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Why Great Leaders Focus on the Fundamentals in Change and Uncertainty


In understanding the neurological basis of our responses to threat during uncertainty, leaders can employ these two strategies to facilitate team effectiveness and wellbeing.

Why Great Leaders Focus on the Fundamentals in Change and Uncertainty

Leaders who are striving to build high performing teams and lead effectively continue to face the headwinds of constant and unrelenting change—defined by economic uncertainty, shifting geopolitics, disruptive technologies and most recently, a changing of the guard in Canberra.

Despite all of this uncertainty, change, and complexity, there’s one thing that has remained a constant:

The fundamentals of change leadership founded in the neurology of our mindsets and behaviour.

It is these key fundamentals that can guide us on how to focus on what really matters.

When building our capability to lead others, these fundamentals are an important place to start for 3 reasons:

  • Regardless of the personality profile or cultural background of the people we manage, the fundamentals remain consistent;
  • Mastering these fundamentals facilitates our success and effectiveness in all interactions, from managing staff, collaborating with peers, managing up and even our personal relationships; and importantly;
  • A focus on a practical tool kit allows us to immediately practice and ‘nudge’ our conversations. Through these nudges, we embed small changes into the DNA of our day and they become what we do, rather than something we need to remember to do.

Nudge theory shows that the positive impact of these small changes will be experienced by you and the people around you in the moment, and this positive reinforcement facilitates sustained behaviour change.

So the lesson for the modern leader is simple – your next conversation is an opportunity to nudge.

The neurology of leadership    

As we learn more about the brain, we discover how to manage our brain chemistry to facilitate greater problem solving, creativity and innovation, as well as reframe stress and pressure to our advantage. The centre piece of understanding how to apply this in the workplace is the battle between two brain structures – the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system.

The prefrontal cortex [PFC] is responsible for your executive functioning, which is any time you need to learn something new, remember something, analyse information or make a complex decision. In times of change or uncertainty, we need our PFC to be at its best in order to survive, let alone trive.

One factor that gets in the way of this clear thought and analysis is the limbic system, which is responsible for our emotive responses. Our limbic system is vital for our survival and as such, its responses are fast and powerful. Anytime that we’re even a little anxious, frustrated or uncertain, our limbic system quickly absorbs our cognitive resources [oxygen and glucose] leaving next to nothing for the poor PFC. In fact, over 30% of our cognitive function can be wiped out in a second.

As leaders, what we do has an amplified impact on the limbic systems of our staff. On the positive side, when we promote a reward state, we create a psychologically safe environment conducive to higher order thinking, better decision making, enhanced relationships and higher levels of creativity and innovation.

However, when we create a threat in the limbic system even when unintended, the brain releases very aggressive neuro chemicals and hormones into the brain and body, adrenaline being a common example. When in this fight / flight mode, the quality of our thinking is compromised and if we remain in this state for an extended period it is damaging to our mental and physical wellbeing.

As a leader, our first priority is to remove the threat response and then lead in a way that promotes the reward response. If we do things that stimulate both, the threat response will always win every time because it’s faster, stronger and longer lasting.

In his paper “Managing with the Brain in Mind,” David Rock discusses the 5 levers that we have as leaders that can promote both a threat response and a reward response [the SCARF model]. Knowing these SCARF responses helps us to promote environments where are staff are at their best.

A fundamental toolkit   

Leadership, as with anything in our life and career, requires mastery of the basics. While leadership development programs are often focused on highly complex and transformational skills, we estimate that less than 10% of leaders consistently do the basics well. Without mastery of these fundamentals, the next level of capability building will be short lived at best.

In this article we focus on two in a series of leadership fundamentals that reduce SCARF threat and promote reward: providing effective feedback and praise.

Providing effective feedback    

Positive and corrective feedback represent both missed or underutilised opportunities for leaders. While corrective feedback can be complex, a few simple rules allow the leader and the individual to make the most of the learning opportunity.

Firstly, by using specific examples, leaders are able to keep the feedback conversation objective and focused on development. You are both on the same side, looking at the same information.

Second, when feedback is regular and immediate, there are no surprises for staff and they are developed ‘in the moment’. The 2016 McKinsey article “Ahead of the curve: The future of performance” describes the macro shift away from formal performance reviews to regular feedback conversations.

Finally, using praise to promote a limbic reward state creates a conversational environment more open to challenging feedback and wires the brain for learning.


This final point is based on the dopamine response which represents another missed opportunity for leaders – the use of praise. When we provide even seemly small amounts of praise for completing a basic task, dopamine leaks into the brain which not only feels good, it correlates to greater learning outcomes and is addictive.

In fact, University of Pennsylvania [2009] found that leaders who regularly use praise experienced a 31% boost in team productivity, and Harvard Business Review [2013] found that the ideal ratio of praise to correction in high performance teams is 5:1.

In any team there are plentiful untapped opportunities for leaders to praise their staff. Leaders who do this as part of their everyday are better equipped to build and lead high performing teams. As a further benefit, decades of positive psychology research shows that these leaders are also rewarded with higher level of wellness, happiness and resilience

Other skills in the fundamental toolkit are delegating, leadership communication, managing underperformance and having career conversations which we’ll cover in this series. Starting with the neurology of leadership and supporting leaders with the 2-3 fundamental skills most relevant to them at the time boosts leadership impact scores by 10% – 30% within 6 weeks.

With these fundamentals mastered, leaders can then be stretched with more advanced leadership skills with a higher degree of complexity, linked to the strategic drivers of the organisation.

About the Author
Christopher Paterson is Managing Partner at SMG. With a background in business psychology and three decades of experience on the global stage, Christopher specialises in behaviour change on an individual and organisational level.



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