Neuroscience? Limbic System? What’s That Got to Do With Being a Leader?

A few years ago many of us did not even know we had a limbic system. Today, no serious programme on managing change, motivating others or developing leadership is complete without an understanding of just what’s going on up there around the amygdala. Motivation is about movement and the fairly primitive part of our brain understands moving towards or moving away. Today our “away” impulse is still stronger than our “towards” so we react more quickly to a threat than a reward.

In times of change – perhaps the primary role of the leader – the perceived threats and concerns will be firing up people’s limbic systems all over the organisation. Understanding the nature of those forces can help leaders think through how to structure their messages and their way of approaching organisational change. David Rock’s SCARF model, built from original research in the field of neuroscience helps us to understand the real meaning of motivation. It helps to think about each facet of the model as a “hot button” – something that, if pressed, will cause an emotional reaction.

What seems life threatening to some will be life as normal for others. The strength of reaction may seem irrational, illogical and emotional – but that’s exactly what the limbic system is all about. This is not about logic and rationality – this is our emotional centre at work…

Status – To some extent we measure ourselves against others. Loss of status can feel personally damaging – something as simple as a change of job title can do it. Giving people acknowledgement for their skills, experience and wisdom builds status.

Certainty – Knowing it’s the end of their employment can sound terrible – but it seems not being certain and living in suspense can be even more debilitating. Helping people quickly understand what’s over and what isn’t affects this area.

Autonomy – Being trusted to do a good job and being left to decide what’s best is positively motivating. Being micro-managed or being told someone else is overseeing the change will fire the limbic version of feeling controlled and not trusted.

Relationship – New office layouts, new teams, organisation restructuring all bring with them the change or even loss of relationship or relatedness. “You’ll now be reporting into Finance” can be laden with loss as people feel estranged from the connections they have built. Team building events and any occasion where people feel “part of the action” positively affects this area.

Fairness – Perhaps a uniquely human concept. We seem to be able to live with bad news or accept negative outcomes if we’re all in it together. If some are seen as escaping the cuts or getting a better deal the limbic reaction will be very strong – and motivation, cynicism and mistrust will abound.

In times of change the SCARF model can help leaders recognise what’s going on and, perhaps, also help to plan for and think through the effects on people rather than hoping they’ll “get over it”.

Clive is co-owner of ClearWorth , a company specialising in bespoke manager, leader and team development for major organisations around the world. Clive lives in the UK and France and works all over the world from Ohio to Oman, London to Lagos, Surrey to Syria. Clive thinks, teaches and writes about teams, leaders, negotiation, influence, interpersonal relationships and cross cultural communication.

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