Thursday, August 13, 2020
Monday, 18 March 2019 13:26

Leadership Through the Lens of Neuroscience

Written by Kim E. Ruyle, Ph.D.

Why do we have a brain? This is not a rhetorical question. Pause for a moment and reflect on why we have this remarkable organ encased in our skull, an organ that is the most complex object we know of in the entire universe. A simplistic answer is that we have a brain in order to survive. Sure, that’s not a bad answer, but it’s not a complete answer. There are plenty of organisms that survive without anything like the organ that is our brain. We do indeed have brains to ensure our survival, but more specifically, our brains enable us to move1 toward things that ensure our survival and away from things that threaten our survival. At the risk of oversimplification, let’s consider two of the major differences between plants and animals. First, unlike plants, animals have a nervous system that (in higher order animals, at least) includes a brain. Second, unlike plants, animals self-propel themselves. Animals move. It’s our need to move that might best explain why we have a brain.

Some neuroscientists refer to the 4Fs2, a cheeky mnemonic to help us consider the movements undertaken to ensure our survival. In regard to threats, there are two typical responses – Fight and Flee. And in terms of movements toward opportunities that ensure our survival, we have Feed and, because we need to procreate to ensure survival of our species, we have the fourth F – “Fool around.”

Adding to the need to move and using a definition from physics, we might add that we have brains in order to work – work being defined as moving mass through a distance. Work in the modern world often doesn’t involve much physical movement (although you may have occasionally wished a coworker would move their lazy mass and do something productive). Work in the modern world does frequently involve analysis, decision making, predicting, reading, writing, and influencing. The human brain enables all those things and more.

For HR professionals, it can be very insightful to understand that movement isn’t restricted to physical movement. We also move in affect. We move attitudinally with approach and avoidance behaviors. The 4Fs aren’t limited to responses to physical threats and rewards. Psychological threats and opportunities can be tremendously powerful, and understanding how the brain processes threats and rewards is a key to leveraging neuroscience to enhance our talent management practices and improving the quality of leadership in our organizations. In fact, we might define leadership as creating unified attitudinal movement in a defined group. By adopting particular approach/avoidance behaviors, members of the group become followers. In short, understanding how the brain processes threats and rewards can help us become better leaders.


Understanding motivation and engagement is central to effective leadership, but motivation is a thorny issue. Of the many theories that have been developed to explain human motivation, no single theory provides a complete explanation. Neuroscientists, though, have had some success in identifying reward centers in the brain that are activated by the motivational factors identified by various theories.

The stimulation of the reward network is fairly complex and includes components of the limbic system and portions of the prefrontal cortex. In simplest terms, it can be said that when stimuli provoke a need or desire, the reward network produces certain neurotransmitters, especially dopamine, a hormone, which generates pleasure and promotes approach behaviors, which has implications for talent management.

A goal of leadership is to motivate employees with consistency, with predictable consequences, to create a sense of urgency without unnecessarily introducing threat. There is some overlap of reward and threat networks in the brain, and most managers find it very difficult to generate threat-free urgency. Those who do will be rewarded with a far more productive workforce and higher retention.

The following factors are identified as motivators by various theories and have shown to activate reward centers in the brain:

• Extrinsic Needs: There are basic physiological needs that are essential for survival – air, food, water, shelter, and sex. Other extrinsic motivators may also have significant intrinsic value. Tangible rewards often carry intangible value. Money is the quintessential extrinsic motivator and, because it’s supremely fungible, can be used to meet physiological needs. But money can also provide intrinsic value. For some, money is a scorecard, of sorts, that indicates status.

• Intrinsic Needs: There are a wide variety of intrinsic motivators that vary in power between individuals. Achievement is a powerful motivator for many and can take different forms – achieving career goals, achievement in learning and development of expertise, and winning in competitive environments. The achievement of goals can be a powerful motivator, and when a person is prevented from achieving a goal, the brain typically reacts as if punished. Affiliation, autonomy, and recognition are powerful motivational levers for many, and managers should be well versed in how to apply those levers. Although the brain likes certainty, a certain level of novelty that doesn’t cross into threatening territory is seen as rewarding. An approach tendency toward novelty supports learning, and novelty is the basis of play and humor, activities the brain finds rewarding.

