In recent years, the neurosciences have gained amazing insights into the functioning of the human brain and how it affects leadership. What psychologists have been preaching for decades can now be proven: The neocortex, the youngest part of our brain that enables complex cognitive thought processes, stands as the temple of our mind on wooden legs, namely on the older parts of the brain that are responsible for controlling emotions.

How to lead brain-compatible – satisfying the 5 neurobiological needs

In order for the brain to function efficiently, basic neurobiological needs must be met. With the analysis of the following 5 basic needs you can promote your own performance and that of your employees and thus reduce stress as well as uncertainty.

  • Status (self-esteem): What is my reputation in the company? Am I appreciated or not? Do I feel seen and recognized? Not having the satisfaction of feeling useful and important to the world can lead to feelings of weakness and helplessness.
  • Certainty (orientation/control): People do not like insecurity because it leads to perceived loss of control and thus fear. Lack of orientation in the workplace often leads to unhealthy stress.
  • Autonomy (self-efficacy): People want to experience themselves as autonomous; they want to actively shape their environment. Management mastermind Peter Senge once said: “People do not resist change, they resist being changed.” Especially in transformational processes within an organization, it is important to actively involve employees.
  • Relatedness (belonging): Exclusion from a community has been one of the toughest sanctions since ancient times. In a company, too, people want to feel that they belong and are connected with others. Humans want to be part of a community – also at the workplace. Only when I have the feeling that I belong completely, am I prepared to show full commitment and to commit myself fully for the group and my company. If, on the other hand, I am afraid of being excluded, I am under stress and my cognitive performance is reduced. In the long run, this kind of fear of exclusion – for example through bullying – can lead to a burnout.
  • Fairness (appropriateness): The area in the brain that feels social fairness is the same area that feels pain and disgust. Unfair attacks and obscure behavior thus activate the pain area in the brain. This explains the violent reaction of some people to unequal or unfair treatment. Managers are therefore well advised to be transparent and predictable and to justify their decisions in a comprehensible way.

The five basic neurobiological needs are based on the SCARF model by Rock/Schwarz and the consistency theory by Klaus Grawe.

The neuroscientist Professor Gerald Hüther has mentioned another aspect, namely that of growth and development: The core competence of the human brain lies in creative design, not in the processing of routines. People want to be challenged and grow according to their potential and interests.

How to work with Neuroleadership? With the following questions for reflection you can assess how the neurobiological needs affect your well-being and that of your employees at work.

Exercise on Neuroleadership

  1. Think of a situation in which you felt uncomfortable. What basic needs were not met for you?
  2. Think of a situation in which you felt comfortable. Which basic needs were fulfilled for you?
  3. As a leader consider for your employees:
    • To what extent can change, for example in a transformational process, threaten the basic needs of your employees?
    • What can you do as a leader to protect them?

The core task of leadership: managing relationships

Uncertainty and complexity in the business world are increasing. To satisfy their neurobiological needs, employees are looking for orientation, stability and opportunities to participate. Thus, the leadership of the future will be characterized above all by creating connections between the people to meet these needs.

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