Hardwired: how neuroscience powers projects

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Understanding brain chemistry can help you handle ambiguous situations, build strong relationships – and be a more effective project manager.

In an article for the spring edition of Project, Carole Osterweil gave a first-hand account of a real NHS project – Project 2020 – that had been undertaken in highly stressful and complex circumstances.

One of the concepts that helped her and the team through the fog was developing a framework that afforded project team members a way to share the burdens created by the uncertainty. Carole calls this ‘psychological safety’ and her thinking around it was shaped in part by David Rock’s work on the SCARF model.

SCARF is a mnemonic for five sources of social threat – status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness – that cause the brain to engage a kind of ‘fight or flight’ mode. When project team members unconsciously enter this state, anger, fear and shame become dominant emotions – and the results are erratic decisions, poor interactions with team members and inability to focus.

So what else do project managers and leaders need to understand about neuroscience and brain chemistry?

Brain chemistry: we’re addicted

A lot of neuroscience comes down to understanding that despite its complexity, the brain is a machine. Many of the emotions and actions we think of as conscious or ‘free will’ are actually triggered by the brain’s response to external stimulus – and the resultant release of chemicals to stimulate its various receptors.

For a project manager beset by emails, for example, the stress of seeing a crowded inbox will release certain chemicals (the primitive brain is hardwired to create discomfort from uncertainty), while resolving uncertainties or discovering new information triggers the release of chemicals that give a sense of relief.

“But when the amount of certain transmitters like noradrenaline and dopamine get too high, the circuits in your brain start to fall apart,” David Rock says. “You get to a point when you can only process new things if they’re significant enough to punch above the levels of adrenaline already present. You have to bring the levels down in order to create a bit of headroom that will allow you to manage complex thoughts.”

His advice? Don’t open your email – workload that will douse your brain in dopamine – until after lunch, and focus on high-level, creative thinking in the morning when your brain is fresh. It goes without saying that phone notifications are a no-no…

Neuroleadership: self-conscious thinking

Dr Rock also coined the term ‘neuroleadership’, the study of how the brain’s function affects self-awareness, awareness of others, insight, decision-making, and influencing. Knowledge of brain function and chemistry, he argues, can foster more mindful, focused attention on new management practices, effectively rewiring the brain.

The important thing for project leaders to consider is how the physical performance of the brain drives these qualities – not just their choice of words or behaviours. Leaders who acknowledge this can start to frame problems and development opportunities in the optimum way to embed sustainable change.

This opens up opportunities in several areas key to leadership development today:

  • Shifting from a fixed to a growth mindset.
  • Addressing embedded leadership patterns and resistance to change.
  • Becoming more mindful and addressing others’ emotional states.
  • Opening up personal and organisational culture to diversity and creativity.

Neuroplasticity: changing minds

This is the ability of the brain to modify its connections or rewire itself. In a medical context, neuroplasticity is crucial to helping stroke patients recover lost functionality and maintain brain function as we age. And for project managers generally, particularly those working on change or transformation projects, this concept is well worth exploring.

Why? Because in many cases new ways of working create that ‘fight or flight’ response from people whose neural pathways – the ways they think of themselves and the activities they do – have become very fixed. For people taking on new roles, and especially developing their leadership skills, consciously working on changing their response to stimulus can bed in new approaches more quickly.

This rewiring of the brain happens best when it’s relatively stress free, when it’s well rested and when the environment is conducive to adaptation. Typically that means creating a distraction-free environment that in key ways mirrors the situation in which the newly rewired brain will be operating.

Mirror neurons: see one, do one, teach one

Mirror neurons are cells that fire when we’re doing and observing any given action. So they play a big role in empathy and learning by imitation. It’s a system that translates visual information into an understanding of the intention of someone else’s actions; helps us appreciate others’ motivations; and builds self-awareness.

While the function of mirror neurons in human remains poorly understood, their discovery tells us something important about the way we interact with others. There are clearly implications for framing empathic responses. But they might also facilitate learning – by allowing us to simulate internally action we see and map them onto motor functions later.

Richard Young

Posted by Richard Young on 10th Jun 2019

About the Author

Richard Young is the consulting editor of Project
Project is the official journal of the Association for Project Management (APM).

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