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  • Writer's pictureBella Trenkova

Neuroscience for Agile Leadership - Our Brain

Updated: Jan 19, 2020

This article is the first installment of the Neuroscience for Agile Leadership blog series. It explores the parts of the brain, their functions, and how that knowledge can help us become better leaders.

Meet the human brain:

Overwhelmingly complex!

Let's leave all the details and the Latin terms to the actual Neuroscientists and let's look into another, a lot simpler, yet a widely-adopted model of the human brain:

It turns out, as any well-architected system, our brain has a multi-tiered architecture too. Each tier was formed at different points of human evolution and it has its unique responsibilities:

The Brain Stem

The brain stem is the most ancient brain structure. It first appeared in the reptile brain - hence the affectionate moniker - "Lizard Brain." It is responsible to regulate our most basic instincts and body functions such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, swallowing, consciousness, sleep. It also contains the centers for dominance and aggression. Brain Stem is the first brain tier to intercept and interpret any messages coming from the rest of the body through the nerves and the spinal cord. It is responsible for the simple sensory responses such as bright light - we blink, cold - we shiver, warm - we sweat, hot - we contract the muscles and retract. More complicated stimuli are passed on to the next tier.

The Limbic System

The limbic system is the part of the brain involved in our behavioral and emotional responses, especially when it comes to behaviors we need for survival: feeding, reproduction and caring for our young, and fight or flight responses.

The structures of the limbic system are buried deep within the brain, underneath the cerebral cortex and above the brain stem. They are responsible for the production of important hormones and regulation of thirst, hunger, mood, etc; for reward processing and habit formation; spatial orientation and movement; memory and learning; impulses and decision making.

The limbic system's goal is to minimize danger and maximize reward. It is the brain’s panic button responsible for our Flight-Fight-Freeze response when we are under threat. It is relatively energy-efficient and sends signals to the Cortex to inform decision-making. (All this is important - hang on and you'll see why!)

The Cortex

More properly - the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), or more affectionately - the "gray matter." It is evolutionarily the youngest brian structure that appeared at about the time we were leaving the safety of the jungle canopy and starting to explore on our 2 feet the vastness of the savannah. We were experiencing different life conditions, different predators, different food sources - he had to learn to think and adapt quickly.

The PFC is both the CEO and the Goldilocks of the brain – if you ever thought the two can be used in the same sentence… It is likened to the CEO because it is responsible for the executive functions of the brain – our ability to think, reason, plan, self-control, and make rational decisions. This area is not fully developed until we’re in our early 20s, and declines with old age.

The PFC is also the most energy-consuming part of our brain, which gets depleted quickly. That’s why it is also called the Goldilocks – it needs to have everything just right, to work at optimal levels. It has to be rested well, it has to be nourished well, and have enough glucose to fuel thinking.

A Sidetrack (#nerdalert)

My first "engineering" analogy of the brain structure was the classic 3-tier web app architecture - the UI tier (PFC), on top of the Business tier (Limbic System), on top of the Data tier (Brain Stem). This particular analogy didn't hold water well - the UI tier is supposed to be "thin" and void of much logic, whereas with the brain and the PFC it is exactly the opposite - all logic and rational thinking are exactly in this tier. So, I scrapped that...

Then, as I read more about Habits and the Behavior-Attitude-Value-Beliefs system (this will be a separate post), I learned how behaviors are akin to the visible tip of the iceberg, influenced by a substantial mass of underlying hidden attitudes, values and believes formed (aka "programmed") in us un early childhood. I came up with a different analogy to help me picture and memorize the 3 parts of the brain:

Akin to complex and specialized "Application Software" - the PFC is responsible for executing complex rules and logic, exercising reasoning and impulse (random error handling) control, planning and predicting the future. It is is the last part of the brain to mature (i.e. to be deployed in full production mode). It is the tier that produces the "business" value of innovation, but it is also the most (CPU) resource-intensive part of the brain. When under heavy and prolonged stress (load), it is the first to crash (and fall back on the lower tier).

On the other hand, the Limbic System acts like a highly-efficient, light-weight, nimble "Operating System." The habits (low-level routines) that reside there have been formed (programmed) usually in early childhood. They generally have a very specific purpose to optimize performance and maximize result (throughput), but they come with their own faults and blind spots that need to be reconciled by the more sophisticated PFC (Application Software). Habits do get outdated and occasionally need to be upgraded (or patched), but that's usually easier said than done and may come with unexpected side effects.

The Brain Stem is akin to "Embedded Hardware" - we are born with it. If it fails - the whole unit fails.

(Here is my third analogy, but I will not elaborate on it - you get the picture...)

Back On The Main Topic - Brain Structure and Why Do We Care?

The main takeaway for me was that our brains are both "template factories" and "prediction machines." They process all sensory input through the basic filters of our instincts in the brain stem. If not under physical survival threat, the inputs are passed on to our limbic system to see if there is a match against known patterns (memories). If similar patterns and corresponding useful (award-maximizing) responses (habits) are found - we execute them without thinking much. This is the System 1 described in the Thinking, Fast and Slow book by the Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman. This is an energy-saving evolutionary mechanism developed to protect us. Alternatively, if the experience is new and there is no corresponding template, we engage the PFC for higher-level cognitive reasoning to come up with an appropriate response - Kahneman's System 2. This part is exhaustive and we tend to not do it unless we have to. When a new pattern is executed successfully by the PFC long enough (i.e. we experienced some sense of award afterward), it becomes one of the habit templates stored in the limbic system memory.

Of course, this is an oversimplified and highly stylized description of the brain inner workings. There are multiple other factors that play a role in that paradigm, but this is a good start.

