Tag Archives: Richard Davidson

U.S. Army Research Validates Neuroscience-Based Approach for Adaptive Leadership Development

Over the past two years, I’ve written extensively about the shortcomings of traditional approaches to leadership development.  The relatively passive approaches of traditional coaching and mainstream focus on behaviorism has left us with endemic, employee disengagement, remarkably poor ROI on developmental investments, and stoic organizational thinking struggling to adapt to the rising complexity and rate of change that defines our economic era.  We saw the disconnect more than five years ago, and set out to develop a highly innovative approach for developing the types of leaders today’s, and tomorrow’s, world demands.

A research study, conducted by the U.S. Army and Wake Forest University and recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology®, aligns seamlessly with our precepts and resulting approach.  The study, entitled, “The Psychological and Neurological Bases of Leader Self-Complexity and Effects on Adaptive Decision-Making”, set out to explore and demonstrate the neurological complexity of highly adaptive leaders immersed in novel, chaotic, rapidly changing situations.  A quick comment on the use of the term complexity here…While most people shun complexity (i.e., KISS…keep it simple, stupid), what the researchers are referring to is a complexity of neural networks that exist in the frontal lobe and pre-frontal cortex of leaders.  In this regard, complexity is a good thing.  A richer, more connected neural network enables novel adaptability to emerge.  Of note, this is a fundamental objective of our approach to leadership development; to spur the neurogenesis of new neural pathways through the introduction of novel, stretch, scientific concepts delivered with a focus on real-world, stretch, experiential learning within the context of a specific, business objective.

The study’s authors define leader adaptability as “the capacity of leaders to adjust their thoughts and behaviors to enact appropriate responses to novel, ill-defined, changing, and evolving decision-making situations”.  They go on to state, “Greater levels of complexity promote the leaders’ ability to both differentiate the various sources of inputs and stimuli in the environment and to integrate those inputs with existing cognitive and affective structures to enable adaptive responses.”  (Thus the name of our approach…Affective Leadership Development…it’s not a typo on Effective).

The study established a baseline measurement related to neurological markers for leader neural complexity.  As a practical step (we don’t run a fMRI to view brain activity) we employ research conducted (and published in 2013) by the Corporate Executive Board identifying the top ten shared competencies of today’s high performers.  These are business professionals that are performing at distinct levels above their peers in today’s volatile, ambiguous, rapidly changing environment.  Through our own R&D, we also discovered an antecedent, causal relationship between the Six Dimensions of Emotional Style, based upon the research of Affective Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, Ph.D., and these top ten competencies shared by today’s best and brightest.  These Dimensions of Emotional Style are assessable, and just as importantly, fluid; meaning we can, thanks to the plasticity of the brain, alter where an individual resides along this continuum.  Our proprietary, developmental approach is designed to do just that by cultivating neural complexity.  The study supports this approach, stating, “We propose greater levels of complexity enhance a leader’s ability to comprehend and react adaptively to dynamic decision-making situations.”

Our initial approach to leadership development, Transformational Leadership Development, which we first released in 2010, was highly focused on cultivating competencies in Emotional Intelligence (Self-Awareness, Social Awareness, Self-Regualtion and Relationship Management skills).  As we evolved and learned more through our practice, we adapted to incorporate the rapidly emerging research from Affective Neuroscience.  Authentic awareness is still a core fundamental of the approach.  In fact, the study goes on to reveal, “From this heightened state of awareness, leaders then employ existing knowledge to choose new actions and strategies that will reestablish fit and effectiveness in the changed context.”

As I stated earlier, we’re obviously not employing brain scans to measure our effectiveness.  What we are doing, however, is incorporating a machine learning platform (Talent Sprocket™) and advanced algorithms  capable of identifying subtle correlations between seemingly disparate data sets of identifiable leadership competencies, business performance objectives, and affective neuroscience-based assessments.  This multi-dimensional approach enables predictive analytics to calculate over time, resulting in a revolutionary set of tools to emerge that we refer to as Human Analytics™ (Google and Apple are moving down a similar path to reinvent HR in the 21st Century).  This approach also enables concise ROI to be calculated on every leadership development investment in clear terms of business performance impact.

