The New Leader: Insights from Neuroscience



By Jon Pratlett

If you are a leader in the Shared Services and Outsourcing space (or you are a parent), an essential part of your role is to assign tasks to your team, provide necessary resources, and hold them accountable for the result. One vital step of the task assignment process frequently left out, and critical to having the task completed safely, to specification, on time, and on budget is providing CONTEXT, the background to the task; the “Why”. The context frames the meaning behind the task being assigned.

Without CONTEXT the message to a team member is to plough on and do the best they can. Without CONTEXT, if they attempt to come back to the leader, they may be busy. The team member ends up waiting! Both get frustrated.  When they do finally get to the leader, he or she may be met with “I haven’t got time to explain that! I just want it done! Isn’t that what I pay you for?” Leaders have confessed to me that they say this and are frustrated with their team members for not using their initiative. When I challenge them, they begin to see they might have something to learn here.

Without Context trust is undermined, people become disengaged, rework is generated, costs rise, standards drop. Everyone gets frustrated and put under increasing scrutiny and pressure.

We know, all things being equal, that people will embrace accountability when their work is clear and has meaning.

Imagine if you placed a plank of wood on the ground and said to your team that you would give $50 to anyone who walks the length of this plank, who would do it?

Almost everyone will… it’s an easy $50!

What if you took this same plank and placed it between 2 buildings, up at the twelfth floor. $50 to anyone who will walk across the plank!

Would they do it? Not a chance.

Okay… now the other building is on fire and their child is laying unconscious at the other end of that plank and the flames will reach them in just a few moments. Would they go across the plank now?

Most would say yes.

So what is the difference? It’s the same danger, the same variables pretty much, but the difference is … the “why”.

From an evolutionary standpoint we are wired to pick any signs of physical and social threat in our environment to help us react quickly, with the fight, flight, freeze response, to ensure our survival. That type of response was very appropriate 20,000 years ago when the threat was a tiger. Today, however, we are unlikely to face such physical threats. Today the threats are more social and symbolic, and are significantly more frequent, such as a dismissive boss, ambiguous instructions, being criticized in front of peers, and being micromanaged, but still generate the same fight, flight, freeze response.

Neuroscience research confirms that we are driven by one key motivating principle:

To Minimise Danger and Maximize Reward (Safety First)

High levels of stress create clouded thinking, negative attitude and behavior, sub-optimal results, and become contagious, spreading rapidly like a virus through the team. Therefore, it is critical that, in assigning tasks, you provide good context and an opportunity for questions to be answered, creating greater shared understanding and clarity, in the process addressing to a greater or lesser extent the human needs of certainty, autonomy, relationship, equity and reputation/status.

Clarifying the impact on others (the team, other business units, the customer, values, and reputation) if the task isn’t completed as agreed, also provides further understanding.

By embracing the identity of a CARER* leader for your team, you can provide them greater:

  • Certainty  – through regular, clear and respectful communication, both verbal and non-verbal.
  • Autonomy – through encouraging thinking and choice about “how” to get the job done effectively.
  • Relatedness – through clarifying the impact of performance on others.
  • Equity – though treating people fairly.
  • Reputation enhancement (status) – through being mindful, respectful and encouraging.

By being a CARER you maximize reward by addressing key social needs, like providing more meaning and context behind the work you assign. Armed with this greater clarity, chances of success rise to more opportunities to praise performance, whilst reducing threat and stress. You encourage people to be highly engaged, to take pride in their work, and to go the extra mile. In return you receive greater productivity, satisfaction and personal and team well-being.

Become a CARER rather than a SCARER!  * Adapted from David Rock’s SCARF model.

More articles and resources at

Jon Pratlett is a neuroleadership expert, speaker, facilitator, high performance consultant and coach. His clients include many of Austalia’s leading companies, as well as the Australian Olympic Committee. He has represented Australia in 2000 and 2001 at the World Ironman Triathlon Championship in Kona, Hawaii and has lead the Bondi Running & Triathlon Club to 3 State Club titles. He is Sydney based and travels the globe.

Enquiries regarding brain based consulting and neuroleadership, keynotes, facilitation and training to – or call 61-414369412.

July 15, 2014

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