“Leadership” is everywhere and has been so for many years now. A quick search in Amazon will spit out 108,504 book results. That’s a lot of books and a lot of words on leadership. This plethora of books is packed with words, phrases and clichés inspiring “great leadership”. And yet this is a conundrum: with universities and business schools offering ever more courses we should have hordes of fantastic leaders swarming over the planet. Yet ask the average business person and the answer is different. Everyone has had a bad boss and I have seen first hand the impacts of bad leadership. Trust levels are even more worrying: according to a 2012 report trust levels, standing at 23%, have never been lower! Similar results are echoed in many reports and studies [1].

We have never had more leadership advice and training and yet we have never before had such low levels of trust in leadership and in corporations. What is going wrong with leadership training then?

The answer could just lie in our emotional needs. In my recent book with Professor Theo Peters and Argang Ghadiri (“Neuroleadership”, Springer [2]) we explore the brain and leadership. More importantly we come to the conclusion that after more than 100 years of research in psychology and more recently in the brain we can clearly see what basic psychological needs we as human beings have. These human needs are prerequisites to healthy brain functioning – in business this means these emotional needs are a prerequisite to performance and hence to results. If your employees have the basic needs fulfilled they can operate to their highest potential (and be happy and fulfilled too). This is good for you and your company. In our recent research measuring emotional needs in the workplace we have come up with some interesting results [3]:

  • 30% of employees have severe deficits in their emotional needs
  • Only 20-30% have balanced needs, with the remaining being mixed and blocked needs
  • Many leaders have well balanced emotional needs (but some are blocked)

What, therefore, seems to be happening is that many leaders are fulfilling their basic needs at the expense of their employees. An example is this: one basic emotional need (of five) is the need for control. This can be expressed as autonomy, freedom and the ability to exert an influence. Leaders in times of stress or pressure will aim to increase their own need of control but take away this from their employees. In terms of brain circuitry we can see two systems operating. One the reward and dopamine system which increases feelings of pleasure but importantly of goal-directed action. Second the stress system which lack of control stimulates. This will trigger powerful chemical reactions in the brain and body which in turn will have negative impacts on brain functioning such as inhibiting our executive centres at the front of the brain. In short this means that taking away control from employees lowers trust, motivation, engagement and enjoyment in the workplace not to mention lowering cognitive ability and decreasing ability to deal with complexity. Unfortunately this can also in turn stimulate a negative cycle by pushing leaders to further increase control to get a grip on the situation. If increasing control is not the answer then what is the solution you may ask? 

The answer is to, rather than increase control, increase the engagement of employees. Give employees a clear direction and vision – this creates security and lowers stress reactions and inhibitive brain functioning. Listen to their opinions, involve them in decisions allow them to create solutions and most importantly trust them and believe in them. That may be difficult for if your brain has activated fear centres and the negative cycle has kicked in it will feel uncomfortable [4].

It seems that many leaders do not have the awareness or ability to deal with this. They are unaware of the needs of their employees. Particularly in times of stress and challenge they are incapable of doing what great leaders do: trust their employees and enable them to really perform to their best. That is easier said than done because the instinctive human reaction will be to fulfil one’s own basic needs and not those of the employees. Control is a clear example of this and can be commonly observed. Thinking of the way a leader interacts with themselves and their employees is crucial step in being able to avoid the traps as above and tap into the potential of employees. This is the path to great leadership and is rarely approached in the libraries of books on leadership. 

A final thought: are you aware of your needs and your need for control particularly in times of stress? Are you decreasing or increasing the control (freedom, autonomy and influence) of your employees and enabling them to perform to their best? If not you may also have a problem.

1 Report quoted: http://www.interactionassociates.com/content/2012-building-trust-business-study-released Towers Watson in their comprehensive workforce study reports percentage of employees highly engaged as only 35%: http://towerswatson.com/assets/pdf/2012-Towers-Watson-Global-Workforce-Study.pdf . Berkely reported in 2008 low levels of trust http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/americas_trust_fall . Edelman Trust Barometer reported extremely low levels of trust for corporations and in leaders in 2012: http://trust.edelman.com/trusts/declining-trust/what-drives-trust/

2 Neuroleadersip – A Journey Through the Brain for Business Leaders. Ghadiri, Habermacher, Peters. Springer, 2012.

3 Results are unpublished. For more on basic emotional needs see “Neuroleadership” above or “Neuropsychotherapy” by Klaus Grawe.

4 See free ebook “Leading 100 Billion Neurons” for more information on fear and specific interventions on Smashwords or on iTunes