fairly, a leader should try to maximize relationships rather than profit.

Bringing the whole team to a state of flow is a rather difficult task.

The employer has to provide brain friendly workplace, in particular it has to stimulate the 3 brain protectors, exercise, nutrition and sleep.

Resting in particular is an important factor and not usually well recognized in our work culture. Employers should incentivize the use of sleeping pods at work, studies show that power naps of 15-30 minutes during the day can be highly beneficial to the worker overall performance.

“example of sleeping pod”

The team flow has to be stimulated by personalized meaningful incentives, the standard monetary incentives are not effective after a certain threshold. These personalized incentives should keep 2 principle in mind, fairness and novelty. Other 4 concept pillars are also needed to obtain social flow: Focus, Flexibility, Collaboration, and Cost

Focus is all about have a clear goal, eliminate distractions before they get out of hand, multitasking is a complete myth, for every time we switch task, like a gasoline engine, precious brain energy is wasted in starting a new process

Flexibility is to let the team build on their ideas instead of rejecting them on the spot to allow a culture of innovation and merit.

Collaboration, the best results in team are obtained where there is familiarity among members in the team but they are not so comfortable to be complacent or lazy.

Cost Social Flow or extreme productivity is triggered when a meaningful risk is present. Noradrenaline sharpen everyone’s focus and lead to the flow state.

I really liked this book and I highly recommend the reading for its continuous reference to scientific studies and practical example on how team leaders and individual can enhance their performance. I rate the book 4/5