• Expectancy and Proximity: The brain’s reward centers are more sensitive to rewards that are more highly valued, are more certain, and are closer temporally, in timing of delivery. That may be stating the intuitively obvious, but what’s perhaps not obvious is that individuals value rewards differently and assess the probability of receiving rewards differently, too. Everyone’s behavior makes sense to them. When managers fail to understand why an individual is not motivated, it’s likely they’re using their own lens to view the world rather than exercising empathy and seeking to understand the lens through which their employee is seeing the world.

• Fairness: There is a growing body of research that indicates that humans are very sensitive to equity. We view fairness as rewarding and inequity as threatening. In fact, we tend to find the punishment of inequity to be rewarding. We seek fairness for ourselves and for our ingroup, and our inherent bias for fairness and associated good attentions can lead us to misapply equity in the workplace. Since each individual values rewards differently, equal treatment can be perceived by employees as basically unfair. This is another case when managers are well served by practicing empathy and applying differential treatment that is meaningful to individuals.

• Punishment Avoidance: Our brains are wired to seek opportunities and also to avoid threats, and there is a distinct portion of the reward network that is activated by threat avoidance.


Threat Networks

To understand employee behavior and how to best lead talent, it’s also important for us to understand how the brain perceives threats. Generally, threats create stronger and sometimes more unpredictable emotional responses. Physical threats are readily identified, and we rarely (hopefully!) have to deal with them in the workplace. On the other hand, psychological threats are less easily identified, and the workplace is teeming with potential psychological threats that can disengage employees and create all manner of unpredictable and undesired approach/ avoidance behaviors. Understanding the source and impact of psychological rewards and threats is key to analyzing and predicting individual and organizational performance.

While there are countless possible psychological threats perceived by the brain, they generally fall into two broad categories. The first includes threats to our sense of control. Stress, in fact, is a response to a perceived loss of control. Our ability to survive depends on us being able to accurately perceive our environment, to make predictions with some degree of certainty, and to confidently choose movements within our environment that will enhance our survival. Anything that creates loss of control and interferes with that ability will be deemed a psychological threat. There’s no wonder then that we like certainty and hate ambiguity. We love being right and hate being wrong. The brain wants – needs – to be in control.

The second significant category of psychological threats is to our sense of belonging. Humans are social animals. We organize in groups in order to survive, and our brains are extremely sensitive to exclusion from our group. When our standing within our group is threatened, the brain perceives a threat. This can happen when we’re socially rejected, embarrassed, bullied, ignored, or slighted in any way.

A threat, whether physical or psychological, triggers an emotional response proportional to the perceived level of threat. Emotions aren’t just “feelings.” Emotions are physical responses. When the brain perceives a serious threat, the sympathetic nervous system is activated to initiate a fight or flight response. The sympathetic nervous system has a counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in control of autonomic processes and emotions in the absence of threat. This is sometimes referred to as a state of “resting and digesting” or “feeding and breeding.” Calm states also do create emotions and physical changes in brain chemistry and behavior, though they are generally less pronounced than those generated by the sympathetic nervous system. Whatever the case, our ability to recognize the source and intensity of our emotions (and the emotions of others) and to modulate them is a measure of our emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence contributes to leadership success, and even more so, lack of emotional intelligence contributes to derailment.

Tolerance for Threats – Implications for Leadership and Leader Development

It’s important for talent management professionals to understand how to assess personality and apply their understanding when making predictions and decisions about talent.

It’s also interesting and valuable to consider personality through the framework of the brain’s threat and reward networks. The limbic system initiates emotional responses to opportunities and threats which lead to movement, often affective movement that manifests itself in approach or avoidance behaviors. The individual emotional responses that people make to opportunities and threats is a way to describe personality, and it follows then that variance seen in individual personalities is mirrored in individuals’ differing tolerance for threats and sensitivity to rewards.

The arousal curve is used in psychology to illustrate the relationship between arousal (stress) and performance as indicated in Figure 1. It indicates that a certain amount of stress or pressure to perform serves to elevate focus and performance up to an optimum level, at which point increased stress leads to a drop off in performance.

performancelevel of comfort

Individuals have different tolerance levels for stress – some people can juggle three balls, but add a fourth and they’re no longer in control. Others can barely manage to juggle two balls. The point is that each individual has their own arousal curve, and this can be extrapolated from generalized stress to any particular threat or reward.

