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Our Brains, Our Networks, Our Gifts, and Notes from the Organizational Development Conference

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, November 15, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011

To Lead Well, Rest, Reflect and Don’t Hijack Anyone’s Amygdala

We don’t know how to get better leaders, David Rock asserts, even though more than 60,000 books on leadership have been published.

Social issues are more important to brain function than we have generally realized, says Rockan author and researcher who coined the term "neuroleadership” and co-founded the NeuroLeadership Institute. He reports studies indicate social pain and physical pain activate the same brain areas, and that social pain was actually decreased more by Tylenol than by a placebo. Further, he says, threats are stronger and longer lasting than rewards. If we can’t decide whether something is good or bad, we decide its very bad. He says that’s because the brain is a prediction machine, and uncertainty is a threat.

Neuroscience teaches us that threats shut down creativity and close us to learning. They deplete resources available to our prefrontal cortex, where thought happens. So if you want to be a change agent, avoid making people feel threatened.

Rock, used humor and drama while addressing the Organizational Development Conference 2010 in New Orleans. He displayed a vintage ad trumpeting that "More Doctors Smoke Camels,” and another showing a healthy baby along with text that urges parents to "Start Cola earlier.” These notions make us squeamish now because science has debunked them, and Rock predicts years from now people will make the same discoveries about today’s leadership: "They’ll look back at us and say did that actually do that to people?”

He calls neuroleadership the neuroscicence of making decisions, solving problems, staying cool under pressure, collaborating with others and facilitating change. He says "the elephant in the room” is what happens to people in organizations: as they move up, their need for technical skills decreases, and their need for self-awareness, social skill, reflective thinking and insight increases. But social skills drop as people move up. Tension and creativity-killing anxiety often start at the top. "The good news, " he adds, "is that it’s not your fault. It’s the nature of the beast.”

Rock developed the SCARF model: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fair ness are the things that can make us feel very rewarded or very threatened. If a situation dictates that threats in one domain are inevitable, rewards in another domain can sometimes offset the negative impact.

Another leadership trait we misinterpret, says Rock, involves creativity and insight. Intensity, focus, and trying hard to solve a problem inhibit insights. As Rock explains it, when we have insight, our brains actually change. When we solve problems in a linear way, they don’t. Insight requires reflection and quiet. Any thought contains millions of strands, he says, but insights are quiet signals, connections among small numbers of neurons. Insights happen often, he adds, but we don’t notice them amidst the electrical activity of anxiety and stress. That’s why people often have "aha” moments in the shower or upon waking.

Perhaps, Rock suggests, we will some day make breakthroughs in the way we relate to one another that are as profound as the breakthroughs we have made in technology. Rock is the author of Your Brain at Workhe blogs forPsychologyToday, and wrote "Managing with the Brain in Mind” for the journal Strategy + Business.

Other gems from Organizational Development Conference 2010

Constraints and Freedom Dance a Creative Duet

"Prelude”, the first dance choreographed by Garth Fagan in 1981, was subtitled "Discipline in Freedom,” and the thought has influenced an extraordinary career that has brought him the Tony, Oliver and Astaire awards and accolades as one of the most creative artists in dance today.

"My father used to say that discipline is freedom,” he told an audience at the ODN conference, "and finally I realized what he meant. If you are disciplined to solve problems in your own field, you will be free to solve whatever else the world throws at you.”

Fagan loves and understands classical ballet. As a choreographer of modern dance, he uses movements that require the same skill and precision, but even more freedom. He says he hires dancers for their intelligence and willingness to risk innovation as well as their technical competence. His stunning choreography of the Broadway musical "The Lion King” has been widely acclaimed, and his Garth Fagan Dance Company is celebrating its 40thseason. He admires improvisation with a certain caveat: it’s great when it is done at a very high level, but below that, it is likely to be repetitious and boring. He encourages his dancers to perform according to plan. "Break rules,” he says. "But before you break them it’s nice if you know what they are.”

How do you build a company of 14 virtuoso dancers who are intelligent, vulnerable and willing to try unusual things? Funding for the arts is atrocious in America, Fagan observes, and he wanted his dancers on salary. His music ranges Bach to boogie, and he uses Chinese as well as Western composers, so his dancers need to be intellectually as well as physically nimble. His leadership style, as he describes it, is both nurturing and demanding. When one of his dancers was distraught over the death of her cat, he admits his first thought was "suck it up.”

"But I had to nourish her,” he recalls. "I said wherever that cat is in cat heaven, it would love to see you dance in two days.”

