Neuroscience Can Help You Become a Better Leader

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Michael Platt speaks with Brett LoGiurato from Wharton School Press about his new book, The Leader’s Brain.

Not everyone is born a leader.

But the good news for anyone who’s not is that those abilities can be developed. This is part of the message that Wharton Neuroscience Initiative director Michael Platt has been communicating in his teaching, research, and now a new book: The Leader’s Brain: Enhance Your Leadership, Build Stronger Teams, Make Better Decisions, and Inspire Greater Innovation with Neuroscience.

Over two decades as a professor and practitioner in neuroscience, psychology and marketing, Platt’s pioneering research has deepened our understanding of how key areas of the brain work — and how that understanding can be applied in business settings.

Platt recently sat down with Brett LoGiurato, senior editor at Wharton School Press, to discuss his book and the takeaways for leaders.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Brett LoGiurato: I’ll start by asking you — what spurred you to write the book?

Michael Platt: That’s a great question. I just feel like the time is right. I have been at Wharton for about five years now. I’ve been teaching Brain Science for Business to MBA students, undergraduates, as well as leaders in the field — practitioners, through executive education. It’s really clear that the insights and technologies from neuroscience can have a major impact on business in everything from marketing and brand strategy to leadership, to management and to inspiring innovation. My goal is really to reach a much wider audience so that everybody can benefit from the lessons of neuroscience.

LoGiurato: How did you first enter into studying neuroscience? Specifically, you write a lot in the book about your work with monkeys, and I was wondering if you could talk about what they have taught you about how to apply neuroscience in various forms.

Platt: I’ve been fascinated with monkeys since I was a kid, because they’re so similar to us in so many ways. That’s why they’re so much fun to watch at the zoo. And as I moved through my academic career, I was really trying to understand human nature and why we are in some ways so similar to our monkey cousins and in some ways different. I spent a lot of time out in the field, out in the jungle, watching monkeys and learning from them. I eventually decided that if I wanted to understand what makes us human, I would have to understand how our brains work and how that leads to the decisions that we make.

“It’s really clear that the insights and technologies from neuroscience can have a major impact on business in everything from marketing and brand strategy to leadership….”

We’ve learned a lot from monkeys. We’ve learned a lot about what is core to our nature as primates in terms of the importance of social connections, but we’ve also learned a lot about the ways in which forming strong connections with others can actually help you through times of crisis. Those are just a couple of the things we’ve learned, but they are wonderful critters in their own right, and they make for a great comparison with people.

LoGiurato: You have a unique role at Penn, with appointments in three different schools and as director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative. How does that cross-disciplinary perspective help your research?

Platt: [For me] it’s really critical to have full appointments in the School of Medicine and the School of Arts and Sciences and the Wharton School. It really plants my feet firmly in the disciplines that are so important for driving our work, which takes the problem set from business and leadership, looks at it through the lens of psychology, and utilizes the techniques and technologies from neuroscience.

You take all of that rich interdisciplinary heritage and technologies and kind of funnel them into [the question]: How can we use that information and the insights from those different disciplines pooled together to address some of the biggest challenges facing business and facing society at large? I’m really happy and thrilled to serve as a bridge and connector between those three schools.

LoGiurato: Your book is about the intersection of neuroscience and business, and it addresses how we can become better leaders by applying the latest knowledge from brain science. What are some examples of neuroscience that you yourself have put into practice as a leader and as a manager?

Platt: This is a great question. I think that there are a few things that are really important insights from neuroscience. One that is so critical is that we are human beings, and we are social creatures by nature. We are wired that way. One of the most important jobs of the leader is to connect with the people that they manage and to help create environments in which people can work together efficiently and effectively and with great esprit de corps. There are a variety of lessons from neuroscience that teach us how to do that better — everything from making eye contact with the people with whom you’re talking, to utilizing some technology to potentially get people on the same wavelength and synchronize their brains in a way that promotes trust and cooperation.

LoGiurato: You talk a lot in your book about various breakthroughs in communication that have come from neuroscience, and one is eye contact and how much that matters for individuals and teams to get in sync. COVID-19 has disrupted that. How can you replicate eye contact and other important aspects of communication with Zoom and video calls?

Platt: The movement to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed, I think, how important face-to-face communication is. And it can be really challenging when doing so online because of some of the features of the technology — for example, there is an offset between where the camera is on your computer and where the screen is, which makes it very difficult to make eye contact with someone you’re talking to. That’s compounded when there are multiple different faces on the screen in a Zoom or BlueJeans kind of “Brady Bunch” window.

So that’s a challenge. We can try to overcome that by being aware of where the camera is, and when you’re saying something that’s really important, try to look into the camera. I think another strategy is to recognize that Zoom fatigue is real because it’s so challenging to try to read all of the social cues that we’re seeing on the people who are on the screen. It’s important to build in time between meetings — and in some cases, even turn off the video and just go for a pure audio call. That can potentially give you a little bit of rest from all the hard work of trying to decipher what’s going on [visually].

LoGiurato: How can neuroscience help managers and leaders through the COVID-19 pandemic?

