Neuroscience, Leadership, and Marketing


Stephanie West Allen, who writes the Idealawg blog (there are at least a couple of puns in that clever title), forwarded a link to an interesting article, The Neuroscience of Leadership. The article, authored by David Rock and Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz and published in Strategy+Business, is a fairly lengthy treatise on behavioral change. Most organizational problems and business initiatives require changes in behavior by managers and employees; Rock and Schwartz explain why that’s often so difficult to accomplish, and suggest a style for accomplishing change that matches the neuroscience underlying resistance to change. (Rock and Schwartz are an interesting duo – the former is a business coaching expert and the latter is a research psychiatrist.)

This article is an interesting read for marketers for a number of reasons. First, it’s another illustration that neuroscience is creeping into many areas of business endeavor. In a few years, a manager discussing neuromarketing may find that she shares a common vocabulary with other managers attempting to adapt traditional management methods to the findings of brain science. (Ms. Allen sees a similar infiltration of neuroscience thinking into the law, as indicated by her post here.) Second, although the article deals with organizational change in corporations, both marketing and organizational management are all about changing behavior. That’s why we talk about a manager “selling his ideas,” i.e., convincing others in the firm to buy into his approach. The techniques are different – a manager will probably use meetings rather than 30-second TV spots – but in both cases the objective is to change future behavior.

One could easily argue that there are few parallels – since your boss can fire you or make your life miserable, he will have no problem effecting behavor change; a marketer, by comparison, often has a few seconds to communicate with a customer and may have difficulty even getting the customer’s attention. (Unfortunately, you can’t TIVO your staff meeting and fast forward through the part where the boss blathers on about synergy and team-building. ;)) In fact, Rock and Schwartz suggest that the carrot and stick approach used by many managers is ineffective. While B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism approach may work with pigeons, in the long run it rarely works with humans. The authors instead advocate a softer approach of providing information and letting the ideas click in the mind of the listener; this, they say, will maximize the formation of new connections in the brain and changing behavior in the long run.

Change is Pain.Rock and Schwartz point out that change is uncomfortable for the brain. They use a few analogies, including buying a new product in the supermarket. They note that routine purchases may be “automated” and processed by the basal ganglia without conscious thought, while a new product must be evaluated by the prefrontal cortex. They suggest that the brain is disinclined to change once it has automated something, using the analogy of the mental discomfort of trying to drive on the left side of the road if one has “automated” driving on the right side to the point where most driving processes require little conscious thought.

While change may not always be pain – some people enjoy sampling new brands and products – it’s not difficult to imagine that many purchases fall into the “automated” category.

Focus is Power. Focused attention is the key to behavioral change, according to Rock and Schwartz. They draw on the Quantum Zeno Effect, which states, “when any system is observed in a sufficiently rapid, repetitive fashion, the rate at which that system changes is reduced.” Although the concept was developed by a quantum physicist, Schwartz co-authored a 2005 paper which is described in the current article:

Applied to neuroscience, the QZE states that the mental act of focusing attention stabilizes the associated brain circuits. Concentrating attention on your mental experience, whether a thought, an insight, a picture in your mind?s eye, or a fear, maintains the brain state arising in association with that experience. Over time, paying enough attention to any specific brain connection keeps the relevant circuitry open and dynamically alive. These circuits can then eventually become not just chemical links but stable, physical changes in the brain?s structure.

This sounds more like an analogy than an application of subatomic physics, but there’s little doubt that continued and focused attention can cause changes in thinking and behavior.

Reaction to this article has been generally positive. The Leading Blog says, “Perhaps these findings about the brain can start to pull back the curtain on a new world of productivity improvement: in our ability to bring about positive, lasting change in ourselves, in our families, in our workplaces, and in society itself.” Ed Batista and a few others found the article outstanding but found fault with the authors’ dismissal of humanism as a useful tool in management. BusinessPundit sums it up with,

This is what I’ve been preaching about for a long time now. The findings of neuroscience will have significant impacts on business, in particular management.

1 Comment
  1. doney says

    Dear sir
    I am astudent of neurosciences in India. Can you please guide me to the bussiness propects related to my subject .?
    Kindly reply

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