Neuroscience of leading through turbulent times…and the power of the word ‘yet’…

Neuroscience of leading through turbulent times…and the power of the word ‘yet’…

During IPAA Queensland’s 2022 Chief Executive Officer & Young Professionals Breakfast, Dr David Rock from the NeuroLeadership Institute took our attendees through three critical habits to help all public purpose workers successfully navigate turbulent times.

With the past few years presenting a myriad of challenges and uncertainties in how public purpose work is executed, these critical habits can become a mantra of how to address turbulent times and to evolve your own professional leadership capability.

So – what does the future of leadership in the public sector look like when stress and uncertainty are so omnipresent?  What are the critical habits you need in order to succeed through uncertainty?

The three critical habits as shared by Dr Rock are:

  1. Take care of yourself – when things are rough, you need to do this. Your ability to lead is likely to be compromised.  Leaders need to up their self-care game during times of stress and uncertainty.
  2. Look after each other – Humans are a community species. We need to live, work, and understand each other to survive.
  3. Deliver what matters – Stop doing everything. Be flexible, adaptive and experimental.

Let’s deep dive more into each of these habits and understand more about how to execute these habits. After all, these habits will allow you to focus on what matters and embrace mindsets that will carry you through calm and uncertain times.

Take Care of Yourself

There is an emotional pendulum when crisis kicks in.  Under uncertainty, humans tend to behave in one of three ways:

Underreacting – being overly optimistic, having little empathy for others, downplaying things.

Adaptive – adopting the right mindset, maintaining calm all around, thinking deeply.

Overreacting – being in constant high threat, creating panic in others, catastrophising.

Where you fall on the pendulum will determine how you interpret, manage, and lead through uncertainty; and, to successfully traverse turbulence, a leader needs to adopt a more adaptive response and mindset.  This leads into understanding  .

The Stockdale Paradox: The right mindset

A concept coined by Jim Collins with origins to the US Military officer Admiral Jim Stockdale, The Stockdale Paradox can be defined as:

“One must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

The Stockdale Paradox is the belief in eventual success: combined with a deep acceptance of the hard current reality.

Through times of uncertainty and turbulence, embracing the truth of the situation at hand, and following this reality by taking action to make things even a little better is crucial to effective leadership.

It is important to know and accept that:

  1. This situation will resolve itself in the end – but it is unlikely to do so next week
  2. Some things are and will be awful and as a leader, you are going to take action to make things a little bit better for now…

As a leader you can ask yourself…

What is it you might do today – to make your life a little better bearing that things may not change for a while…?

This mindset is helpful, and will help you stay adaptive, rather than swing from one end of the pendulum to another…and to think deeper.

Brain’s Organising Principles

In addition to The Stockdale Paradox, it is critical to appreciate that as humans we are constantly evaluating our environments in terms of threats or rewards.

And, as humans, we interpret threats with greater response than rewards (Dr Rock referred to the unhappy faces on zoom that we tend to notice more than the happy ones…no doubt we can all relate there!).

The human threat system is quick to act and tends to last a long time, whereas the human reward response isn’t as strong, and doesn’t last as long in the relevant components of the brain.

Your state, and whether you are in a threat or reward state is very influential to the states of others…which is why as leaders, it is difficult to stay in a positive state, but it is important you do so in the interest of how the people around you respond to crisis situations.

Uncertainty and the brain…control what you can control

Uncertainty is worse than a known bad.  Our brains automatically classify uncertainty as an intense threat and is a challenge for leaders to manage.

A sense of control balances out the sense of uncertainty, and during times of uncertainty, leaders at all levels need to identify what they can personally control; and, can involve behaviours around putting structure around your sleep, exercise, and water consumption routines.

Walking meetings are a good way to balance productivity and exercise which will have first, second and third order effects that will help you manage uncertainty and threats.

Don’t get fully depleted…turbulent and uncertain situations are often marathons, not sprints.

Look After Each Other

The brain has evolved to classify social issues as the strongest issue.  The reason for this is that we need other humans for survival – we can’t survive without people.

We are finely attuned to understand and recognise how people feel, where we sit in the pecking order within our communities, and, who to trust, and who not to trust.

It was at this point during the CEO/YP Breakfast that Dr Rock introduced his SCARF Model:

The SCARF model is a summary of important discoveries from neuroscience about the way people interact socially.

The model is built on three central ideas:

  1. The brain treats many social threats and rewards with the same intensity as physical threats and rewards
  2. The capacity to make decisions, solve problems and collaborate with others is generally reduced by a threat response and increased under a reward response.
  3. The threat response is more intense and more common and often needs to be carefully minimized in social interactions.

The SCARF model is made up of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. These five domains have been shown in many studies to activate the same reward circuitry that physical rewards activate, like money, and the same threat circuitry that physical threats, like pain, activate.

Understanding that these five domains are primary needs helps individuals and leaders better navigate the social

world in the workplace.

The five domains of SCARF are as below:

Status: Less than or better than others

Certainty: Knowing what to expect and being able to predict the future

Autonomy: Sense of control over events

Relatedness: In-group or Out-Group.  Relatedness is a sense of safety with others.

Fairness: Perception of fair exchange (equity)

These five domains activate either the ‘primary reward’ or ‘primary threat’ circuitry (and associated networks) of

the brain.  The model enables people to more easily remember, recognise, and potentially modify the core social domains that drive human behaviour.

Depending on if you are experiencing a threat or a reward, the various domains of SCARF are elevated.

As a leader, what can you do to look after each other?  By virtue of who are, a leader in your organisation, you have the ability to keep people in a threat state, or in a reward state.

Deliver what matters

Leaders across all organisations, including in public purpose work have 10, 20, 30 different priorities at any given time – and you likely ask yourself – how do you get everything done?

The key is to focus and prioritise the essential…not exhaustive work.

Dr Rock during the CEO/YP Breakfast elaborated that there is one important phrase leaders should ask themselves during times of uncertainty and turbulence…

‘We have to do what is essential.’

As part of this critical habit shared, Dr Rock continued to share details between having a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.

The benefits and research behind the growth mindset, which has also been heavily researched by Dr Carol Dweck, is all about learning and seeking to improve.

It is different to a fixed mindset, which is about looking good…

Dr Rock elaborated that having a growth mindset means that as a leader and public purpose worker you can be more flexible, adaptive and able to focus on delivering the work that matters.

In developing and embracing a growth mindset over a fixed mindset, one word can fundamentally change your approach in delivering the work that matters.

And this word is ‘yet’.

When you notice yourself, or your team member saying:

‘This isn’t me”

“I can’t do this”

“I am not good at this”

…that is…employing a fixed mindset, simply instruct and learn to add the word ‘yet’.

“This isn’t me…yet”

“I am not good at this…yet”

“I don’t think I can…yet”

“This isn’t easy for me…yet”

Including the word ‘yet’ in statements of this nature is incredibly powerful, fundamentally changes your brain chemistry, and your approach to any situation.

What is it that you could add the word ‘yet’ to in your team, organisation or even personally?

Get flexible…get your growth mindset to deliver what is important.

IPAA Queensland would like to thank our event sponsors QSuper and KPMG Australia as well as the NeuroLeadership Institute for their support.

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