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How Behavioral Science Can Raise Our Leadership Game In The Future of Work

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For humans to thrive in a world of increasing automation, we have to make the most of our distinctly human strengths—which means being deliberate about cultivating wisdom, empathy and creative problem-solving in our workplaces.

Editor’s Note: Caroline Webb will be one of the keynote speakers at our July 19 “Lead Better, Live Better” masterclass. Along with bestselling author Marshall Goldsmith and legendary WD-40 CEO Garry Ridge, it will be a very special session of personal and professional growth for top leaders and their teams. Join Us >

So, here we are, finally, at the dawn of the robots. At work, your organization is quite likely to be making use of machine learning to improve your analytics or streamline your customer service. In your personal life, you no longer have to manually turn the lights on or set a kitchen timer yourself—you can yell at your smart home device to do that hard labor for you, if you choose. And as helpful technologies take over more and more of our tasks, few of us will see our professional lives untouched. Around 30% of all occupations are expected to be fully automatable in time, and a third of the work done in 60% of occupations is already automatable with existing technology.  The Covid-19 pandemic only seems to have accelerated the pace of change.

That said, some types of work will remain hard to take away from human beings. In looking under the surface at task-level patterns, a research team at McKinsey found that: “the hardest activities to automate with currently available technologies are those that involve managing and developing people, or that apply expertise to decision making, planning, or creative work.”

In other words, humans are still uniquely well placed to connect with and inspire their colleagues—in fact, our brains are wired for it, given the right environment. And at our best, we are capable of displaying wisdom and innovation in situations where there is not only no clear right answer, but perhaps not even a clear definition of the issue at hand. This fuzziness remains harder for machines to cope with than for people.

Playing to human strengths

So for humans to thrive in a world of increasing automation, we should ensure that we are making the most of those distinctly human strengths. And that means we need to be deliberate about cultivating wisdom, empathy and creative problem-solving in our workplaces.

Many leaders have the right instincts on how to do this in their teams. But we can do better than instinct, because behavioral science is increasingly clear and precise on what it takes to encourage those human strengths in ourselves and others. Well-established insights from behavioral economics, psychology and neuroscience point to scores of small practical tweaks—to the way we run meetings, make decisions, and manage our time—that make it easier for humans to function at their cognitive and emotional best, by recognizing and working with the limitations and quirks of our brains. It isn’t hard to grasp the main principles.

Thinking clearly under pressure

Let’s take wisdom, for example. One important finding from recent decades of behavioral science research is the surprisingly stark intellectual impairment that results when someone feels mildly threatened, even by “threats” that are existential rather than physical.

If any of us perceive a hit to our sense of security, self-worth or social standing, our brain’s defensive mechanisms usually get triggered—and even at low levels of this kind of stress, research has found that this fight-flight-freeze response is associated with lower activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. That’s the brain region responsible for careful reasoning and forward thinking—which is why we’re generally not at our most brilliant or charming when stressed.

And it doesn’t take a lot to trigger this response. The perceived “threat” can be as mild as someone feeling a little out of their depth on a tough assignment, or underappreciated for some hard work, but it’s still enough to reduce a person’s cognitive capacity. Worst of all, this defensive reaction tends to happen just at the point when people need to rise to a challenge.

The good news is that boosting someone’s sense of competence and control can quickly dampen their brain’s defensive reaction so that they can think more clearly again. And once we know this, we can take a more effective approach to leading discussions of knotty issues.

For example, imagine that a team leader has called a meeting to discuss a crisis at work—perhaps one of their company’s self-driving trucks has crashed. The problem with this sort of situation is that it’s hard for the people involved to avoid freaking out at least a little, and that anxiety means they won’t be doing their best thinking about the solutions needed.

So, instead of leading with statements like: “OK guys, this is bad, we have to fix this,” a leader with a basic understanding of behavioral science might have learned to deploy one or two positive framing questions to help get their colleagues off the defensive. For example, they might ask something like: “When have we solved problems well in the past? And what does that tell us about what we might do now?” Or: “When we look back in a year’s time, what will we be proud of having done in this moment?” These sorts of questions aren’t glossing over the problem. The team still needs to understand what’s gone wrong. But by framing the problem in a way that re-injects a sense of possibility and purpose, a skillful leader can do a great deal to boost the collective IQ their team can bring to the table.

