The Neuroscience of Leadership: Practical Applications

Neuroscience is the study of how the nervous system—and brain—works. New advances in the field of neuroscience may help us unravel the physiology of leadership effectiveness. Enter neuroleadership, a term coined by David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work. 

Neuroleadership focuses on applying neuroscience to leadership development, management training, change management education and consulting, and coaching. A new whitepaper, The Neuroscience of Leadership: Practical Applications, authored by Kimberly Schaufenbuel, program director of UNC Executive Development, examines this emerging field and provides examples of how applying neuroleadership can improve leadership practices, change management, innovation and creativity, and employee engagement. 


The whitepaper outlines how HR and talent management professionals can readily apply neuroscience findings to their leadership development activities. For example, the whitepaper highlights the neuroscience behind trust and relationship building. “Resonant leaders open pathways in their employees’ brains that encourage engagement and positive working relationships,” writes Schaufenbuel. 

“Neuroscience findings are helping to connect the dots between human interaction and effective leadership practices. As the mapping of the human brain continues, we can expect to learn more about how the brain functions and how leaders can use this knowledge to best lead people and organisations,” explains Schaufenbuel. 

Change management 

Neuroscience confirms something that HR professionals have known for a long time: People fear change. In fact, because of the way the brain is hardwired for survival, change is almost always perceived as a threat. This deeper understanding of the fear of change has widespread implications for how HR and talent management professionals approach change management. 

According to Schaufenbuel, “HR professionals and leaders should try to reduce stress and anxiety by focusing on the positive aspects of the proposed change, asking questions, and listening actively to employees’ concerns. This process enhances the brain’s ability to adjust its response to the change and perceive it as non-threatening.” 


The whitepaper reports that neuroscientists have uncovered two capabilities of the human brain tied to innovation and creative thinking. First, there is the “default network,” which has the ability to transcend or “envision what it may be like to be in a different place or time.” Meanwhile, the “control network” is the area of the brain that keeps people on task. 

HR and talent management professionals can engage the default network to encourage innovation and the control network to encourage focus. Schaufenbuel advises organisations to establish programs similar to those at Google and Maddock Douglas that “allow employees protected time to work on an inspired project of their choice that advances the organisation in some way.” Likewise, companies may want to establish blocks of time when employees turn off email and phones so they can focus their brains on a specific assignment rather than multitasking.

To learn more about the application of neuroscience on organisational leaders and their effectiveness, download The Neuroscience of Leadership: Practical Applications.

Source: Ryann K.Ellis, Editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD)