Neuroscience and Ethical Leadership (Part 3) COMPLEXITY

by Andrew Leigh, Featured Contributor

Part 3 of a Four-Part Series and White Paper
(See Part 1 and Part 2)


A WASHROOM attendant employed at a Boeing factory was once asked: “what what exactly do you do?” Airplane - Airport - TravelHis answer “I’m helping to build an airliner” sums up an important way our brain works—we first need to see to grasp the big picture.

We tend to look for “meaning” first and detail second.

Brain science shows that humans are more willing to respond in behaviour terms when they understand the route map, before the see the individual roads or points of interest along the way.

When trying to make sense of information our brains scan for a few important elements to grasp—patterns, familiarity, previous experience—anything that gives an overview. Once we have this firm impression we tend to use it as a backdrop for our interest in the fine details.

action1Put your ethical message into a broad context. For example, rather than explain or stress the importance of codes, rules and regulations, take people on a journey.

Show people the totality of what it means to run a responsible business and why this is important.

By answering the big questions people are asking, often silently in their heads, you can provide them with the vision they need to grasp the whole: Questions such as “Why does it matter our company is a responsible one?”, “What does being an ethical company mean to you the leader“, and “How will we create a sustainable business?”

Here are three more areas of Complexity that imply action

Powerful thinkers use complex gestures

You know your subject and you’re sure that you have a sensible ethical message. Yet before you even open your mouth the rest of your body does the work for you.

Research confirms that effective communicators use complex gestures and body language. These give listeners confidence, win attention, underline messages and build authenticity. Highly trained by evolution, our brains absorb them without us consciously having to think about them. Gestures are a window to your thoughts

action1The message from neuroscience is a dry, neutral message about “why ethics are important to our company” won’t work.

Embody the message with every fibre of your being.

Find a visually powerful way to express your message, don’t just rely on words

Become the message, explain why it’s important using your whole body.

Infuse your ethical message with with energy and enthusiasm. Your non-verbal language is more likely to work if the message is authentic, coming from within.

Intuition develops through experience—right action can be made a habit

Brain studies show our intuition can be shaped rather like a chess player improves their ability to excel at Brain - Thought - Idea - Ideasthe game.

Success in chess does not come just from playing a lot, but also thinking through each move and seeing what works, until the player feels” the right course of action.

Neuroscience reveals we can rewire our brains for new lasting habits and ways of being. The fancy name is neuroplasticity, meaning people can restructure their grey matter. However, you don’t do it just by stating an intention and hoping for change. That’s why New Year’s resolutions, for example, seldom work.

Neuroplasticity is encouraging because leaders now know that if they can initially change someone’s behaviour this can be turned into a habit. Put simply, doing the right thing at work can happen regularly through practice and repetition.

action1Encourage your people to keep practising ethical decision making so they learn to follow their instincts of doing what’s right.

Talking about ethics is not enough. Create actions tied closely to people’s feelings and experience.

Constantly ask “Did that ethical decision work?” to stimulate regular feedback and get people used to making better kinds of decisions.

To encourage more ethical engagement, help people learn to trust their intuition over what is right and what is wrong. Help them get in touch with their moral compass.

What drives social behaviour is the desire to minimize threats and maximize rewards

I have a cunning plan” promised Baldrick, the miserable, low-life sidekick in the TV comedy series planBlackadder.

What he proposed was always funny because you knew it was neither cunning nor a real plan.

In contrast, social neuroscience suggests there is a grand plan at work in the brain, and unlike Baldrick’s, this one works.

First, as far as possible, the brain works hard to avoid threats, and tries to go for the most rewards.

Secondly, the brain treats this desire much like the need for food and water—it has a high priority. The urge to minimise threats and maximise rewards is therefore extremely powerful and helps to explain much of basic human behaviour.

As two brain scientists explain, this means a new role for managers

Not as people who memorize motivational theories and blindly apply them to an anonymous workforce, but as enlightened leaders who understand that people are unique…knowledge of the brain offers advice on motivating and de-motivating them.

Most leaders know about the power of giving positive feedback. Neuroscience shows that the brain responds strongly to it, but much less if it’s negative feedback.

There is even a place in the brain—the basal ganglia—where this “reward” activity keeps happening. It continues throughout our lives regardless of age. Quite simply we never tire of receiving encouragement!

Encouragement is mainly better at producing social behaviour than punishment say neuroscientists.

Various studies for example, show the promise of reward—whether a good grade or a promotion—promotes more learning than the threat of punishment. Anticipating rewards uses different brain circuits to those used for punishment.

action1Find ways to create an environment which aims to maximise rewards and minimises threats.

Keep encouraging people to think and talk about their ethical behaviour and be sure to offer support for doing so.

The old idea that it’s wrong to make a fuss about people doing what’s right since they should be doing this anyway. This runs counter to what the brain scientists have found works in promoting desirable behaviour.

Part 4/4 of Neuroscience and Ethical Leadership, exploring Relationships, appears next week. A full White Paper will be available shortly afterwards.


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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