Resolving workplace disagreement

The same understanding of the human brain’s “defensive mode” can help a manager better understand how to resolve workplace disagreements more empathetically and effectively. If employees are increasingly focusing their time on gray-area situations where there isn’t one correct answer that can be computed by an AI, it’s likely that there will be ever more differences of opinion between people working on a project.

And the problem with disagreements is that when you’re in the middle of them, it all too easily feels as if your perspective isn’t getting a fair hearing —something that presents a pretty clear threat to the average brain. If either or both sides of the argument are in this defensive state of mind, intelligent debate becomes difficult.

But game theorist Anatol Rapaport developed a technique that neatly reduces the level of defensiveness on both sides, making it easier to resolve the dispute, and it isn’t hard to learn.

Its power lies in the first two steps.

Instead of starting with what you disagree with, you first articulate your antagonist’s point of view in a way that’s as compelling and generous as possible. (“If I understand you right, what you’re saying is… because…”). Second, you emphasize all the points where each of you agree. (“We’re completely aligned on these things…”) Only after that do you go on to explore the remaining points on which you truly do disagree, and what has shaped your different perspectives. (“The one area where we differ is…and I think that’s because…”)

This opening gambit emphasizes common ground, and makes the other person feel heard and their point of view at least partially respected. By reducing the sense of oppositional threat all around, it has found to make it easier for both sides to think expansively and find a collaborative way forward.

And a really future-proofed manager would not only learn to use this technique for themselves whenever they wanted to raise a concern about a colleague’s point of view. They would also become skilled in using this technique to facilitate discussion in team meetings where different points of view are present. “Let me summarize what I think each of you is saying and why each of you is probably right in a different way… this is where I am hearing that you agree… so it’s really only here that you disagree, correct? OK, so what can do based on this?”

Generating creative insight

A real understanding of the operating requirements of the human brain also shifts the way that good managers think about productivity and performance. Many leaders have grown up with an assumption that it’s a sign of mental toughness to push through tiredness and “put in the hours” when we have a heavy workload. And with always-on smartphones and instant messaging, it’s increasingly difficult to find a moment when we ever switch off from work completely.

And yet, in a world where all the obvious answers are generated by technology, what matters for us humans is our ability to generate fresh insights – and research is clear that our ability to think creatively about solutions is not helped by keeping our noses to the grindstone.

Reasoning, planning and self-control all require deliberate, conscious energy from our brain. And the brain’s “deliberate system” responsible for these functions gets fatigued fairly easily. As it gets progressively more exhausted, it becomes harder for us to concentrate, come up with ideas, and make good choices even in simple situations. This shows up in real-life situations very plainly. For example, researchers found that the longer it was since hospital workers had taken a break, the less likely it was that they were following basic hand hygiene rules that they knew to be important. So no wonder we get cranky at the end of a long meeting.

And yet, even small amounts of downtime sharpen our thinking. Studies have found that even stepping away from a task for two or three minutes results in us being able to see new and better solutions when we come back to the work.

So a smart leader encourages frequent breaks to allow colleagues to recharge their mind—and visibly models this in the way they manage their own time. If they notice creeping fatigue in a meeting room, whether it’s an in-person or virtual gathering, the boss might be more deliberate in suggesting everybody stands up and stretches their legs. They might develop a habit of finishing meetings 5-10 minutes before the top of the hour, to give everyone a micro-break before the next meeting. They might encourage people to go offline from time to time, or might request a moment of reflection at the end of a meeting (“so, let’s pause – what are we taking from this?”) to allow everybody to gather their thoughts on what to do next. All research points to this being a recipe for better focus and deeper insight on the work at hand.


There are scores of techniques and insights like these that emerge from practical application of insights in behavioral neuroscience, psychology, and economics. And as machines advance further and further into our working lives, giving behavioral science a bigger share of airtime in management training and coaching programs will go a long way to ensuring we make the most of the soft human machinery inside our heads.


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