A couple of decades ago, and even persisting today, the conventional definition of an effective leader was one who got results, optimised the business to create a stronger bottom line and generally forced productivity out of his or her employees. Many of these management initiatives expended to get these results were at the cost of employee motivation, retention, trust and ultimately the bottom line. Relatively recent studies in the field of neuroscience, on the other hand, suggest a link between leadership effectiveness and resonant relationships with others. Boyatzis, for example, using fMRI technology, found the brain to be activated positively when recalling specific experiences with “resonant” leaders – heightened attention, greater focus, a more positive outlook, hope, activated social systems, etc. “Dissonant” leaders had the opposite effect – deactivating the social system and activating regions of the brain associated with narrowing attention, lowering compassion and triggering negative emotions (Boyatzis, R – Neuroscience and Leadership: The Promise of Insights).
There seems to be a physical connection in the brain associated with trust – trustworthiness being one of the critical leadership traits to exhibit. According to Margie Meacham (The Neuroscience of Leadership and Trust), 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 – good news for leaders in that it is thus possible to build trust among employees even if it has been lacking in the past.
Meacham suggests the following three steps for leaders to take to build trust within their respective organisations:
- Make people feel safe – guarding a person’s safety and ensuring a person’s survival seem to be top priorities for the brain. A leader who can demonstrate non-threatening behaviour patterns and evenness in communication will more likely be viewed as trustworthy.
- Demonstrate fairness – leaders should treat people as individuals, but ensure that fairness characterises every approach. The brain seeks fairness and reacts to perceived injustice with anger and frustration.
- Be genuine and extend trust to others – Meacham notes: “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’. So, if a person distrusts the person with whom they are speaking, the other person will pick up on this and mirror that distrust back”.
Leaders need to focus on resonating with employees – relationship-building opens neurological pathways in the brains of employees that encourage engagement, laser focus and the effective application of energy towards the achievement of company goals.