Going blank: An amygdala hijack takes place when the thinking brain shuts down during times of stress. Picture: ISTOCK
Going blank: An amygdala hijack takes place when the thinking brain shuts down during times of stress. Picture: ISTOCK

What leadership styles enable people to think innovatively and perform at their best? Neuroscience has started to identify the mechanisms that cause the creative, innovative and thinking parts of the brain to switch on or off. This understanding helps leaders to create the conditions where brains work best.

The story starts in 1848. Railway engineer Phineas Gage was hammering in a steel rod when it lit a spark and ignited a charge, hurling a metre-long steel shaft straight through his skull.

Gage was not killed, though he was blinded in one eye. But his personality changed radically. He could not stick to plans and uttered the "grossest profanities", becoming moody and unemployable.

This indicated there was a link between the brain and the personality, and Gage became the first subject in the annals of neuroscience.

With magnetic resonance imaging scanning, scientists can now study which parts of the brain fire off under different conditions. Scientists have realised that people have three brains: survival, emotional and thinking brains. Of these, the survival, or reptile, brain is the most ancient. Its function is to identify and respond to threats.

When the survival brain is triggered, it releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which stimulate the fight, flight or freeze response.

At the same time, these chemicals cause the thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex, to shut down — a process called the amygdala hijack.

The problem with this response is that under stress, when people need to be at their most creative and innovative, the thinking brain closes down.

Millions of years ago, the survival response had advantages. When people lived under threat of attack from wild animals and did not respond quickly and powerfully, they would end up as lunch. So the appropriate response to threat back then was fight, flight or freeze.

But why is this relevant now? Humankind has survived, not through tooth and claw or muscle power, but through being a social animal. A single human might not survive against a predator, but a tribe of humans with crude weapons and a bit of human cunning is a formidable opponent.

Because humans have a large brain, it takes years to grow to maturity. Humans have one of the longest development periods of any mammal. The human infant is defenceless and vulnerable for years and relies for its survival on the support and social bonds with parents and the rest of the tribe.

Because social bonds are so important, they have been hard-wired into our brains. Researchers have shown that if we suffer "social pain", such as loss of status, rejection or a breakdown in the relationship with the group, this registers in the same areas of the brain as physical pain.

This would have made sense millions of years ago when we needed the protection and cooperation of the tribe to survive.

But David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, has shown that the brain responds to social threat in the same way today as it responded to physical threats millions of years ago.

Five social pains

Now the threats are not about being thrown out of the security of a cave but the loss of security of losing a job; not uncertainty about making the next kill, but the uncertainty of being able to respond to competitive threats; not about losing status in the tribe, but the threat of demotion.

Rock formulated these insights as the SCARF model, a mnemonic on the five social pains that stimulate the amygdala hijack. This relates to loss of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

So what are the implications for leaders seeking to create cultures that are creative, innovative and productive?

They should protect status by, for example, making feedback meetings appreciative rather than threatening. They should be mindful that changing job titles may impact on perceived status, and should avoid bullying and coercion that damages self-esteem.

Leaders should encourage certainty. There may, for instance, be a reluctance to communicate confidential information during difficult or uncertain times, but it’s best to be as transparent as possible so people know where they stand.

They should also build autonomy rather than having autocratic or coercive leadership styles or micro-managing.

Good leaders nurture relatedness. They should be aware during organisational changes or mergers that social bonds may be fractured and it’s important to rebuild relationships through team events.

They can ensure fairness by equitable performance reviews and rewards.

More than a decade ago, Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, showed how positive leadership styles such as coaching and visionary approaches produced better and more sustainable results than fear-based styles such as coerciveness and pace-setting.

Leaders need to understand their role in creating positive workplaces where brains can work optimally. They achieve this by using empowering leadership styles and avoiding the triggering of SCARF responses.

And by doing so, they are rewarded with employees who are better able to think – and who are more innovative, productive and happier.

Hyams is a leadership coach and lecturer at USB-ED.

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