Invisible Capital and Entrepreneurship

If you have a great idea, work hard and have a positive attitude, you’ll succeed as an entrepreneur, right? "That’s what the entrepreneurial-industrial complex wants you to think,” says consultant and author Chris Rabb"and that belief facilitates a harmful ideology.”

Statistics underscore the difficulties of starting new businesses, he says: Only 12 per cent of businesses last more than four years, have one employee and make more than $25,000 a year. If you are African American or Latino, the figures are lower, and the racial wealth gap in America is widening.

The best predictors for wealth in this country, Rabb says, are homeownership, investments, and owning one’s own business. Indicators for a successful start in business are education, sufficient start up capital, ability to choose the right industry, and experience in a family –owned business, not necessarily one’s own family’s business. Education alone doesn’t bring wealth.

Rabb ironically notes he is the sixth generation of college educated people in his family and he says he’s not rich. His great great grandfather bought himself out of slavery, operated a store, and passed it on to his son, who became a physician. One of a long line of entrepreneurs, Chris Rabb started a clothing company when he was at Yale, and later founded a technology based company with his brother. He has also worked for the White House Conference Small Business and the Enterprise Center in Philadelphia, where he helped create a nationally recognized business incubator. He recently joinedDEMOS, a New York based non profit devoted to economic justice and broad citizen participation.

In his new book Invisible Capital: How Unseen Forces Shapes Entrepreneurial Opportunity Rabb discusses what he terms commonwealth enterprises, which create community assets and help sustain communities at the same time they create shared prosperity. Innovation in entrepreneurship is needed, he says, and structures might include co-ops, nonprofits, and low-profits that provide socially beneficial goods and services. Rabb gives a lively presentation, in which he defines invisible capital as human, social and cultural capital that is often invisible, like the wind. He also reminds his audience that Horatio Alger, the nineteenth century writer who created the archetypical American stories ofrags to riches through hard work, was himself a second generation Harvard graduate, who incidentallytoured Europe before settling down to his job.

In a session entitled Reaching Resonance, Engaging Organizations through Emotional Intelligence, Cindy Maher and Carol Grannis of Leading Edge Coaching and Development, delivered some bits if profound wisdom and performed some hilarious skits that showed with boisterous indelicacy things that really shouldn’t happen at work. The wisdom is that when people are stressed, "flooding” happens, meaning that blood flows away from the brain and the stress victim may not understand or remember what has been said. Not great for getting instructions from the boss or presenting one’s own ideas. Resonant behavior spreads quickly through groups, they said, and a whole group can become stressed in less than 15 minutes. Interestingly, when people are engaged in good conversation, their heart rates tend to become synchronized. The good news is that laughter tells people there is safety, engagement and connection, and both presenters provided laughs aplenty. Ms. Maher was charmingly convincing in roles of overwrought bosses and employees, and Ms. Grannis evoked peals of laughter portraying an oblivious boss engrossed in personal phone conversation while a waiting employee cooled her heels and work issues escalated.

In a session on Arts-Based Learning: A New Paradigm for the 21stCentury OD Professional, Michael Y. Brenner o fIdeAgency cited the 2010 IBM Global CEO Study in which a majority of the CEOs interviewed called creativity the most important leadership competency. Traditional logical, rational, linear leadership skills are not enough in today’s complex world , Brenner said. Leaders need synthesis as well as analysis, and imagination and empathy to collaborate with others and solve problem. Art, in all its forms, helps us see things differently and explore the deeply held assumptions and beliefs we often fail to question. For many at the session, a brief exercise with modeling clay illustrated the potential of Brenner’s approach.

Can networking skills be learned? Arthur Lerner, of Networking Forward and Deborah Peluso, of The Change Collaborative, introduced engaging ways to connect with people in their Networking Forward Program. Good networking is about giving and receiving gifts, they explained. Participants in small groups were asked to talk about the best gifts they had ever received, and then discuss a more difficult question, the best gifts they had ever given. Most of the gifts discussed emphasized emotional connection, commitment, time spent and generosity of spirit. When gifts of material things were mentioned, they usually held symbolic rather than monetary value. Often, people found real value of gifts given and received became more apparent with the passage of time. Just about every language has some term for human connectedness, one group of participants observed. In Setswama, the traditional language of Botswana, a man from Africa observed, it is kopano.

The Organizational Development Network 2010 Conference in New Orleans had many wonderful presentations. You can find "handouts” frommany of theseinteresting sessionsby visiting:

http://www.odnetwork.org/events/conferences/conf2010/rfp/handouts.php

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