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It’s Not You, It’s Your Brain: Bringing Neuroscience to the 2020 FiO + LS Mid-Manager Summit

Alison Torrillo French, Managing Director, Alto Solutions, LLC

Picture for a moment you are back in prehistoric times and you encounter the sabre-tooth tiger shown in this photo. Would you stop and try to reason with it? Or would you run? That’s what participants at the Advancing Mid-Managers Summit held during the 2020 Frontiers in Optics + Laser Science APS/DLS (FiO +LS) conference were asked.

For most of us, the answer is run – and it’s due to the chemicals in our brain. Back then, the rational part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) was not  fully developed, and our ancient brains released a stress hormone called cortisol that creates what we know as a “fight-or-flight” response by releasing glucose into the bloodstream, which shuts down “unnecessary” functions and gives our muscles the boost they need to act quickly.

We all know that there are no sabre-tooth tigers chasing us around today. And we also now have a fully evolved prefrontal cortex. Even so, it makes up only about four percent of our total brain volume and is highly susceptible to the older, stronger parts. As such, we often treat social and emotional triggers as the sabre-tooth tigers of today. Think, for instance, about receiving an unwanted email – maybe it’s the one that comes in as you’re trying to wrap up for the day, alerting you to a problem that just cannot wait until the next day. Guess what? Just like with the tiger, our prefrontal cortex starts to shut down and that ancient part of the brain called the amygdala kicks in and releases cortisol. We are stressed and reactive and we start moving away – physically, mentally, or emotionally - from what we perceive to be a threat…just like that sabre-tooth tiger.  Further, what, specifically, each of us perceives as a threat is related to our social experience – the same email that triggers one person may not have the same impact on another.

Enter David Rock, neuroscientist and creator of the SCARF model in his 2008 paper “SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating with and Influencing Others.”[1] SCARF represents the 5 domains of social experience - Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness - that our brains treat the same as survival issues.

During our 15 September session, attendees of the FiO +LS Advancing Mid-Managers Summit learned about some of the building blocks of neuroscience and neuroleadership as well as ways to apply the models to their specific leadership or leadership development situation. Participants gained a better knowledge of what each of those domains looks like, what their own proclivities were, and tips to better collaborate with, engage, and motivate others within their teams.

Many in the session asked questions about how to better understand the domains that their colleagues gravitate towards, how culture plays into the construction of these perspectives, and what are the best ways to utilize the model in both professional and personal situations. With attendees participating from different time zones, the conversation was lively and robust, with many ideas shared about how these social domains can be a benefit or a challenge with everyone working remotely across the globe.

By better understanding what moves people away from us – or what they perceive as a social threat – and what moves people toward us – or what they perceive as a reward, we as managers and leaders can craft strategies to onboard, support, motivate, and develop employees in our organizations.

A recording of the Advancing Mid-Managers Summit – "It’s Not You, It’s Your Brain: Practical Neuroscience for Leadership" is available for 2020 FiO + LS registrants, here.

Alison French is Managing Director of Alto Solutions, LLC, and a consultant and facilitator for OSA. She employs brain science in her approach to organizational change, communications, and leadership. An experienced facilitator, trainer, and coach, Alison has worked with clients within the government, education, nonprofit, and private sectors for more than 20 years, helping them improve their leadership and engagement by better understanding the connections between their people and within their brains. Alison holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Communication from Cornell University and an MBA from the Kogod School of Business at American University. Her recent workshops include It’s Not You, It’s Your Brain: Practical Neuroscience for Leadership; Chart Your Course: Professional Development, Branding, and Networking; Developing an Innovative Mindset; and Won’t You Be My Trainer and Won’t You Be My Manager (based on the teachings of Mr. Rogers).

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