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Veterinary Forum December 2009 (Vol 26, No 12)

Business Skills — Mindset or mental meltdown?

by Thomas E. Catanzaro, DVM, MHA, FACHE

    Understanding why you react is one of the keys to effective leadership.

    I recently received an e-mail that made me angry. It was from a company that I had been talking to for 2 months to resolve a problematic computer purchase. Although I had written repeatedly asking for the correction of certain hardware and software shortcomings, which were costing me time and money, I still felt as if I was getting nowhere.

    As with many IT support issues, the company wanted payment up front. However, my problem was with a service and a computer system that I had already paid for, and for which the company had promised a solution on multiple occasions. The company even sent me replacement hardware but had forgotten to load the software that I had prepurchased, and it wanted me to pay the postage to return its mistake.

    The e-mail made my face turn red and my heart rate rise. At first, I wanted to draft an e-mail to the company's corporate headquarters, possibly starting a war of words that no one would win. Hours of productive time would be lost on both sides, and no one would be happy in the end.

    This conflict response is an example of the irrational, nonproductive, mindless behavior that is being examined in the current corporate market. This field of study is called neuroleadership in the current literature. The term was coined by David Rock, author of Quiet Leadership. Neuroscience-based research about leadership is appearing in health care and universities in Australia, Europe, and the United States. Neuroleadership involves teaching executives about their brains to foster awareness of what pushes "hot buttons," and to show leaders how to control their own neurofunctions. To put it briefly, no one can lead others until he or she can lead himself or herself.

    The science of neuroleadership focuses on the limbic system and the functions of various chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine and adrenaline, which affect behavior. Neuroleadership aims to help us understand the reward and threat circuitry of the brain and how we react to a perceived threat to our status, autonomy, or sense of fairness.

    It is interesting to note that salary increases, corporate recognition and praise activate our reward circuitry similar to the activation experienced by an animal that receives a treat or has captured a meal. It is not a stretch to recognize that staff members may unconsciously feel that micromanagement is a threat to their survival. Micromanaging workers from Generations X or Y has been shown to decrease productivity because their brains signal that their autonomy is being threatened. Most people perform more creatively when heading toward an outcome rather than away from a threat (e.g., a controlling or demanding boss). It has been noted that even a small amount of uncertainty generates an error response in the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain, taking attention away from a person's goals.

    Studies have shown that people given an intranasal dose of oxytocin, a hormone that aids in interpersonal bonding, collaborate more with coworkers and are happier at work. Release of the chemical can be stimulated in most people by enhancing social networking and interaction in the workplace. Leaders can create a cohesive workplace culture by using the "carrot," and leaving out the "stick." This can be achieved by increasing recognition and reward, introducing flexible work hours and allowing employees more autonomy and networking time to achieve well-defined goals, rather than focusing on time clock–based processes.

    Knowledge of our minds is a tool of effective leadership. However, training our brains and attitudes is not as easy as it sounds. Leadership skills can be taught and integrated into a personal leadership style, but they require total commitment to change and a focus on clear outcomes and expectations rather than processes — concepts that may be alien to many members of the baby boom generation.

    For more information:

    Catanzaro T. Building The Successful Veterinary Practice: Leadership Tools, vol. 1. Wiley-Blackwell; 1997.

    Rock D. Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work. New York: HarperCollins; 2006.

    Siegel D. The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. New York: WW Norton & Co; 2007.

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