Mind Games & Leadership

Recent events both home and abroad have thrown up many questions about the importance of leadership, the impact that another person’s actions have on a team, and the negative impact that particular leadership styles can have on others. Examples of isolated leadership are not only found in an Australian context, either within our political system, business environment or sporting teams, but also resonate globally.

When a decision that can impact a team is made by the leader of that team without any consultation, the result is often a backlash. So why do team members react this way when decisions are made in isolation?

It may seem obvious that a team member would be annoyed if a significant decision was made without consultation, but have you ever considered what actually goes on in a person’s brain when negative leadership styles are used? It may seem a strange concept, but the world of neuroscience is beginning to throw a lot of research weight behind understanding what happens in a person’s brain when negative behaviors are experienced.

The human brain is a complex beast, however there are some key physiological mechanisms within our brain that tell us a lot about how to get the most out of people. One of the best understood areas of neuroscience and the impact on behavior is how positive feelings can be elicited in others through the delivery of a reward.

Positivity is important in a team environment because, at a behavioural level, it increases a person’s ability to organise ideas in multiple ways and to access alternative cognitive perspectives, such as coming up with different ways to do things. Many research studies show that positivity can be achieved simply by giving members of a team small unanticipated gifts, or experience of success on an ambiguous task (for review see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10467897).

The simple nature of these rewards shows that the effects can be prompted readily, by the smallest of gestures. Because of the clear link between giving a reward and the induction of positive feelings, researchers have deduced that positivity and reward response are mediated by the same neural mechanism – the release of dopamine. However, in experiments that inhibited the release of dopamine in the brain, there is no behavioural effect on reinforcement of the reward. Meaning, subjects do not see the reward as something good.

What does this all mean in the context of making decisions in isolation and being an effective leader? When a leader does not empower their team to have an influence or input into a decision, the brain does not release dopamine. You can try to give some sort of reward, or backtrack once the decision is made, but the team will not see this as something good, because that initial release of dopamine has not been generated.

So next time you consider how to get the most out of your team, think about the impact that a small reward can have on team positivity. It can be as simple as a small accolade at a team meeting for a job well done – anything to get that dopamine flowing!

Dr Liz Dallimore is a Senior Manager in KPMG Perth’s R&D Incentive team. Liz completed her PhD in Neuroscience at Oxford University and UWA studying neuronal regeneration. She undertook further research at the Australian Neuromuscular Research Institute looking at the effect of neuroplasticity on stroke rehabilitation.

Feature Image Copyright: 123RF Stock Photo
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