Is the Executive Brain Different?

Myths of Competition

The Wall Street Journal presented some findings about the “executive brain,” based on neuro-imaging, a technique for observing the brain’s activity while engaged in thinking. It turns out that the executive brain is no different from any other brain. The suggestions it makes for effective performance apply to all forms of thinking.

The key conclusion is that executives should disentangle themselves from some of the myths of competition that have become established among corporate leaders, myths that actually turn out to be counter-productive.

One myth is that the pressure of deadlines concentrates the mind. It found that a deadline “more often limits our thinking and can lead to much worse decision making.”

Richard Boyatzis, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, along with colleague Anthony Jack and others, has found that a tight deadline increases people’s urgency and stress levels. These people show more activity in the brain’s “task positive” network … But it’s not the part of the brain that comes up with original ideas.”
The reason is obvious, once you think about it. If you subject people to the pressure of anxiety, the mind’s priority becomes reducing that pressure. Yes, ultimately solving the problem will reduce it, but short term solutions like distractions and denials work faster – and letting go of familiar approaches, tried and true solutions, become harder and harder to resist.

A second management myth is that effective managers are super-rational, focused on facts. But Boyatzis and his researchers found: “The best leaders seem to lean on their emotions much more than logic.”

That too is not difficult to understand. Our emotions are an important source of information, and often lead us to an understanding of problems directly and intuitively. One researcher noted “that people who are good at strategy are better at sensing or feeling their way through strategies, rather than relying only on logic and being rational.”

Another myth is that “you have to be negative and tough to get things done.” But “the data says that’s just not true at a very basic human level”.

“The best leaders,” Dr. Boyatzis says, “are good at motivating people with things like encouragement, praise and rewards—thereby creating a strong emotional bond and sense of purpose among employees.” (See, “The Inner Workings of the Executive Brain.”)

These are not such surprising conclusions, so where did the myths debunked by the research come from? And what made them seem so true?

Management used to be thought of as “command and control.” Leaders sitting at the top of hierarchies, like generals at the head of armies, decided what needed to be done and issued orders to make it happen. But we are coming to realize that intelligence is a distributed quality, and often does not reside at the top, certainly not exclusively. Moreover, people perform better if engaged in understanding the problems they work on, not just in trying to please the boss. Indeed, the intelligence of leaders is often compromised because they are under pressure to perform and that very pressure makes it harder to think creatively.

So if you realize that intelligence is distributed throughout an organization, the job of leadership becomes to motivate and mobilize intelligence where ever it is.

So organizations are less and less like armies, and more like insurgents and guerillas, seeing what needs to be done and acting on their own initiative.