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August 31, 2009 Vol. 2, Issue 8


New findings in neuroscience are challenging long-held assumptions about the way we should lead and manage most effectively.

Modern management practices call for rewarding good performers, holding the bad ones accountable, providing timely feedback and setting measurable objectives. Sounds reasonable, right? In Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesnt Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science, Charles S. Jacobs argues that much of this is ineffective or counterproductive.

Jacobs writes that we manage people based on physical laws, with the assumption that the force of one billiard ball hitting another will produce the desired outcome of forward movement. Instead, he says, we live in the cognitive world, where, the second ball’s reaction to the collision with the first ball is not so predictable – it may stay still, run away, or even push back.

In short, this is because people have brains, which are not tuned to respond well to extrinsic factors like the application of force, incessant feedback, and predictable rewards. Rather, Jacobs, argues, managers must create an environment that fosters intrinsic motivation. “People will behave the way they want, regardless of how rational we judge them to be,” he writes. “The best we can do as managers is to create and environment that selects for the behavior we desire.”

The best way to do this, Jacobs says, is through story telling. According to cognitive science, the story is the basic principle of the mind, the way in which we store information. Jacobs uses examples ranging from Odysseus and Henry V to his personal consulting adventures with companies like Citicorp. He relays neuroscientific findings that range from getting optimal performance out of dolphins (arguably more intelligent than humans) and how a Stanford University test predicts leadership from a child’s decision to take a marshmallow.

We tend to learn more from our failures than from our successes, he says, because we don’t question our successes. But when we fail, the resulting dissonance forces us to reflect and evaluate, and then devise the best way to proceed next. Sometimes doing what seems counterintuitive is the best way to get a desired outcome, Jacobs says, citing examples of the successful use of nonviolence strategies by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Most important is the sharing of stories. Stories appeal to our emotions, set a tone, and engage our minds. It is a leader’s job to tell stories. Tell stories at new-hire orientation, training programs, and in company communications. Jacobs writes, “Leadership isn’t about forcing people to do our bidding, but telling a story so they want to do what we need.”

Article by HS

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