The conclusions of the research study are clear.  The authors close with, “Overall, our research represents a multidisciplinary and multi-method approach to the conceptualization and assessment of Leadership Self-Complexity, thus entailing a fusion of the leadership and neuroscience fields.  We envision the possibility of such neuroscience research to revolutionize approaches to the assessment and development of the complexity of leaders as key factors in realizing their adaptive performance.”

This is what we’ve created, a multi-dimensional approach to developing Next Gen leaders employing the fundamentals of neuroscience research in a novel delivery system.  Did we take a huge risk, stepping out on the forefront before the final research was in, correlating these insights from the neurosciences and leadership development?  We sure did, but innovators take risks.  Now that the research is in, our risks have been validated.  In a very real way, we have demonstrated the creative thinking, adaptability and innovation companies are seeking and have developed an accelerated approach to bring leadership competencies into alignment with the 21st Century.

© 2012, Terry Murray.  All Rights Reserved.

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What Neurosurgeons and Horses Can Teach Us About Leadership

_PPH5798Sounds strange, doesn’t it?  I’ve grown accustomed to the quizzical looks over the years when I tell people we work with horses to help leaders develop the critical competencies necessary for today’s volatile workplace.  It isn’t a gimmick, an arcane game or ropes course.  It is a scientifically substantiated approach to experiential learning.  One that greatly accelerates development thanks to the fact that our carefully structured exercises ferry participants through all four modalities of Kolb’s Adult Learning Style Inventory.  Our approach also draws heavily from the neuroscience research of such luminaries as Dan Goleman, Rich Davidson, Jaak Panksepp and Ravi Rao.  Going beyond psychology, the brain research that is continuously emerging enables us, as leadership development experts, to address the causal, neurological pathways that result in demonstrated behaviors. Traditional leadership development methodologies, focused on behaviorism (i.e., mainstream psychology’s embrace of cognitive behavioral therapy), have had thirty years on the main stage, and left us with a dearth of effective, mindful leaders.  If anything, traditional approaches to development have added to the inertia in leadership we see all around us.

If you don’t believe me, ask Dr. Allen Hamilton, neurosurgeon at the University of Arizona Medical Center.  Dr. Hamilton is employing a form of relationship-based, Equine Facilitated Experiential Learning.  An approach very much in alignment with our own.  If you happened to have missed it, here’s a story about Dr. Hamilton employing horses to cultivate emotional intelligence competencies, heightened sensitivity to non-verbal communication, and empathy with medical school students:  http://www.today.com/health/open-say-neigh-horses-help-teach-med-students-6C9790792.

Need a second opinion?  If you have a few minutes, I’d like to invite you to listen to Dr. Ravi Rao, a Harvard trained neurosurgeon (who also holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins), who joined me on a radio interview, sharing his thoughts on our approach.  

So, why is this approach so effective?  The research demonstrates our brains have plasticity.  We can, through conscious effort, literally change the way we interpret and react to the work around us on a basic, neurological level.  

Neuroscience also provides insights into why human beings resist change.  The brain consumes 25% of the blood glucose in our bodies at any given time.  The majority of it is used to support our visual cortex and our near-term memory, the two parts of your brain you are using to read this blog.  After that, the brain is very conservative in its use of energy.  It takes far less energy to follow a well established neural pathway than it does to create new ones.  Think of our established neural pathways as dry river beds cut deep into the side of a mountain.  Every time it rains, the water follows the path of least resistance, cutting an even deeper rivulet down the mountain.  Trying to get the water to flow in another direction takes significant effort.

Neuroscience guides our approach to sparking neurogenesis, particularly in the pre-frontal cortex, the brain’s executive center where the competencies of emotional intelligence emerge (self-awareness, social awareness, self regulation, and relationship management skills).  By introducing novelty, (having a professional enter into a round pen to co-create a shared goal with a horse without the use of language, touch, or dominating behaviors is pretty novel) we disrupt the established pathways associated with problem solving.  As the participant connects, engages and motivates the horse, fall-back behaviors emerge.  Interpersonal behaviors.  When we don’t know what to do we do what we know, and the leadership behaviors people demonstrate with their direct reports are revealed to the participant on their own accord.  These are powerful, breakthrough moments of self-awareness bursting to the surface of consciousness.  No one is telling the participant a thing…other than the horse.  The participant is seeing their own behaviors reflected back to them through the behaviors of the horse.  And horses don’t lie, shade or judge emotions.  Emotions are information to horses (this is also a neuroscience finding based upon the work of Dr. Jaak Panksepp), as they should be to us as well.

