Can you imagine what it was like for Ferdinand Magellan? Columbus had failed in his 1492 quest to reach the Indies – Southeast Asia – and had bumped into the Americas instead. The Portuguese had moved quickly to claim the eastern routes to Asia, so by 1519, the Spanish were desperate for a westward route that would secure trade with the Asian kingdoms.
Magellan’s fleet of five ships sailed from Seville to Brazil, and then from Brazil down the South American coastline. A new world unfolded for European eyes. Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire and Smoke. Patagonia, a land of giants. And on the eponymous straits, the Mar Pacifico. New worlds, new frontiers.
Our new frontier
Tapping into our 21st century laptops, one click on Google Earth shows there’s not a whole lot of terra incognito left. You can visit any country you want, and some modern adventurers have visited all 201 countries without even getting on a plane. You can even leave this planet entirely to visit Mars if you’re keen.
But there are still frontiers of knowledge, and one of the most exciting is neuroscience, the study of the brain. Using sophisticated technology such as fMRI and EEG machines and creative experiments, we’re starting to see that the art of leadership is also a science. We’re now beginning to learn what really works and what doesn’t work in terms of effective ways to engage those we manage and influence.
Five times a second
The “fundamental organizing principle of the brain” – neuroscientist Evan Gordon’s words – is the risk and reward response. As I understand it, about five times a second at an unconscious level your brain is scanning the environment around you and asking itself: Is it safe here? Or is it dangerous?
It likes safety, of course. When your brain feels safe, it can operate at its most sophisticated level. You’re more subtle in your thinking, able to see and manage ambiguity. You assume positive intent of those around you, and you’re able to tap collective wisdom. You’re engaged and you’re moving forward.
When the brain senses danger, there’s a very different response. Here it moves into the familiar fight or flight response, what some call the amygdala hijack. Things get black and white. Your assumption is “they” are against you, not with you. You’re less able to engage your conscious brain, and you’re metaphorically, if not literally, backing away.
And it’s not a balanced decision. For obvious evolutionary reasons, we’re biased to assume situations are dangerous rather than not. We may not be right, but over the course of humankind’s evolution, the successful survival strategy has been better to be safe than sorry.
In other words, if you’re not sure about a situation, you’ll default to reading it as dangerous and start backing away…
Wait, come back!
And this is the challenge for you as a busy and ambitious manager. You want those you interact with – your team, boss, customers and suppliers – to be moving forward rather than retreating. You want your people to stay engaged and feel that working with you is a place of reward, not risk. And you also realise that YOU want to feel like you’re not under threat too, so that you can stay at your smartest rather than in flight or fight mode.
So how do you influence others’ brains and your own so that situations are read as reward, not risk?
There are a number of key drivers that – again, at an unconscious level – send signals to brains about what sort of situation this is. One of those is a sense of autonomy.
“Do I get a say or don’t I?” That’s the question the brain is asking as it gauges the degree of autonomy you have in any situation. If you feel you do have a choice, then this is more likely to be a place of reward and therefore engagement. If you feel you don’t have a choice so much, then it becomes less safe for you.
Dan Pink picked this up in his fine book Drive. The Twitter summary of that book is “everything business thinks it knows about motivation is wrong”. Pink points to three factors that actually drive motivation and engagement: purpose, mastery and autonomy.
Ask this question
One simple habit you can begin to build immediately that will increase autonomy (and hence engagement) with those with whom you work is the way you begin a conversation. The default for most managers and leaders is to leap to the topic at hand. “Tell me what’s going on with Project X…” or whatever it might be.
Instead, think about beginning with a question. The most powerful opening question I know is this one: “What’s on your mind?” It does a brilliant job at increasing the sense of autonomy – you get to choose what you want to talk about – but at the same time being focused (talk to me about the thing you’re worried about, or excited about, or anxious about, or concerned about or overwhelmed by).
In general, questions tend to lift the sense of autonomy, but this is a particularly powerful one and a strong start to almost any one-to-one conversation.
Three other drivers
Autonomy is one of the factors behind the neuroscience of engagement, but not the only one. If you’re curious to learn what the other three factors are and how you can put them into action immediately in your own work, watch the webinar below with Michael Bungay Stanier of Box of Crayons.