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We make dozens of decisions every day, some simple, some more complex. Some internet sources estimate that an adult makes about 35,000 conscious decisions each day.We make 226.7 decisions each day on just food alone according to researchers at Cornell University. Leaders in organizations are often faced with difficult decisions that can determine the welfare of others and their organizations.

The study of decision making, consequently, has been the subject of a number of intellectual disciplines: mathematics, sociology, psychology, economics, and political science, to name a few.

Philosophers ponder what our decisions say about ourselves and about our values; historians dissect the choices leaders make at critical junctures. Research into risk and organizational behavior springs from a more practical desire: to help managers achieve better outcomes. And while a good decision does not guarantee a good outcome, such pragmatism has paid off. A growing sophistication with managing risk, a nuanced understanding of human behavior, and advances in technology that support and mimic cognitive processes have improved decision making in many situations.

While leadership research and practices in the past has focused on the external processes of decision-making—the forces, data and relationships in the environment that impact the leader’s decision-making, recent times have focused the processes that occur in the brain and mind. Neuroscience research has now provided leaders with information that can be helpful in becoming better decision-makers.

Researchers have examined a wide variety of questions, including:

  • Where in the brain do decision-making processes take place?
  • What physical changes in the brain have an impact on how the decision is made and its subsequent outcome?
  • What role does intuition and “gut feeling” play in the decision-making process?
  • What role does memory play in making decisions?
  • What decisions are automatic or unconscious and what decisions are conscious?

The decision-maker’s environment can play a part in the decision-making process. For example, environmental complexity is a factor that influences cognitive function. A complex environment is an environment with a large number of different possible states which come and go over time. Studies done at the University of Colorado have shown that more complex environments correlate with higher cognitive function, which means that a decision can be influenced by the location.


What Neuroscience Can Tell Us


In 2014, researchers in Switzerland discovered that the prefrontal cortex not only shows increased activity during decisions requiring self-control, but during all decision-making processes. Sarah Rudorf and Todd Hare of the Department of Economics of the University of Zurich were able to identify specific regions of the prefrontal cortex that are most active in the process of making a decision.The study, “Interactions between Dorsolateral and Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Underlie Context-Dependent Stimulus Valuation in Goal-Directed Choice,” was published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Previous studies have shown that a specific network in the brain is active when a person has to decide between various choices in different situations. This research emphasizes the importance of the interaction between neurons in two different brain areas within the prefrontal cortex.

Decisions that require self-control are extremely important, as they directly affect a person’s bodily, social, or financial welfare. The determination of the mechanisms in the brain that are not only involved in decisions requiring self-control but that are also used in general decisions could open new points of interaction for therapies.Damage to the brain’s frontal lobe is known to impair one’s ability to think and make choices. And now scientists say they’ve pinpointed the different parts of this brain region that preside over reasoning, self-control and decision-making. Researchers say the data could help doctors determine what specific cognitive obstacles their patients might face after a brain injury.

For the study, neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) examined 30 years worth of data from the University of Iowa’s brain lesion patient registry and mapped brain activity in almost 350 people with lesions in their frontal lobes. They linked these maps with data on how each patient performed in certain cognitive tasks. With this information, the researchers could see exactly which parts of the frontal lobe were critical for different tasks like behavioral control(refraining from ordering a chocolate sundae) and reward-based decision making (trying to win money at a casino), a statement from Caltech explained. “The patterns of lesions that impair specific tasks showed a very clear separation between those regions of the frontal lobes necessary for controlling behavior, and those necessary for how we give value to choices and how we make decisions,” said neuroscientist Daniel Tranel, of the University of Iowa.

Caltech researcher Ralph Adolphs explained that several different parts of the brain might be activated during a particular type of decision-making. And the maps show which parts of the frontal lobe are the most critical areas that, if damaged, could result in lifelong impairment. “That knowledge will be tremendously useful for prognosis after brain injury,” Adolphs said in the Caltech statement. “Many people suffer injury to their frontal lobes — for instance, after a head injury during an automobile accident — but the precise pattern of the damage will determine their eventual impairment.”




