March 25, 2015

Leadership roles in conflict and opposing neural domains

by Richard E. Boyatzis and Anthony Jack, PhD

Richard Boyatzis, PhD
Richard E. Boyatzis, PhD, is a Distinguished University Professor at Case Western Reserve University, the H.R. Horvitz Professor of Family Business and a Professor in Organizational Behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management.

Anthony Jack, PhD, is Director of Research at the Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence, Principle Investigator of the Brain, Mind and Consciousness laboratory, and associate professor of Cognitive Science, Psychology, Philosophy, Neurology and Neuroscience at Case Western Reserve University.

David was smiling when he walked into his office building. The weekend was fun. Even his teenagers seemed to break out of their sulky mood and laugh with their cousins at his parents’ house. As if in an ambush, his executive assistant intercepted him just as he walked by the receptionist. A major client had just had an explosion in the client’s plant. No one was hurt, but the main production line was down. Officials at the plant used a set of David’s company’s electronic controls. Were their controls somehow at fault?

Anthony Jack, PhD
Before he reached his office, David stopped by several of the vice presidents' offices and called an emergency meeting in 15 minutes. When their meeting began, he told them what he knew and asked what they should do. Frank, the VP of finance, immediately began talking about their potential liability and that they should check with their insurance agent and corporate attorneys. Sid, the manufacturing VP, began to explain how the client's production line was most likely using his or her own control devices – and went on for quite a long time in excruciating detail. Finally, Barbara, the VP of marketing, asked whether or not David had talked to the president of the client company. She pointed out that since the client's plant was only 45 minutes away, David and a few others should drive over there and see what happened and how people are dealing with it. Frank interjected, "That could be read as an admission of guilt or culpability," to which Barbara replied, "Frank, get serious. We do not have to say it was our controls, but merely show concern. After all, they are a client and this is a big shock. Then we can find out what exactly happened and see whether our control devices were involved in any way."

David was hearing two points of view, which is all too typical in management. Frank immediately went on the defensive. Barbara thought about what the client was experiencing and how to collect more information quickly while showing concern – the right thing to do with a longtime client. These two perspectives and sets of reactions have often been called two different styles of management. One style, called Theory X by Douglas McGregor in the 1960s, is more task-oriented, treating people like parts of the machinery. Theory Y was what McGregor would have labeled Barbara’s reaction – more people-oriented and open to possibilities. What neither McGregor nor other management and leadership scholars for the past 60 years have known is that the roots of these two styles and perspectives rest in two very different neural networks.

In my Brain, Mind, Consciousness Lab, I – Professor Tony Jack – at Case Western Reserve University have been conducting neuroimaging studies and have confirmed with increased precision something suspected in the neuroscience literature. We use a network of neurons called the Task Positive Network (TPN) to make decisions, solve problems and focus. But when we are open to a new idea, other people or moral concerns, we use a different set of neurons called the Default Mode Network (DMN). Not only do these two networks have little overlap, research has shown that they suppress each other.

Identification of two different leadership styles and roles has been a part of management literature since the 1940s. We have called this the Task leader and the Relational (or social-emotional) leader. We thought it was a function of how people grew up, their mentors and coaches, their training and experiences. Which role a person prefers may be a function of some personality traits, but now we know it is more likely that if a person has a preference it is likely a result of using one neural network repeatedly more often than the other. David saw how Frank and Sid responded and how different it was from how Barbara responded. Each of them was correct in identifying a concern for their company. But which was the best way to respond to the client at this moment?

David sensed that it needed a more personal touch. He wanted to show concern but to be careful not to imply that the company's controls were at fault until more information was collected. He felt that showing the client that his firm wanted to help the client get production back up and running as soon as possible was more reflective of their long-term relationship than waiting for lawyers to call each other.

We suspected that effective leaders need both neural networks. Actually, we believe that the most effective leaders cycle back and forth between these networks in under a second and are sensitive to which network is needed in which situations. But the prevalence of each of these roles and styles may mean that we have not been developing managers and leaders with equal facility and skill in both domains. For example, most MBA programs teach people an abundance of analytic tools and are strategic and financially oriented. More effective leadership development would balance these important areas with interpersonal development and projects that involve active scanning of opportunities. Since the DMN also allows contemplating moral concerns – what is fair and just – it adds another dimension to how complex situations are.

This research and our research in how to develop effective leadership provide hope. There are programs, like our Leadership Deep Dive at WSOM Executive Education or our executive MBA program at WSOM, that involve learning analytics and action skills, how to focus (i.e., be mindful) and how to be open to others, and how to prepare your teams and organizations to survive and thrive. Leaders can be taught to recognize and use these different styles and to become more skilled at responding smoothly with both neural networks.

By the way, the explosion had nothing to do with David’s company’s controls.

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