Neuroleadership – lots of old-fashioned psychology, very little neuroscience

leadership

Happening right now (19th-21st of June) in Sydney is the 2013 Asia-Pacific Neuroleadership Summit, organised by the Neuroleadership Institute. There are two other summits happening this year, one in London and another in Washington, and the summits have been running annually since 2007. Neuroleadership appears to be a ‘thing’ then, but what is it exactly? The term was apparently first coined by David Rock in this 2006 article in the magazine ‘Strategy+Business’. According to the front page of the institute’s website, neuroleadership is:

“Neuroleadership is an emerging field of study connecting neuroscientific knowledge with the fields of leadership development, management training, change management, consulting and coaching.”

Sounds fairly reasonable. Unfortunately, the amount of genuine applied neuroscience involved appears to be very little, and in fact the focus appears to be more on fairly standard psychology concepts that have been knocking around for years, if not decades. The program for the summit focuses on concepts like cognitive biases, social psychology, stress management, ‘wisdom’, and managing performance. These all strike me as being psychological phenomena, and very amenable to investigation and explanation at a psychological, rather than neuroscientific, level. And in fact, organisational and business psychologists have been doing that for some time. Reading through more detailed highlights of last year’s (2012) summit also reveals little mention of neuroscience, and lots more fairly standard applications of psychological concepts.

I’ve been pretty much unable to find any genuine pieces of research related to neuroleadership either; a Google Scholar search on ‘neuroleadership’ turns up lots of opinion-type pieces, but nothing of any real substance.

There are some serious neuroscientists involved with the neuroleadership institute. One of them is Matt Lieberman, a professor at UCLA, and, by any reasonable measure, an outstanding scientist. I was genuinely a big fan of Matt’s work during my PhD and while my changing research interests mean I haven’t followed his more recent work as closely, I have a great deal of respect for him. Interestingly, I found a draft of a paper by Matt (and Naomi Eisenberger, another faculty member at UCLA) which you can view here (PDF). The paper discusses business scenarios from the point of view of social cognitive neuroscience, but again, the (very simplified) neuroscience in the paper seems to be more of an adjunct, or add-on to the main message, which is that attention needs to be paid to the social and emotional needs of workers, in order to maximise their performance and job satisfaction. This doesn’t seem particularly ground-breaking, and makes me wonder what precisely neuroscience is adding to the issue. Prof. Lieberman’s due to speak at all three neuroleadership summits this year, and is on the advisory board of the institute. Maybe he just likes some free trips around the world every year.*

If one was feeling magnanimous, the field of neuroleadership could be described as an emerging discipline with lofty ambitions, but one that has yet to really define its remit and fully understand its limitations. A more cynical evaluator could characterise it as a gosh-darn whizzo wheeze to re-package some tired old concepts from 1980s organisational psychology textbooks and make them all shiny and new by sticking ‘neuro’ on the front and having lots of pictures of CGI brains in your presentations. Regular readers will know that a surfeit of magnanimity is not something I tend to suffer from.

It’s hard to get too splenetic about neuroleadership. It may be bullshit, but it’s not clinics ripping off parents with therapies that don’t work or people doing unnecessary SPECT scans on kids. Ultimately, it’s one set of business people selling some bollocks to another set; all they’re really doing is wasting their own time and effort.

*And honestly, who can blame him? Academic life has few enough perks. Seriously; good luck to him.

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6 responses to “Neuroleadership – lots of old-fashioned psychology, very little neuroscience

  1. Actually the important question is not how much neuroscience there is in Neuroleadership. (The answer to which is – lots. We have published 50 peer-reviewed journal papers, written by many leading neuroscientists including Lieberman and a number of his peers.) The more important question is how much good science there is in leadership development.
    The answer is ‘very little’. There is no definition of leadership, no consistent agreement on how to develop leaders, and the gold standard for assessment is a tool developed by 2 housewives in the 1950′s, which was designed to help women returning from war duties find the right job. Dig into the management literature today and you see shocking statistics about leadership effectiveness, despite billions spent on leadership programs.

