Neuroscience and Ethical Leadership (Part 2) SPEED

by Andrew Leigh, Featured Contributor

Part 2 of a Four-Part Series and White Paper
(See Part 1: What Neuroscience Can Tell Us About Ethical Leadership)

Visual-illusion1Take a quick look at the picture here. What do you see? Some say an old lady in a fur coat and long dress walking in a town square. Others report a huge face staring out at them.

{Try viewing the picture through almost closed eyelids and the big face should jump out at you!}

This shows how the brain conserves energy so we get instant answers based on patterns and past experience. In essence, the brain races to conclusions and sometimes its speed is mind-blowing.

A tennis ball from the fastest first server is quicker than a rubber bullet, briefly accelerating fifty times that of the Sun’s gravity. Serves are even getting faster, with a scientific paper in 2009 concluding: “Serve speeds are now higher than they have ever been and the number of aces continues to rise.”

So how do tennis players ever cope? Certainly not by carefully thinking about their response to the ball hurtling towards them. They have to act instinctively, relying on the brain’s sheer speed to trigger an instant reaction.

This tendency of the brain to prefer short-cuts means we will only start looking at the world afresh if we bombard it with new experiences, perspectives or hard to ignore information. Newness counts, not originality.

We’re hard-wired to recognise novelty as a survival tool. Our brains are trained to look for new and interesting things and when we do this the “reward” areas of the brain become activated. It releases the same chemicals that give a mental high to gamblers and drug users.


action1• Ethical leaders who want to have more of an impact need to keep using fresh and unusual ways to remind stakeholders of how important values and ethics are to success.

• Quite simply, keep changing how you speak about ethics and values and regularly share engaging new stories and experiences about how they affect customers, employers, and suppliers.

Here are three more areas of Speed that suggest practical action: Classify; Intuit; Bias

CLASSIFY: The brain quickly classifies people into whether they’re part of an in-group or an out-group

If you see a shabbily dressed person in the street apparently talking loudly to no one nearby, how do you first react?
Today, you’d probably assume they’re using a mobile phone, with an ear piece and mic. Just a few years back you might have decided instead they were mentally unstable.

Brain science is producing new insights into how bias affects our responses, and what this means for our own and other people’s behaviour.

The Amygdala—the chunk of the brain that makes immediate decisions—is a total speed addict that makes even Formula 1 racing look positively snail-like.

It takes all of 300 milliseconds for you to become aware of a disturbing event but the amygdalae react to it within 20 milliseconds. If you’re going at 100 mph, you would travel about two inches in one millisecond.

Speed and the brain’s tendency to instantly classify help explain why a whistle blower who challenges a company over its ethics or business practices may be instantly consigned to an out-group by its leaders. Once in that role they are treated as threatening, rather than as part of an in-group, trying to be supportive or loyal.


action1• Our brains prefer to take well-used pathways instead of making a more considered response. A tired or hurried leader who reacts quickly to ethical issues may therefore undermine the part of their brain that is responsible for controlling bias.
• When dealing with ethics, brain science suggests the importance of avoiding speedy judgements. Ethical issues are often complex and require careful analysis and consideration.

INTUIT: Poor moral judgements usually stem from fast, automatic evaluations–intuitions

zipped-mouth1To “save” his company from collapse, the CEO of a leading aero engine maker justified lying to auditors about his company’s safety record. His instinct was to avoid putting his company at risk, even though there were safety considerations.

Having built a successful enterprise his response was defensive and he failed to reveal the safety problems for an auditor’s report. He did not think through the longer term safety and ethical implications of staying silent.

When making ethical decisions it’s often too late to rely on codes and regulations for people to make the right choices. No matter what the rules say, people will rationalise, that is, they’ll find “logical” reasons for doing something, even if it seems morally or ethically to the rest of us.

There are many examples of this happening, most recently the high profile GM starter motor scandal where people justify dubious means by using desirable ends, despite the existence of clear guidelines.

How do such decisions get made? Based on different stimuli, neuroscientists can see which parts of the brain become oxygenated—or “lit up.” But there’s no one place where ethical decision-making occurs.

We’d like to think our brain behaves like a judge making an impartial decision. Instead neuroscience concludes it behaves more like a dodgy lawyer justifying a decision already made.



• Assume no amount of compliance training will substitute for encouraging and helping employees to use their personal judgement.
• Give people practice at dealing with difficult ethical choices. Help them get in touch with how they feel about them so that they take time to realise and then work through the implications.
• The need to listen to their inner voice. So find imaginative ways to help employees learn to do this and discover what their inner voice tells them.

BIAS: Previous experiences bias outcomes

BLACK-AND-WHITE1“Racially prejudiced? Me? Absolutely not!”

Thanks to imaging machines and the personal computer, researchers can now peer inside previously elusive parts of the mind and brain, dealing with prejudice.

Neuroimaging studies for example, show how we react to faces. It has been found that there is more brain response when European-American subjects look at the face of other European-Americans than there is when they see African-American faces.

This reveals we have a reaction to another race whether we realise it or not, and whether we want it or not. Until recently it’s been difficult to study implicit or unconscious bias, just because it is unconscious!

In fact we’re riddled with bias and may not even be aware of it, which has major ethical implications. The brain is always assessing whether we have met a situation before—and recalling how it worked out. This influences reactions that we cannot even control.

Many employers now offer unconscious bias training –a ten-fold increase in five years but most are a long way from actually reducing the impact of bias. Bias in important for many reasons, perhaps the most important is it deters diversity which is a basic underpinning of creativity and innovation.

Implicit bias—stuff that lies hidden in our subconscious–does not typically surface as open prejudice. Instead it’s revealed through non-nonverbal behaviors, such as having more uncomfortable interactions, less eye contact, and more blinking.

Others can read these nonverbal reactions. Quite simply they “know” when the other person has bias. This should be of great interest to ethical leaders bent on creating growth, who seek to build a culture that treats people fairly, values diversity and recruits talent.

Brain speed helps one decide quickly whether to get close to a person, a deal, a situation or whether to back away. The trouble is previous emotional experiences can distort the outcome without us even realising what’s happening.



• You cannot just think your bias or prejudices away.
• Knowing we perceive a situation in a particular way even if we think we’re objective; this suggest giving more thought to reasoning strategies that leaders use.
• Take the inbuilt bias of our brains into account in the many ethical choices you help resolve by for example asking:

“Have we truly thought about this situation and its implications?”
“What might we be missing in the decision process?”
“How could we take an entirely fresh approach to this dilemma?”

“If everyone’s agrees about something, can we create disagreement to nurture a more diverse response?”

Part 3 of 4 Neuroscience and Ethical Leadership will be published next week. A combined White Paper will be published at the end of September 2014.


Andrew Leigh
Andrew Leigh
ANDREW is author of Ethical Leadership, (Kogan Page 2013) and writes regularly at He believes business needs to re-discover the importance of ethics and integrity. As an expert on leadership Andrew writes regularly on ways to help managers be more effective as ethical leaders. His blog stays close to the zeitgeist with a unique perspective on many aspects of leading organisations ethically, including compliance, and engagement. Andrew is a joint founder in 1989 of Maynard Leigh Associates ( pioneers of using ideas from theatre in business. He was a hands-on practising manager for many years in the public sector, ending his time on the front line running a division with over 1000 staff. Andrew also spent several years as a business and financial journalist, including time at The Observer newspaper. He has written over 20 books on management, leadership teams and so on. Originally trained as an economist, he is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. He is available for speaking engagements, interviews, feature articles and consultancy.

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