Research from the field also provides new assessment tools that enable us to hone in on specific areas of development.  Here’s a short, video white board describing this application:

As we move deeper into the 21st Century, adaptive challenges will continue to confront us.  Challenges in which we don’t know all the answers.  Challenges that will require collaborative efforts from a multi-cultural, multi-generational workforce to resolve.  And resolve at speed, in real time.  Working with horses from a neurologically substantiated perspective imparts learning agility in leaders.  Horses require us to park our ego at the barn door as well.  They aren’t impressed with titles, paychecks or artificial authority.  They are impressed with presence.  This approach enables leaders to learn how to dance in the moment, acting with mindful discernment even when confronted with highly novel challenges.  And to do so while maintaining congruency, transparency and authenticity.  Horses, and humans, demand no less.

© 2013, Terry Murray.

 

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May 7, 2013 · 8:43 am

Establishing a Talent Management Baseline for Breakthrough Productivity

As the economy continues to gain ground, organizations are faced with the risk of unprecedented turnover.  Years of downsizing have left many workers disengaged, mistrustful of leadership, and generally burned out.  A recent survey illustrated the fact that 55% of employees feel they cannot handle their current workload and the resulting stress much longer.  From an organizational development viewpoint, this unsettling situation threatens the foundational competitiveness of many firms, fore it is the best and the brightest that are the most mobile.  The collaborative challenges of leading a multi-cultural and multi-generational workforce, in an ever-accelerating environment, only exacerbates the threat.

Let’s face it, traditional approaches to leadership development have fallen far short of their promise.  With enterprises investing $50 billion a year in leadership development, you’d think we’d see better results, yet only 1% of 5,560 executives assessed (McKinsey Quarterly, July, 2011) scored excellent in key competencies.  Nearly nine out of ten score below average.  The fact of the matter is, behaviorally-based approaches to leadership development only treat the symptoms of poor leadership, blindly missing the causal elements that differentiate mediocre management from inspirational leadership.  Even worse, these traditional approaches to talent management are failing to identify upwards of 65% of high potentials.  All of these factors are combining to create the perfect storm for many companies.  With the speed of business and demands for innovation what they are today, committing a misstep in talent management can be fatal…and there no longer exists even a modicum of time to respond.  If you get blindsided by this today, you may not be around tomorrow.

Here’s a short, video white board describing how leveraging the state-of-the-science findings from the field of affective neuroscience, along with incorporating targeted, demonstrated high performer competencies (in today’s volatile world), can anticipate this coming wave of disruption by creating a quantitative, talent management baseline that aligns with the demands of the day.

© 2013, Terry Murray.

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May 1, 2013 · 4:07 pm

The Dimensions of the Next Productivity Breakthrough

We’re on the threshold of a very exciting time to be in leadership.  Having survived the shocks of the Great Recession, business leaders are recognizing the traditional approaches to increasing productivity, engagement, collaboration and innovation have run their course.  Fresh thinking is needed to spark the next wave of prosperity.  Interestingly, insights from the broad and burgeoning field of neuroscience are validating the approach and philosophy we’ve been pursuing for five years.

Sophisticated neural imaging is providing hard evidence of what’s occurring in our brains under a variety of controlled inputs.  Our brains have plasticity, which is a relatively new understanding of what was once thought to be a staid organ once the developmental process was complete.  Our brains are constantly changing based upon our experiences and the neural input we choose to, or unconsciously, consume.  By developing intentional, neural development strategies, we can change the way we interpret and respond to the world around us.  To quote Dr. Richard Davidson, Affective Neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin, commenting on the brain’s experience-dependent neural plasticity, “Neural plasticity refers to the idea that the brain can change in response to experience and in response to training.  The brain is literally built to change in response to experience.”