Free Will and Will Power


According to research by the Max Planx Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, “the brain activity of the decision can be encoded up to 10 seconds prior to your awareness” of making the decision. When you decide which person to hire for a new position, your brain has already made the decision and your conscious thoughts simply justify the decision. Experiments suggest that we are not free to make our decisions, that they are made unconsciously by the neuro-circuitry of our brain. Contrary to what most of us would like to believe, decision-making may be a process handled to a large extent by unconscious mental activity. A team of scientists has unraveled how the brain actually unconsciously prepares our decisions.  Even several seconds before we consciously make a decision its outcome can be predicted from unconscious activity in the brain.

This is shown in a study by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, in collaboration with the Charité University Hospital and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin. The researchers from the group of Professor John-Dylan Haynes used a brain scanner to investigate what happens in the human brain just before a decision is made. “Many processes in the brain occur automatically and without involvement of our consciousness. This prevents our mind from being overloaded by simple routine tasks. But when it comes to decisions we tend to assume they are made by our conscious mind. This is questioned by our current findings.”

Alex Pouget, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, has shown that people do indeed make optimal decisions—but only when their unconscious brain makes the choice. “A lot of the early work in this field was on conscious decision making, but most of the decisions you make aren’t based on conscious reasoning,” says Pouget. “You don’t consciously decide to stop at a red light or steer around an obstacle in the road. Once we started looking at the decisions our brains make without our knowledge, we found that they almost always reach the right decision, given the information they had to work with.”

Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University and author of the book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, argues that willpower plays a part in all our decisions and that willpower fluctuates. Ask people to name their greatest strengths and they’ll often cite things as honesty, kindness, humor, courage or other virtues. Surprisingly, self-control or willpower came dead last among virtues being studied by research with over 1 million people.

The most successful people, Baumeister contends, don’t have super-strong willpower when making decisions. Rather, they conserve their willpower by developing habits and routines, so they reduce the amount of stress in their lives. He says these people use their self-control or willpower not to get through crises, but avoid them. They make important decisions early before fatigue sets in. Steven Pinker, and a world-renowned cognitive scientist at Harvard, contends, in an article in The New York Times ,reviewing Baumeister’s work,  “together with intelligence, self-control turns out to be the best predictor of a successful and satisfying life.”


Too Many Decisions and Too Much Information Depletes Cognitive Resources


Science writer Sharon Begley, writing in Newsweek, says that experts advise, “dealing with emails and texts in batches, rather than in real time; that should let your unconscious decision making system kick in. Avoid the trap of thinking that a decision requiring you to assess a lot of complex information is best made methodically and consciously. You will do better, and regret less, if you let your unconscious turn it over by removing yourself from the info flux.”  In other words, learn to switch off the information flow. In the publication, Science, researchers Ap Kigksterhuis, Maarten Bos, Loran Nordgen and Rick van Baaren, argue that effective, conscious decision-making requires cognitive resources, and because increasingly complex decisions place increasing strain on these sources, the quality of our decisions declines as the complexity of decisions increases. In short, complex decisions overrun our cognitive powers.

That’s because decision-making is an energy-consuming process. According to Prince Ghuman, minimalist, co-founder of 15Center and professor of Neuromarketing,When it comes to making decisions, our brain functions in two modes. One mode is largely automatic, it makes reactive decisions based on intuition. The second mode is deliberate, it makes rational, analytical decisions.” He explains that the second mode is finite, which means “we can only make so many logical decisions before the tank is empty.”Now you’re likely wondering: how many decisions, on average, can we make every day before the “tank” hits empty?

Each of our dozens of daily decisions requires our conscious attention and mental energy. To make such a decision, we need to compare options, analyze the pros and cons, try to predict possible outcomes, etc. Now imagine doing this 75 times a day. Take umbrella or not, get to work by a taxi or use the subway, order pizza or sushi, watch a movie or go for a walk, watch this movie or that movie, the list of decisions we need to make daily is long and diverse. It’s no wonder we feel tired by the end of the day!