Below is the shortlist of valuable leadership lessons I learned from Neuroscience:

Challenge vs Stress

To operate at peak performance, individuals and teams need to have a challenge - i.e. a "burning platform." Not enough challenge - the brains reuse old templates and there is no innovation. Too much challenge - it becomes sustained stress - the cortisol production shuts down the PFC circuits and the brain goes into a flight-or-fight mode. The focus is on survival and there is still no innovation. To reach the state of FLOW - the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity - one has to strike a fine balance between challenge (unrecognized patterns of stimuli) and competence (stored templates of knowledge and habits). (Remember the Goldilocks analogy above!)

A good Agile leader strives to maximize the individuals' and team's flow by continuously calibrating Challenges and Skills.

Leader's Emotional Intelligence

We often hear EI is one of the most important traits for a leader. But why?

As we learn from Neuroscience, the impulses behind our decisions originate in the limbic system - in the same regions responsible for our feelings, values, and beliefs (System 1). When we are relaxed and the PFC is in control, it acts as the IV&V QA Tester validating those impulses against higher cognitive logic and reasoning. But when the PFC is overwhelmed, we basically act out from our feelings - we circumvent QA and go straight to production (and we know how well that goes).

An emotionally intelligent leader knows the difference and addresses the emotional state of the team members. This creates a deeper connection and sense of safety and trust, which leads to genuine motivation - so important on Agile teams.

(After I originally wrote this post, I came across a great Harvard-research-lab test for measuring one's Social Intelligence. It takes only 10 min and it is non-privacy-intrusive. )

Loss Aversion and Uncertainty

Our brains are ”prediction machines” – constantly trying to figure out whether things around us are a danger or a reward. For survival reasons, our brains process threats faster than rewards. It is called the Loss Aversion bias.

That is why uncertainty and knowledge gaps tend to get filled with fear. (And that's why when you don't call your mother for a week and she hears about an accident or calamity in your city, she always assumes the worst.)

Fear (as well as all other negative emotions) produces cortisol, which shuts down the PFC executive functions. To maintain the high performance of their teams, Agile leaders minimize the unknown in the environment by being clear and transparent in their communications, and by reducing big problems into smaller-batch problems. Clarity acts as rewards to our brains and teams feel more motivated.

Carrots and Sticks

Loss Aversion is also the reason why the "carrots and sticks" leadership style does not create long-term positive results. The brain remembers the stick more strongly than the carrot. the carrot feeds the recipient only long enough to wait for the next application of the stick.

Agile leaders don't punish failure, but use it as a learning experience.

Resistance to Change

Any leaders who had attempted any form of Change is well aware of the inevitable resistance that comes with it. There are a couple of forces that compound each other to create that resistance. We discussed above out built-in loss aversion of the unknown. By definition, Change comes with lots of "unknowns" that automatically invoke feelings of fear. We also discussed above how the new experiences are escalated all the way to the high-energy-consuming PFC. We become exhausted too quickly, give up and fall back onto our old habits creating "justifications" for why the change won't work.

"Embracing Change" is one of the core Agile tenets and one of the 12 Principles. Agile Leaders approach Change engaging positively their teams, creating an environment of non-judgment and safety, clarity and transparency. Successful Agile leaders also pace out Change and break it into smaller and absorbable chunks. With each small win, the triggered award response motivates the team to take the next small step.

Distributed Leadership

The PFC determines if we are in control or not – and if we feel out of control, the PFC stops working. Researchers have found that having autonomy (or the feeling of control over what we are doing) is a driver of overall health.

Agile leaders entrust their teams with ownership, control, and distributed decision making. When people feel that trust, that activates the reward region in the brain – and there is hard science proving that happiness increases with trust. Even having just the slightest feeling of autonomy can substantially change our brain’s perception of an event for the positive

The Brain Connection to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

The tiered processing of sensory data between the brain stem, the limbic system, and the PFC reminds me of another hierarchical model widely used in leadership classes - the Maslows Hierarchy of Needs.

It is another reminder to Agile leaders that our team members give their peak PFC performance when their lower-level emotional and physical safety needs are addressed. It is our responsibility to promote a culture of respect, recognition, autonomy, trust, and security. Exercising Emotional Intelligence, helps us connect with our teammates on a deeper emotional level, which builds a stronger foundation for increased productivity and innovation.

Another Sidebar - Don't Ignore Your "Gut Feeling"

We often talk about a “gut feeling” when we meet someone for the first time. We’re told to “trust our gut instinct” when making a difficult decision or that it’s “gut check time” when faced with a situation that tests our nerve and determination. As Neuroscience discovered, this mind-gut connection is not just metaphorical. The Enteric Neural System located in our gut consists of hundreds of millions of neurons and is responsible for regulating everything that happens in our gastrointestinal system. The Enteric Neural System is connected to the brain via a major nerve, the Vagus nerve, which terminates in the limbic area of the brain – the hippocampus where we store memories associated with certain emotions. It is a 2-way highway that provides constant updates on the state of affairs at your two ends. That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach after looking at your post-holiday credit card bill is a vivid example of the brain-gut connection at work.

The takeaway for all staunch data-driven decision-makers out there: when your gut and intuition tries to tell you something – listen to it. It is based on data points processed long ago and stored so deeply in us that we are not consciously aware of them, but that doesn’t make them invalid.

Last Words of Wisdom

...coming directly from your (knowledge of the) brain.

If (let's admit it - When) you get the strong urge to punch someone in the throat - at work or on the road - remember that the center of aggression is located in your brain stem. Basically, you are overridden by your Lizard Brain.

Don't be a Lizard!

Take 10 deep breaths, walk to the water cooler, and reconnect with your PFC! It is your best advisor :)

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