    The point of Neuroleadership is to find and share breakthroughs in neuroscience that transform leadership effectiveness. Our goal is to build a more biologically-accurate language for how managers and leaders make decisions, manage their emotions, collaborate with others and create change. Yes, it is an interdisciplinary field, linking social psychology, organizational research and other domains with neuroscience. It is not intended to be pure neuroscience – that’s not the point. And yes, sometimes we are looking through the neuroscience lens at things already being explored by psychology. Yet that doesn’t mean we are not generating value. While it might look ‘banal’ from a distance to illustrate to leaders that the brain is deeply social, this insight has helped a number of organizations transform how they run performance management systems, from an antiquated tool that terrifies people, to systems that enable quality conversations, at a scale of tends of thousands of people. Or another recent case – the bias research is rich and deep in psychology, so much so that we now have over 150 biases to consider. This is a problem if you want to mitigate bias in leaders. Through the lens of neuroscience, we have been to organize our key biases into four main buckets, in a way that can now help organizations decrease the effects of bias (in systems more than individuals.) This was possible by looking through the lens of brain research at the underlying mechanisms involved in the major biases, something Kahneman himself suggested could be done. (This will be published shortly so I am not going to outline the framework here, but I will say it was developed involving Matt Lieberman and another ‘serious’ neuroscientist, and presented for the first time in Sydney at the NLI Summit.)

    I am all for skepticism – I am acutely aware that the research that we base many important decisions in life (including how we educate kids and how we select those in power) is deeply flawed. However, just don’t assume that because the NeuroLeadership field is not ‘pure’ neuroscience that the field is not generating value in other ways, and I don’t mean selling a product. Developing a robust biological science to supplement the art of leadership is today helping tens of thousands of highly rational leaders be more effective at the human side of their job, which is where they are often most lacking.

    I would be happy to debate all this further in any forum :)

    • Hi David,

      Many thanks for taking the time to comment at such length and with such clarity. The aims you set out (“to build a more biologically-accurate language for how managers and leaders make decisions, manage their emotions, collaborate with others and create change”) are very laudable. My impression of the management/leadership-coaching field is that it’s filled with poorly thought-out pseudo-science, so applying some rigour can only be helpful.

      One of the points you make seems to me to strike at the heart of the issues I have with the approach:

      “While it might look ‘banal’ from a distance to illustrate to leaders that the brain is deeply social, this insight has helped a number of organizations transform how they run performance management systems…”

      I take the point, but I question the utility of appealing to ‘the brain’. The point is, surely, that people are deeply social. Yes, of course people are controlled by their brains and there is a fascinating discussion to be had about how the brain instantiates social behaviour, but that really doesn’t seem relevant to the kinds of organisational processes that you mention. Understanding that, say, theory of mind is dependent on the medial prefrontal cortex doesn’t provide you with any extra helpful information, if what you’re interested in is changing behaviour.

      The other example you mention (related to cognitive biases and their organisation into four groups) is more interesting – if you’ve genuinely managed to classify cognitive effects into a useful taxonomy based on neuroscientific results, that would be an extremely interesting and fairly unique finding. I understand you may not want to share more details about that right now, but when it’s published I’d be very grateful if you could send me a copy.

      You mention 50 peer-reviewed papers – I honestly can’t find them! A pubmed search for ‘neuroleadership’ returns precisely one result. Google Scholar returns lots of hits, but the majority seem to be opinion pieces published in relatively minor business-relevant journals; very little of much novelty or substance, and almost nothing in the way of genuine scientific research. I previously reached out to Matt Lieberman on Twitter and asked him to send me some good articles, but got no reply. If you have a chance, could you send me some good examples of relevant papers? My e-mail address is neurobollocks[at]gmail[dot]com.

      I hope you’ll forgive my presumption, but, having thought a little further about this, I have a suggestion to make. Bringing scientific rigour and a biological grounding to the study of leadership could also perhaps be achieved through an evolutionary, rather than neuroscientific, analysis. Evolutionary psychology sometimes gets a bad press (and God knows, there are enough examples of bad evo-psycho studies around) but it has a rock-solid conceptual basis, and it strikes me as being potentially very informative for the kind of behaviours and group processes that might be of interest to business leaders. In fact, people are already working on evolutionary leadership theory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_leadership_theory). Prof. Mark Van Vugt is a good example (http://www.professormarkvanvugt.com). If you’re not familiar with his work, I think you might find it interesting.

      Thanks again for the comments, and I’d also be very happy to continue the discussion in some way…

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