Now that you know your decision tank gets empty after 75 decisions, it is clear that excessive, unimportant mini-decisions waste this finite resource and take a toll on your day-to-day wellbeing.



Prince Ghuman explains that the mini-decisions we make every day — from “deciding to respond to a mobile notification to picking which shoes to wear — eat the fuel we need for making really important decisions. So it’s logical to minimize the small and low-priority choices we make wherever possible and save that energy for decisions that matter. “If I reduce options, I minimize decisions. And if I minimize mini-decisions, I have more willpower left in my tank for the important stuff.”

Angelika Dimoka, Director of The Center for Neural Decision-Making at Temple University, conducted studies to see what happens when people’s decision-making abilities are overtaxed. She found rational and logical prefrontal cortex functioning declined when it becomes overloaded with information and as a result, subjects in her experiments began to make stupid mistakes and bad choices. “With too much information,” says Dimoka, “people’s decisions make less and less sense.”

So much for the idea of making well-informed decisions. We are steeped in the belief of due diligence and today’s flood of information in the Internet and social media sites can surely overload our cognitive functions. Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and author of The Art of Choosingstudied the impact of more information for people making investment decisions.

She argues that although we say we prefer more information, in fact, more can be “debilitating.” “There is a powerful recency effect in decision-making,” says behavioral economist Geroge Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University, “we pay a lot of attention to the most recent information, discounting what came earlier. We are often fooled by immediacy and quantity and think it’s quality.”

In their research Nadev Klein and  Ed O’Brien  tested whether people can correctly anticipatehow much information they and others use when making varied judgments. They consistently found that people were surprised by how quickly they make judgments and how little information they use doing so.

“One possibility is a belief that the human mind processes information incrementally. A naive perspective might imagine that new information stacks on top of old information until some mental threshold is reached for making a decision. In reality, however, preliminary research suggests that information aggregation is much closer to an exponential function; the first few pieces of information are weighted much more heavily than later information,” the researchers contend.

Another possibility is that people fail to realize how rich and engrossing each separate piece of information is. In psychology, this is called an empathy gap. Consider the question of how many interactions are necessary for you to decide whether you like and trust someone.

It’s not clear that quick decisions are always bad, Klien and O’Brien argue.  Sometimes snap judgments are remarkably accurate and they can save time. It would be crippling to comb through all the available information on a topic every time a decision must be made. However, misunderstanding how much information we actually use to make our judgments hasimportant implications beyond making good or bad decisions.

The authors go on to cite the problem of self-fulfilling prophesies. Imagine a situation in which a manager forms a tentative opinion of an employee that then cascades into a series of decisions that affect that employee’s entire career trajectory. A manager who sees an underling make a small misstep in an insignificant project may avoid assigning challenging projects in the future, which in turn would hamstring this employee’s career prospects. If managers are unaware how willing they are to make quick and data-poor initial judgments, they’ll be less likely to nip these self-fulfilling destructive cycles in the bud.

Another example might be the human tendency to rely on stereotypes when judging other people. Although you may believe that you’ll consider all the information available about another person, people in fact are more likely to consider very little information and let stereotypes creep in. It may be a failure to understand how quickly judgments get made that make it so hard to exclude the influence of stereotyping.

Modern technology allows virtually any decision made today to be more informed than the same decision made a few decades ago, Klein and O’Brien say. But the human reliance on quick judgments may forestall this promise. In the quest for more informed decision-making, researchers will need to explore ways to encourage people to slow down the speed of judgment.



The Role of Heuristics in Decision-Making


We have to be able to do a lot of our decision-making essentially on autopilot to free up cognitive resources for more difficult decisions. So, we’ve evolved in the human brain a set of what we understand to be heuristics or rules of thumb. And heuristics are great in, say, 95 percent of situations. It’s that five percent, or maybe even one percent, that they’re really not so great. That’s when we have to become aware of them because in some situations they can become biases.

