It’s imperative that business leaders can create a lasting environment in which creativity, meaning and purpose can thrive. How and why does neuroscience come into this? Harnessing neuroscience lets us embed sustainable behaviour change in existing leadership patterns, in turn leading teams to be more innovative and allowing organisations to flourish within a culture of trust.
Our brains are by no means fixed or set in adulthood: we are all capable of neuroplasticity, changing the way with think and feel about things. If we want to make a change, say from fixed to growth mindset, we have to do it consciously and deliberately with awareness, focus and attention. In applying ourselves to a new skill or activity in this way, we can retain the capacity for the brain to change, reformat and potentially grow well into our 60s.
We can of course also help the brain by ensuring that we care for it. When working with new clients, the first thing we tackle is not just their surrounding environment, but their internal environment. Sleep is one of the key factors in neurological health that cannot be ignored. Many executives survive on far too little. What they don’t realise is that lack of sleep can have the same effect on your decision-making ability as being drunk. This is not what executives are hired and paid for. Seven to nine hours of sleep is key for the cerebrospinal fluid that sits around your brain and spinal cord to filter through the brain. We can also help the brain by resting during the day (short naps, for example) if we want to and are able to.
What we put in our bodies as fuel also has a huge impact on how our brain works. Our body is not just a convenient vehicle for moving the brain from meeting to meeting. We receive a lot of information and input from our bodies. In the stomach and gut, you find almost all of the neurotransmitters – such as serotonin and dopamine – that are also active in the brain, and help us make decisions and function in everyday life.The gut is often referred to as the other brain. Caring for both body and brain with a healthy diet, we can improve our brain’s effectiveness at work. Good hydration is equally important; likewise, cutting back on alcohol and caffeine is ideal.
Senior leaders also need to understand the effect that stress hormones – cortisol and adrenaline – can have on our bodies and on those around us. What’s even more interesting is that cortisol can spread around an office. That’s right. It hangs around the body and can be absorbed by others through the skin; this effect is even stronger is if it is the leader that is stressed. Reducing cortisol and adrenaline are key to a happy and creative work environment. It can be sweated out through exercise. Other things that help include mindfulness, meditation, journaling and coaching – where you can release tension and worrisome thoughts onto paper or to another person.
Sometimes it’s not possible to remove the stressors from our lives. In these cases resilience, or an ability to deal with stress, is key. If we are able to use our brain plasticity to reframe and rethink the stress we’re feeling, we will be more resilient to its negative effects.
In sum, neuroscience turns out to be far more important for business than we might first imagine. Neuroscience-based coaching, and drawing on the remarkable plasticity of the brain, helps create the ideal environment and mindset in which business leaders can thrive, enjoy their work, and build happier teams too.
Tara Swart, CEO of The Unlimited Mind, is a medical doctor and neuroscientist. She will be speaking at South Africa’s only ‘Happiness-at-Work’ event this December. Learn more here.