The brain rarely fires on all cylinders even at the best of times – what more during a pandemic?
Understanding our operating systems can help us better navigate challenges and be more effective movers and shakers. That is the message of “The Leader’s Brain,” a book by Michael Platt, professor of marketing, neuroscience and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Platt, who is also director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative, spoke with Reuters about how to optimize what goes on in our heads, to better understand ourselves and others.
Q: How are our brains reacting to this extraordinary time?
A: What we know is that there has been a massive increase in things like anxiety disorders, mental health issues, suicides and opioid use. People are under a lot of stress, with all the uncertainty and the financial repercussions.
Unfortunately, social distancing robs us of one of the primary mechanisms we have to adapt to stress, which has led to an increase in loneliness.
Q: How have leaders handled the pandemic?
A: It has been interesting to see the rises and falls of leaders over the course of the last year. Some have demonstrated strong leadership, and then had difficulty at other times. It is hard to maintain in the face of all these economic and social troubles.
What is very important right now is to be a clear and effective communicator, who leads with the heart. Look at Joe Biden, who has made empathy the core of his administration.
Q: Is it possible to lead teams effectively, when so many people are working remotely?
A: That’s the No. 1 question for business leaders right now, and I feel it myself in my own lab. What we have seen is that people are just as productive, if not more so, than they were in the office.
But innovation has been falling dramatically, in large part because we don’t have “watercooler” conversations anymore – those spontaneous moments where you can cook up new ideas. That’s hard to manufacture in a remote environment.
Q: Are people born leaders, or can that be learned?
A: Everybody’s dials are set a little differently, and those dials can be turned. For instance, a key part of being a leader is the ability to connect and relate to other people: You can turn that dial up by exercising those faculties, and doing it intentionally. Communication skills are something people can work on.
Q: Can the lessons of neuroscience be helpful in the hiring process?
A: Neuroscience can have a huge impact on businesses, by helping leaders get better, more precise ideas of who people are. Some of the standard ways people are assessed are things like IQ tests or personality tests.
But neuroscience can help you change the questions you might ask. For instance, if you’re trying to identify if a candidate is good at thinking outside the box, you can present different scenarios in a gamified way. That way you can avoid putting people in positions that are not right for them.
Q: How can insight from this brain research help us make better decisions?
A: There are certain rules our brains live by, and we can’t really change them, so we need to learn how to live with them. For example, our brains don’t tend to make good decisions when there are too many options in front of us. So simplifying choices and limiting options can be a useful strategy for making better decisions.
Also, understand the trade off between speed and accuracy, and figure out which is the most important. There are some situations that are urgent, where you have to make a quick decision. But otherwise, slowing down can be critical, because that will allow you to avoid many regrettable mistakes.
Q: Are you optimistic that our brains are going to be able to handle this stressful period?
A: I was writing this book last year as the pandemic was unfolding. For the most part, people have done pretty well, and we should give ourselves a pat on the back for making it this far.
It’s still challenging right now, and we can’t let down our guards. But optimism is the key for moving forward, and having the motivation to power through. People should know that we are going to lick this thing.