Use All 3 Of Your Brains To Be A Better Leader

In the 1990s, researchers discovered we actually have three “brains” – the massive brain in our head, and a much smaller set of brain cells in both our heart and our gut. All three are fully autonomous and also work collaboratively in sharing intelligence to help us make well-rounded decisions.

Imagine how often you’ve said to yourself, “I know in my heart,” or “My gut tells me” the choice you’re about to make is the correct one. It’s likely what you were attributing to ‘instinct’ was actually the work of one of your other brains.

Engaging your brains

Now that you’re aware of our multiple-brain powers, how can we leverage them to be more effective and successful in the workplace?

The first lesson is to be aware of the brains in your heart and gut. Pay attention to what they’re telling you and incorporate their guidance into the decision-making happening in your main brain. Your other brains may not always weigh-in, but when they do you’d be well-advised to pay attention.

Secondly, remember that everyone has three brains, and they are also consciously and unconsciously reacting to the signals they’re receiving. Realize that others may be more in-tuned to their other two brains or may attribute greater importance to their signals than you do. Respect and appreciate those differences without judgement.

The leadership challenge

Our brains’ responses to workplace interactions pose additional challenges for those who lead others, but also hold great promise for those who desire to become better leaders.

Beyond what you can observe as a leader, powerful and primal brain functions are continuously influencing the behavior of those you lead. Gaining a better understanding of their brains’ functions provides the opportunity to improve workplace relationships and bring out the best in employees.

Becoming a brain-friendly leader

When we’re in supportive, nurturing environments we grow and adapt to change more easily and much more effectively. Brain science suggests the most effective actions leaders can take is to engage employees and increase their professional development is to reduce their perceived threats and to help them come to insights and conclusions on their own.

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This is especially challenging for leaders who have the near impossible task of being both coach and judge. Biologically, we’re threatened by assessments of any kind, so even a well-liked leader will send threat meters in our brains into high gear when offering feedback or evaluating our performance.

Because threats stay with us far longer than rewards, leaders shouldn’t create threats they don’t have to, and should be mindful about how everyday business interactions can be perceived as threatening.

5 secrets of brain-friendly leaders

  1. People tend to be their own worst critics until someone else criticizes them and creates a threat. Don’t give feedback unless you really have to – it makes things worse 59% of the time. Instead, encourage employees to give feedback and ask questions of themselves.
  2. Create crystal clear expectations for your team and continue to communicate with them. Help them to feel confident in their work, their future, and the organization itself. Be sure to establish and come back to goals frequently to keep staff focused.
  3. Don’t micromanage – offer your staff opportunities to make decisions and control their own work as much as possible.
  4. It’s essential you find commonalities with your team and create authentic relationships so their brains will relate to you as friend rather than foe and your messages will be received. Create a trusting, non-threatening environment and look for ways to include everyone, so your staff feels like a cohesive team and can relax and concentrate on their performance.
  5. Be vigilant, open and obvious about treating all employees fairly and increase overall workplace transparency where ever you can. Immediately address those situations where you will have to treat people differently, or when employees may perceive unfairness.
Michelle M. Smith

Named as one of the Ten Best and Brightest Women in the incentive industry and to the Employee Engagement Power 100 list, a Change Maker, Top Idea Maven, and President’s Award winner, Michelle is a highly accomplished international speaker, author, and strategist on performance improvement. A respected authority on leadership, workplace culture, talent and employee engagement, she’s a trusted advisor to many of the world’s most successful organizations and the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States.

Michelle speaks and writes about what she knows first-hand – as a former executive of a Fortune 100 global conglomerate, and as a researcher and strategist. She passionately shares new insights and tools for leaders to confidently, effectively and strategically lead their organizations to success.

Michelle is the Past President of the FORUM for People Performance at Northwestern University and President Emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association. Michelle was the Founder and Chair of the Editorial Board of Return on Performance Magazine, and has been featured on Fox Television, the BBC, in Fortune, Business Week, Inc. and other global publications, and contributed to the books Bull Market by Seth Godin, Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk, and Social Media Isn’t Social.