As an example, let’s consider two individuals, Jane and June, who are in a leadership development program that incorporates a variety of development activities. In the morning, without any significant time to prepare, they are asked to make a 15-minute presentation to a panel of senior executives and provide a personal point of view on one significant challenge facing the organization. In the afternoon, they are each assigned to lead a team in a competitive race over an obstacle course that includes crossing a massive log that spans a river flowing 30 feet below.

When Jane receives the assignment to speak to the panel of executives, her sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear. She feels panic rising. She’s definitely out of her comfort zone, and her performance suffers. One the other hand, later that afternoon, when she steps onto the log to lead her team across the river, she’s highly energized and confident, almost euphoric. June has the opposite response. She’s confident and comfortable when making the presentation but when she approaches the log spanning the river and looks down to the water swirling below, she nearly voids her bladder.

Every person’s brain is uniquely “wired” to perceive and respond to opportunities and threats, and the differences define our personality. We can modify the shape of the arousal curve’s inverted U to reflect the degree of comfort experienced in threat situations, as shown in Figure 2. A version of this curve – we’ll call it the Threat Response Curve – will apply to not just generalized risk tolerance, but to any perceived threat.

An individual is comfortable and more likely to perform well when the level of perceived threat is manageable. June, for example, when speaking to a small group of executives on a subject that’s well known, is operating in her comfort zone. But if she’s asked to speak on an unfamiliar topic to an audience of 1,000 peers, she may be out of her comfort zone. In that case, her sympathetic nervous system kicks in and her limbic system may initiate strong emotional responses, perhaps even a feeling of panic with all manner of physical symptoms. Also, in that case, her prefrontal cortex (PFC) (which enables executive function and many of the abilities we ascribe to leadership) is likely inhibited due to the activation of her limbic system, and this compromises her judgment and decision making. Compounding the problems created by operating outside her comfort zone, June is unlikely to be aware of the impact on her executive cognitive processes, even though she does sense the emotions swelling within her.

This scenario plays out in many situations in the workforce when leaders must operate outside of their comfort zone. Normally, they are comfortable in their leadership position and highly effective, but when they experience significant threat, their judgment will be compromised, and most likely without their awareness. Performance effectiveness generally tracks with comfort level. That is, we’re normally comfortable when performing tasks that we do well.

Summarizing to this point, the brain perceives threats and generates responses proportional to the level of threat, but individual brains and threat responses vary between individuals. Our typical emotional responses to threats and rewards can be used to describe our personality. Said in another way, our personality is based on the limits of our comfort zones for a wide range of threats and the brain-based emotional responses we have when those threats exceed our comfort level.

All this begs a couple of questions. Can personality change? And, can we change the boundaries of our comfort zones for various threats? In answer to the first question, many psychologists would say no, that personality is defined by stable traits that are unlikely to change significantly over time. We can debate the first question, but the second question is more important to answer for purposes of talent management. And the answer to the second question is, yes, we can change the boundaries of our comfort zone. This means that we can, in effect, change the Threat Response Curve, and this ability too has far-reaching implications for leadership development and individual performance.

With enough practice engaging outside of our comfort zone, the threat response curve will likely change over time. It might take some weeks or months, but eventually, what was previously uncomfortable will become comfortable.

This is the essence of brain-based leadership development: 1) Discovering what creates threats for us; 2) Finding the limits of our comfort zones for various threats; and 3) Intentionally placing ourselves outside of our comfort zones so what was previously uncomfortable and threat-inducing eventually becomes comfortable. Personality is determined by the brain, by the way our brain perceives and responds to rewards and (especially) to threats. A clear understanding of the role of personality is incredibly important for talent management professionals. Personality is a primary enabler of our effectiveness in the workplace and, to a large degree, determines cultural fit and leadership potential.


1. See, for example, TED Talk by Daniel Wolpert: https:// brains?language=en

2. For example, Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.

3. Serrat, O. D. 2009, February. Five Whys Technique. Asian Development Bank.


Kim E. Ruyle is an Associate in Korn Ferry’s Global Network with thirty years of experience in talent management. He is a frequent conference presenter, published dozens of articles and book chapters, served on numerous expert panels and editorial boards, and authored or co-authored five books on talent management and leadership development. Kim’s academic credentials include three master’s degrees and a PhD and an Executive Certificate in Applied NeuroLeadership from the NeuroLeadership Institute and Pepperdine University.