For example, it doesn’t matter so much that we’re not aware of our rules of thumb when we’re driving to work or deciding what to make for dinner. But they can become absolutely critical in situations where a member of law enforcement is making an arrest or where you’re making a decision about a strategic investment or even when you’re deciding who to hire.

Let’s take hiring for a moment. How many years is a hire going to impact your organization? You’re potentially looking at 5, 10, 15, 20 years. Having the right person in a role could change the future of your business entirely. That’s one of those areas where you really need to be aware of your own heuristics and biases—and we all have them. There’s no getting rid of them.

Heuristics and biases are very topical these days, thanks in part to Michael Lewis’s fantastic book, The Undoing Project, which is the story of the groundbreaking work that Nobel Prize winner Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky did in the psychology and biases of human decision-making. Their work gave rise to the whole new field of behavioral economics.

In the last 10 to 15 years, neuroeconomics has really taken off. Neuroeconomics is the combination of behavioral economics with neuroscience. In behavioral economics, they use economic games and economic choices that have numbers associated with them and have real-world application.




The “control” network in the brain  suppresses the default network and allows the brain to focus on the present moment and not wander all the time. It keeps us on task. Scientists have discovered that the control network works best when it is faced with limited distractors such as email, phone calls, the Internet and all the other daily factors that draw us away from task and increase anxiety. This network also prevents us from being effective multi-taskers. Studies show that people who try to multi-task are unable to allocate brain resources in a way that matches their priorities. The result of multi-tasking in one or more jobs done poorly, mental fatigue, shallow thinking and impaired self-regulation (Waytz and Mason, 2013). Leaders who are familiar with this research take steps to modify or eliminate open offices, interruptions and multiple electronic devices that are always on.



The Role of Emotions in Decision-Making


Research conducted by neuroscientists Daeyeol Lee of Yale University, Daniel Salzman of Columbia University and Xiao-Jing Wang of Yale University has reached the following conclusions regarding decision-making:

  • Our emotions affect all our decisions.
  • Most decisions involved some kind of reward we receive as a result.
  • Poor decision-making can be a result of dysfunctional brain activity or the impact of negative emotional states such as extreme anxiety.

Neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, points out that people who  experience damage to the emotional centers of their brain are unable to make decisions. Lehrer argues that there is a sweet spot between logic and emotion that makes for good decisions.

A book entitled 30-Second Brain by Anil Seth shows how effective decision making is not possible without the motivation and meaning provided by emotional input. Seth describes how Antonio Damasio’s patient, “Elliott,” a previously a successful businessman, underwent neurosurgery for a tumor and lost a part of his brain—the orbitofrontal cortex—that connects the frontal lobes with the emotions. He became a real life Mr. Spock, devoid of emotion. But rather than this making him perfectly rational, he became paralyzed by every decision in life.

Damasio later developed the somatic marker hypothesis to describe how visceral emotion supports our decisions. For instance, he showed in a card game that people’s fingers sweat prior to picking up from a losing pile, even before they recognize at a conscious level that they’ve made a bad choice.

Daniel Kahneman demonstrated with Amos Tversky that the negative emotional impact of losses is twice as intense as the positive effect of gains, which affects our decision making in predictable ways. For one thing it explains our stubborn reluctance to write off bad investments.


Should You Trust Your Gut?


Do our leaders—or for that matter do any of us—trust our brains and rational thinking when making important decisions? Or do we make better decisions based on gut instinct and emotions? Recent research on the process of decision-making has brought to light surprising  that contradict conventional wisdom.

