A view from inside Jack’s brain

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In our earlier blog we read about Jack’s fall from grace following his appointment to what seemed like the perfect CEO role for him.  Within 12 months in this new role he had been fired despite an outstanding track record in his career to date. What went wrong? In his first few months he made a string of snap decisions to prove he could get off to a flying start,  did not learn to listen to the right people, couldn’t gain the confidence of his peers or customers  and failed to make important changes in his team.

The field of neuroleadership can help shed some light on what was going on in Jack’s brain that led to these missteps and poor judgements.

The stress test

A new role or a new work environment can induce stress and anxiety, caused by a task being seen as daunting, new, beyond the skills, capability and/or comfort of the individual. In this state our emotions tend to take over and our prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain responsible for logical rational thinking, emotional regulation, memory recall, and pattern recognition starts to shut down. This is because the prefrontal cortex is a high energy-consuming part of the brain and, under stress, resources are redirected to support the limbic system – the part of the brain responsible for the emotional ‘fight/flight/freeze’ response. When this part of the brain is activated our ability to learn new experiences, develop insights, recognise patterns, be creative, solve complex problems or draw logical conclusions is compromised. Our limbic system and prefrontal cortex are a bit like a see-saw – when one is too high it causes a drop in performance of the other, and vice versa. Our optimal performance level is where we can access the right balance of emotion and logical thinking, so that all parts of our brain are activated. We then find yourself “in the zone” of peak performance and it feels great!

Even a small amount of fear can significantly compromise cognitive performance. Friedman and Foster (2001), set up a study with two groups of people. They asked them to complete a paper maze that featured a mouse in the middle trying to reach a picture on the outside. One group had a picture of cheese on the outside, the other a predator – an owl. After completing the maze both groups were given creativity tests. The group heading towards the cheese solved significantly more creative problems than those heading to the owl (Friedman and Foster, 2001).

It is likely that Jack experienced an overwhelming limbic response in the first few months of his new role, which compromised his ability to make the right judgements and decisions. He may have needed someone around to offload, discuss concerns, develop strategies to overcome problems and regulate his emotions, yet felt that he did not want to jeopardize his career move or cast doubt in the minds of the organisation about their hiring decision. Having access to an external advisor would have created the required confidentiality and provided an arm’s length perspective so that Jack could have an independent sounding board to test impressions, develop strategies, prioritise effectively and accelerate his effectiveness.

For more information about the neuroscience of onboarding, please download our breakfast presentation – Why the best executives can derail here.



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