Platt: I think if managers and leaders can pay attention to the latest developments in neuroscience, this can be potentially very helpful in a number of ways. One of the most important things that neuroscience can help with is to scientifically validate strategies that we may have already stumbled upon, just through trial and error, over eons. If we think about the importance of teamwork and good communication, neuroscience only serves to underline it.

We know from neuroscience, for example, that if we want to communicate more effectively with the people we manage, then we need to be simple, clear and concise — and again, make eye contact as much as possible. The neuroscience is very strong on this, and those kinds of practices will lead to better chemistry with the person you’re communicating with, getting into better synchrony with them, and more effective communication thereafter.

LoGiurato: In many points in the book, you include fascinating anecdotes from the world of sports, which you call a “Petri dish” for trying out neuroscience’s ideas. Can you explain that and take us through the best example of the practice that you’ve seen in sports?

Platt: Sports is a great Petri dish for work and for life. One of the reasons why, and why I’m so compelled by sports, is that the margins are so slim. If we can help an athlete or a team to achieve 1% or 2% better performance, that could be the difference between a gold medal and nothing, or winning a championship and failing to qualify for the playoffs. The potential impact of any improvement is enormous. The other thing about sports is that at this point when we’re talking about elite college athletes or professional athletes, everything from the head down has been pretty well optimized. And so the remaining kind of bang for the buck that we can get is on optimizing mental performance.

“One of the most important things that neuroscience can help with is to scientifically validate strategies that we may have already stumbled upon, just through trial and error, over eons.”

This is something that is very early [in development]. There’s tremendous interest and enthusiasm, and it’s something that we’ve been working on in my own laboratory. One really fun study that we did was with the Penn rowing team. We looked at this phenomenon that we’re fascinated with, which is physiological synchrony. Basically, when we connect well with others, our brain activity — and even our physiological processes like our heart rate — become aligned. They become synchronized, and the degree of physiological synchrony in the laboratory seems to predict things like cooperation and trust and communication.

We actually went out to the Penn Rowing Center. We were in the field, and we put EEG monitors on the athlete’s heads to measure their brain activity and [gave them] heart rate monitors. And we looked at physiological synchrony when they were either training next to each other on ERG machines — rowing machines — training apart, or when their ERG machines were physically connected.

When they were physically connected, this meant that their rowing was physically in time, in synchrony, and we saw the highest degree of physiological synchrony under those conditions. But we saw very similar physiological synchrony just when the rowers were next to each other, where they could see and hear — and perhaps smell — each other. That’s really exciting, because it tells us that if you want your team to perform in synchrony, which is critical to rowing, you ought to have them train together, and not train on their own.

LoGiurato: You note in the book that a lot of exciting developments can come from neuroscience in the future. You also note the ethical implications. How can leaders and managers balance those?

Platt: There’s tremendous opportunity in applying neuroscience to business. Frankly, business runs on brains, so the more we understand about the people we manage, the more we understand about our customers, the better we can do. But this does present some serious ethical, legal and societal challenges and questions. This is very new, and I think what’s really critical is that we have to engage our employees and engage the public in this conversation… There are very important principles that have been laid down by, for example, President Obama’s Bioethics Commission, which outlined the importance of privacy and consent and autonomy, which are critical — whether we’re talking about brain data or the websites that you search online.

One other consideration that is actually really, really important is access to this knowledge and this technology. If rich people or rich companies have unequal access to the insights and technologies and capabilities of neuroscience, then that could potentially exacerbate existing inequality in society. I think that neuroscience has tremendous potential, but we have to use it wisely.

“Business runs on brains, so the more we understand about the people we manage, the more we understand about our customers, the better we can do.”

LoGiurato: What’s the most exciting development in neuroscience that you’re looking at over the next few years?

Platt: There are two sets of developments in neuroscience that are at the cutting edge, and they’re going to be critically important. On the one hand, there are developments that are purely technological that are really allowing us to refine our understanding of what’s going on at fundamental levels in the brain, at the level of molecules and synapses. And that work will continue. That work at the moment is largely confined to animals, but the technologies will eventually find their way into humans to help with clinical problems like depression or anxiety or autism, et cetera.

The other direction, I think, that will be critically important — especially for business and for society — is the development of wearable brain monitoring technologies, which allow individuals to access what’s going on their heads so they can understand what is going on, and they can use that knowledge to improve their performance. I think that’s very, very exciting.

In the past, there has been a tradeoff between the quality of the data you could get and the ease and wearability of the devices. And those two tradeoffs are now coming together so that we can actually monitor brain activity with very high fidelity, and do so in a way that is very comfortable and very unobtrusive.

LoGiurato: What’s one lesson that you hope readers take away from the book?

Platt: I think one really important lesson is that the so-called “irrational biases” that we see in the kinds of decisions that we make — whether they’re the decisions leaders make, or our employees or our customers — are actually the result of fundamental processes in our brains that are deeply baked in and difficult to overcome. And so we should not beat ourselves up about it, but rather rely on some of the techniques that neuroscientists suggest that can help us get around some of those challenges.

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