Research by Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel Prize winner in economics, and Gary Klein, a senior scientist at MacroCognition, discussed the power of intuition to support decision-making in high pressure situations. When asked, “when should you trust your gut?” Klein responded, “never,’ arguing that leaders need to consciously and deliberately evaluate their gut feelings. Kahneman argues that when leaders are under time pressure to make a decision, they need to follow their intuition, but adding that overconfidence in intuition can be a powerful source of illusions. Klein argues that intuition is more reliable in structured stable conditions but may be unreliable in turbulent conditions, using the example of a broker choosing stocks. Kahneman cautions leaders to be wary of “experts’ intuition,” unless those experts have dealt with many similar situations in the past, citing the example of surgeons.

A study by Joseph Mikels, Sam Maglio, Andrew Reed and Lee Kaplowitz published in the journal, Emotion, supports the power of gut instincts for quick decisions.

They gave subjects a series of complex decisions of various types, with the instruction of whether to go with gut instinct or reason it out with information. Overall, they found that compared with trying to work out the details, using their gut led to much better outcomes.

On the other hand, the researchers argue, unconscious decision-making–or intuition or gut instinct–requires no cognitive resources, so task complexity doesn’t degrade its effectiveness. This seemingly counter-intuitive conclusion is that although simple decisions are enhanced by conscious thought, the opposite holds true for complex thinking.




In my article “Should You Trust Your Gut to Make Decisions I described the following: “More recent research on the complexity of making decisions based on gut feelings is being done by Shabnam Mousavi, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. She is the lead author of “Risk, Uncertainty, And Heuristics,” a paper that explores the idea that intuition can be a more useful tool than deliberate calculation in certain situations. Their research digs deeper into Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneman’s work, which showed how often humans elect to make a snap judgment based on intuition, rather than deliberating with available information.

Mousavi proposes that too much information can be just as misleading as a hunch in some cases. One example came from quizzing both German and U.S. students to see if they could guess which city was larger: Detroit or Milwaukee. Score: Germans 90% correct vs. Americans 60% correct. Why? Because the Germans simply picked the one they’d heard more about and guessed it was the larger of the two. Americans, armed with “knowledge” of these cities didn’t reach for the obvious—and failed.

Though this seems like a simplistic example, the researchers note that given two cities that students had never heard of would have changed the results dramatically. Likewise, some financial newbies have no trouble picking better stocks than a seasoned expert, but give them a portfolio of unrecognizable brands and watch the game change. Which validates Damasio’s theory that the experience of trusting the gut and getting something right or wrong is key in making good decisions.

Mousavi posits that it’s important to take intuitive decision-making one step further by recognizing why people have developed such instincts and the best place to use them. While business favors doing a cost/benefit analysis and a rational approach before deciding which way to go, in an article for Johns Hopkins’ The Hub, Mousavi recommends an alternative.

Create a decision tree that starts with the fundamental question: “If the worst-case scenario of a proposal were to occur, could you survive?” If no, don’t pursue it. If yes, the next question might be whether the company was well-positioned as a first mover in an area. By making each decision sequentially, the company can more effectively limit its information to relevant factors—avoiding information overload and not attempting to quantify the unquantifiable”.




A 2013 study found that 15-minutes of mindfulness meditation can help people make smarter choices. The findings from the Wharton School of business where published in the journal Psychological Science.

A series of studies led by Andrew Hafenbrack found that mindfulness helped counteract deep-rooted tendencies and lead to better decision-making. The researchers found that a brief period of mindfulness allowed people to make more rational decisions by considering the information available in the present moment, which led to more positive outcomes in the future.

Using mindfulness could give various regions of your striatum and prefrontal cortex time to relay the true “neuroeconomic” costs of a decision and help you make smarter choices. Mindful decision-making can derail compulsive or addictive patterns of behavior and take you down a path that’s in your best interest for long-term health, happiness, and overall well-being.


Applying Neuroscience Knowledge to Improve Leadership and HR Practices


The knowledge gained from neuroscience research can make a significant difference both in terms of leadership and HR practices. Here are some examples:


Change management.

