Leadership, Emotions and the Workplace: What’s Neuroscience Got to Do with It?

Draw on the powerful combination of proven leadership theory, an appreciation of the ‘emotional landscape’ [within ourselves and in the experience of others] and the insights from neuroscience to create a work environment that is safe, productive, innovative and sustainable.


Fred Jacques

How do we tie together the key and, at times, not obviously related domains of leadership and emotions at work? One important trend today is the focus on psychological safety in the workplace. How is it defined? There are many variations on that theme, but they all come down to these common characteristics: the ability to be vulnerable, to take risks and to learn without fear of punishment or embarrassment. Leaders have a key role to play in enabling and establishing the workplace environment where people feel ‘safe’ in every respect of that word. A multiyear study at Google[1] identified psychological safety as the most important factor in creating successful teams, and an article in Harvard Business Review[2] stated that the outcomes of a psychologically safe workplace are precisely those that enable firms to achieve market breakthroughs.

Not surprisingly, the key element in creating psychological safety is the absence of fear. Fear is a primal emotion, and it sparks an avoidance reaction: we want to move away from those factors that create a sense of fear in us. This seems intuitive to most of us and it is verified by the insights being provided on the new frontiers of neuroscience. What is less obvious is the realization that – whether consciously or not – the policies and practices that we develop and employ in the workplace, and our behaviour – especially if we are in a leadership role – are often precisely the factors that stimulate that fear/avoidance response. How likely are we to be vulnerable and to take risks if the downside is that we might be ridiculed, demeaned or discounted? What if we do not sense that our leader “has our back”?

The ‘flip side’ of course, is how do we engender that sense of safety and encourage an environment that stimulates positive emotions such as optimism, pride, excitement and appreciation? People move ‘toward’ the situations that provide that form of ‘emotional reward’ and have the comfort and confidence to take more risks, engage in innovation, and be confidently productive. Again, the answer to ‘how’ is rooted in our choice of workplace practices, approaches and leadership behaviours.

In our Emotionally Intelligent Leader program we draw on leadership wisdom, as well as insights from neuroscience, to gain an understanding of how to shape a workplace and lead in a way that creates a ‘safe space’ for individuals to bring forth their best contribution. Understanding Emotional Intelligence (EI) is an important gateway to that desired workplace. We need to know and understand ourselves first as individuals – and leaders - to be able to identify and positively regulate our own emotions so that we do not unknowingly stimulate a negative work environment. This is where practices such as mindfulness can help to enhance our self-awareness and enable us to better ‘modulate’ our emotions to both lead in the way that we wish to and contribute to creating that ‘psychological safety net’ for those around us.

It also means ‘tuning in’ to the emotional state and needs of those around us – colleagues, team members, even clients – through practices such as empathy, which help to establish the foundation for a safe and productive work environment. This consideration towards others also helps to create a sense of ‘collective emotional intelligence’ at the team level.

Neuroscience and the recent insights offered through the use of functional MRI’s, actually allow us to ‘see’ what is going on in an individual brain when a person is subjected to fear-induced avoidance responses or reward-inducing impulses from positive practices. This provides a scientific basis for us to better understand the behaviours that we see in the workplace and also outlines a roadmap of how to lead more effectively for positive results.

The work of Dr. David Rock of the Neuroleadership Institute has given us the SCARF[3] model as a guide to our thinking and actions in creating an emotionally and psychologically safe workplace. SCARF – an acronym for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness – delineates what happens in the neural system when our workplace practices stimulate a threat versus a reward response. For instance, as a leader if we are unduly harsh or unfair in the assessment of a team member in a performance review, or the review process itself is seen as arbitrary in its design or application, that creates a threat to that person’s Status in the organization. The brain interprets this threat as it would a physical threat to that person’s well-being, and the brain initiates a ‘threat-appropriate response’. This stimulates the secretion of adrenalin and cortisol – the stress hormones – which increase heart rate, narrow our focus/perspective and drive neural energy into reducing the perceived threat. Not exactly a pathway to productivity!

The good news? Insight can lead to improvement! As leaders we now have more ‘tools’ at our disposal to better understand the work environment and the individuals with whom we work. We can enhance our effectiveness by drawing on the powerful combination of proven leadership theory, an appreciation of the ‘emotional landscape’ [within ourselves and in the experience of others] and insights from neuroscience to create a work environment that is safe, productive, innovative and sustainable. We can better understand how to engage staff in the development of practices and procedures that enable confidence rather than engender fear; we can appreciate how to better implement and communicate organizational change; and we can help to develop and sustain a sense of cohesion and connection within work teams that elevates their ‘collective emotional intelligence’ and takes performance to the next level: personally and organizationally.

Interested in further developing those insights? Join us for the Emotionally Intelligent Leader program and learn with a diverse group of colleagues united in the intent to use both ‘the brain and the heart’ to be successful leaders with fully engaged people and sustainable organizations!

[1] Rozovksy, J. (2015). The five keys to a successful Google team (https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/: November 17).
[2] Delizonna, L. (2017). High-performing teams need psychological safety: Here’s how to create it. Harvard Business Review (HBR.org: August 24).
[3] Rock, D. (2009). Managing with the Brain in Mind. Strategy and Business (August, No. 56)