Dr. Davidson’s work goes on to identify that the practice of compassion activates the part of the brain that processes our perspective of people, events and the world around us.  Cultivating compassion also activates the part of our brain, the insula, that is in two way communication with our organs and body, and gamma waves expand that are associated with the creation of new neural connections.  New neural connections, initiated by novel experiences, are the foundational spark of creative thinking and innovative problem solving.

How does this relate to productivity in the workplace?  Let’s look at what CEOs and senior HR executives have recently acknowledged and are currently seeking to cultivate in their organizations:

1.) CEOs have identified inspirational leadership, customer obsession, and leadership teaming as the most important traits they are seeking in their leaders.

2.) CEOs surveyed in 2012 see human capital (71%), customer relationships (66%), and innovation (52%) as key sources of sustained, economic value creation.  They are also recognizing the need for more openness, transparency and collaboration.

3.) According to IBM’s 2012 research, CEOs are most focused on three organizational attributes; ethics & values (65%), collaborative environments (63%), and purpose & mission (58%).  CEOs in growth-market industries are 79% more likely than their mature market peers to make significant changes to their organizational values over the next three to five years.

4.) According to a SHRM 2012 survey, the three biggest challenges HR executives anticipate over the next ten years are:  Retaining and rewarding the best employees (59%), developing the next generation of corporate leaders (52%), and creating a corporate culture that attracts the best employees to their organization (36%).

5.) CEOs have acknowledged they will require an improvement in productivity of 20% from their current human assets in order to maintain competitive advantage moving forward.

If we reference the recent research from the Corporate Executive Board’s Executive Guidance – 2013, we can see today’s high performers and high potentials are already demonstrating many of the so-called, soft skills necessary to succeed in highly volatile, ambiguous times.  Skills that are grounded in Emotional Intelligence competencies (in particular and from the report, self and social awareness) and a passion for the customer and business that are a result of full engagement (both cognitive and emotional).  Skills that demonstrate nimble, neural plasticity.  Skills that can be taught to others.

Since 2008, we’ve intentionally chosen to work extensively with at-risk populations in our society and have come away with some powerful experiential lessons.  Segments of our society that present significant challenges in their engagement levels, awareness, sense of purpose, and ability to function as productive members of society.  Veterans and their families struggling with PTSD.  Teens incarcerated in juvenile detention.  Women coming out of county jail.  At-risk girls living in poverty and surrounded by crime.  Diverse populations that cling to the fringes, almost entirely excluded from participating in, and contributing to, our collective prosperity.  Populations that are dealing with challenges that are significantly greater and more deeply engrained than what we typically see with our business clients.   We’re happy to report we’ve witnessed remarkable results!

Here’s an example of a recent program for young, at-risk girls in our community:

So, as a business leader, where do you begin?  We suggest looking to the types of values your organization is leveraging for engagement.  Are they purely extrinsic (compensation, power, prestige) or a balance including intrinsic values (authentic relationships, personal development, purposefulness…feeling a part of something important and larger than one’s self interests)?

Extrinsic values, while highly effective during the Industrial Age, when the workplace was culturally homogenous, no longer resonate in today’s multi-cultural, multi-generational workforce.  Intrinsic values transcend the differences stemming from generational perspectives and cultural orientations.

These values resonate through the emotions of compassion, empathy and caring for one another.  These were, and still are, the survival skills that enabled human beings to survive, evolve and flourish.  Research from the neurosciences supports this insight.  It is only through the intentional creation of a culture that propagates these emotions and strikes a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic goals and values, that the targeted 20% improvement in productivity can emerge.

© 2013, Terry Murray.

References.

1.) “Leading Through Connections – Insights From the Global Chief Executive Officer Study.” IBM® Institute For Business Value,  May, 2012.

2.) ibid.

3.) ibid.

4.) “Challenges Facing HR Over The Next 10 Years”, Society for HR Management, November, 2012.  http://www.slideshare.net/shrm/shrm-futurehr2022final.

5.) “Breakthrough Performance in the New Work Environment – Identifying and Enabling the New High Performer”, Executive Guidance for 2013, CEB, December, 2012. http://www.executiveboard.com/exbd/executive-guidance/index.page.

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Filed under Diversity & Inclusion, Experiential Learning, Leadership Development, Organizational Culture, Team Building