A new area of research and practice called Neuroleadershipwhich refers to the application of findings from neuroscience to the field of leadership. The term neuroleadership was first coined by Dr. David Rockin 2006. This research showed how instituting change in organizations affected the brains of employees. Rock’s SCARF model (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness).  Status relates to a person’s relative importance to others. Certainty is about being able to predict the future. Autonomy provides a sense of control over events. Relatedness is the sense of connection and safety with others (the brain perceives a friend versus a foe). Fairness is the perception of being treated justly. These domains in the brain activate either a “primary reward” or “primary threat” response in the brain. For example, a perceived threat to one’s status will trigger a primary threat response in the brain because, as discussed earlier, the brain’s primary goal is survival. A perceived increase in fairness (an open discussion of a company’s compensation practices to assure all employees perceive that their compensation is fair and equitable, for example) will activate the same “primary reward” response as when receiving a monetary reward. Fairness is core not only to humans but hard wired in primates as well. Rock’s SCARF model that summarizes the top five social rewards and threats important to the brain and discusses how HR and talent management professionals can use this model to improve employee and organizational performance.

The Brain’s Emotional Response Can Determine Behavior.

A building body of applicable neuroscience research includes that when managers offer feedback to subordinates (whether it is positive or negative), an emotional reaction is triggered in the subordinate’s brain that controls survival. Researchers Van Hecke, Callahan, Kolar, and Paller found that social pain—such as being ignored, ostracized, or humiliated—is just as intense as physical pain.Also, change is feared because the brain, which is hard wired to survive, perceives it as a threat. This, in turn, causes an explosion of negative emotions that causes the brain and body to go into a threat response mode. Anxiety shoots through the roof, thinking becomes muddled, and the brain and body instinctively resist the perceived threat. These responses are so instantaneous that they may not even be recognized at first by the person experiencing the response.

 This deeper understanding of the fear of change—that the human brain will resist change that is perceived as a threat—has widespread implications for how leaders, HR and talent management professionals approach change management. If change is presented as a crisis–“If we don’t change immediately, we’ll all be out of a job;’ or if a “just do it and don’t ask questions”– approach is taken, the change effort will likely fail. For change management to work, a more thoughtful approach may be needed. HR professionals and leaders should try to reduce stress and anxiety by focusing on the positive aspects of the proposed change, asking questions, and listening actively to employees’ concerns.

Fairness in Dealing with Employees

Primatologist Frans de Waal found that capuchin monkeys can discern unfairness, particularly when it comes to pay inequity. As he explains in a YouTube clip, when one capuchin monkey is rewarded with a cucumber for a completed task, she accepts it willingly—the first time. When she sees another capuchin monkey rewarded with a more desired grape for the same completed task and she is rewarded again with the less-desired cucumber, she throws the cucumber at the researcher. Primates like humans have a highly honed sense of fairness. Employees react emotionally and almost instinctively when they feel they are being treated unfairly, either in terms of compensation or in terms of treatment by their boss and co-workers. A study conducted by Jamil Zaki of Stanford University and Jason Mitchell of Harvard University found that when people were allowed to divide up small amounts of money among themselves, the brain’s reward network responded much more when the participants made generous, equitable choices (Waytz and Mason, 2013).

The Importance of Status

Rock identifies status as one of the most significant drivers in the brain. A person will avoid a decrease in status in much the same way he or she would avoid pain, because the perceived threat of diminished status triggers the same area in the brain as pain. This is an important consideration, as previously discussed, when presenting change because change to the brain means a threat to social status.

The Brain Craves Certainty and Autonomy

When presented with any change, the brain will activate the limbic system and put it on alert, putting the recipient of the potential change into the “fight or flight” mode to survive. The brain also prefers autonomy, the ability to predict and have input into the future, so when presenting issues that may trigger uncertainty, leaders should consider how to calm those triggers by allowing employee discussion and participation into resolving the issues.

The Brain Seeks Connection with Others.

The brain also seeks connection with others—this is relatedness. Employees will respond better to bosses and peers whom they find to be “resonant”—fair, compassionate and empathetic. Dissonant managers trigger a negative response in the brain, which then categorizes them as a foe, leading to distrust and disconnection. Toxic leader behavior can have a serious and viral impact on employees which will result in a loss of motivation, productivity and well-being.

The Influence of Peers and the Group

I think we’re all aware that the kinds of choices we make are influenced by the people around us. In fact, this is true of other animals as well. One thing that we have learned from studying the choices that animals make and the choices that people make and what happens in their brains when they make these choices is that there are very specific, highly specialized mechanisms that detect the presence of other individuals, identify who they are, evaluate their importance to us and allow us to learn from their behavior. More recently, researchers have identified a very specific set of brain cells that actually responds when another individual feels a reward.

A really interesting and important potential practical application of this discovery is that we might find ways, either behaviorally or pharmacologically or using other means, to activate these cells. And if we did so, we might be able to promote pro-social behaviors such as charitable giving. This could be a very important and practical way of enhancing the welfare of society.

 The Role of Gender

New research by psychologists at the University of Warwick suggests gender plays a role in decision-making. They argue that because men and women perceive the world differently, they make decisions differently. The researchers say that because men organize their world into “black of white” distinct categories, women see things as more conditional and in shades of gray. Traditionally, cultures have rewarded males for being decisive and proactive, whereas females are socialized to be more thoughtful and receptive to others’ views.


 The Resonant Leader


In the not so distant past, the conventional definition of an effective leader was one who got results, boosted the bottom line, and generally forced productivity out of his or her employees. As HR and talent management professionals know all too well, some of the management practices used to get these results were at the cost of employee motivation, retention, trust, and ultimately the bottom line. With a window into neuroscience, today we have more insight into how to improve leadership behaviors.

For example, a study (cited in Richard Boyatzis’ Resonant Leadership,) found a link between effective leaders and resonant relationships with others. The study, using fMRI technology, found that when middle managers were asked to recall specific experiences with “resonant” leaders, 14 regions of the brain were activated. When asked to recall specific experiences with “dissonant” leaders, only six regions of the brain were activated and 11 regions were deactivated.

There is also a physical connection in the brain associated with trust, an emotion that is increasingly cited as a critical leadership trait to exhibit. A 2008 study identified a chemical in the brain called oxytocin that when released, makes a person more receptive to feel trust toward a stranger (Margie Meacham, 2013). The brain actually determines trustworthiness within milliseconds of meeting a person. That initial determination is continually updated when more information is received or processed, as the brain takes in a person’s appearance, gestures, voice tone, and the content of what is said. What this means for leaders is that it is possible to build trust among employees even if it has been lacking in the past.

Meacham, an adult learning expert, offers the following steps leaders can take to build trust in an organization:

  • Make people feel safe. The brain categorizes survival as its top priority, so leaders who can show they are not a threat will be seen as trustworthy.
  • Demonstrate fairness. The brain seeks fairness and will react to perceived injustice with anger and frustration.
  • Be genuine and be sure to show trust in others. Meacham writes that “when we watch someone else, our brains are activated in the same way that the brain of the person we are observing is activated—through the function of special ‘mirror neurons.’” In other words, if a leader distrusts the person with whom they are speaking, the other person will pick up on it and mirror that distrust back.

Neuroscience shows us that resonant leaders open pathways in their employees’ brains that encourage engagement and positive working relationships. Good leaders pay attention to relationship building.

Paying attention to trust levels in the organization and among managers and employees in particular. Leaders HR can emphasize trust development in leadership development activities, and highlight the neuroscience behind why trust is so important. Trust can be fostered through open communication, clearly communicated goals, and transparency (Broughton and Thomas, 2012).


Summary: We know so much more now about the neurological and psychological processes involved in decision-making, knowledge that should be used by leaders to be more effective.

Copyright: Neither this article or a portion thereof may be reproduced in any print or media format without the express permission of the author.

Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and Asia.