EFMD AC15: Steven Poelmans & Quiet Leadership

Qt1At the 2015 Annual EFMD Conference in Brussels, Steven Poelmans gave a session on the emerging field of Neuroscience of Leadership and explained what we can learn from neuroscience and about the most efficient way of leading people with the brain in mind. Steven Poelmans is Strategy, Leadership and People Department Faculty, Programme Manager and Director of the Coaching Competency Center at EADA in Spain. Mr Poelmans began by asking the audience about their own ability to adapt to different situations.


“When you are in a situation are you capable of focusing for a long time, to be able to adapt to different situations? Are you technologically savvy or do you have to ask your children to change the cartridge in the printer?” asked Mr Poelmans of the 500 plus audience.

Measuring through 360° feedback and Continent Task Based Feedback

Qt2Great leaders are good at switching back and forth into different brain states. 360° feedback can be a useful instrument for understanding the state of mind of certain leaders. There is a lot of literature around this instrument. The problem though with 360° feedback is that it often comes too late. Often the feedback is quantitatively based which does not mean much to people. 360° feedback is also very stressful for the person concerned.

Contingent task based feedback is much more efficient. We need to observe leaders in context and give immediate feedback. It uses information that has ben gathered while they are doing a task. EADA has set up a neuro-training lab to understand how people interact. They are put into challenging situations including asking people to fire someone or refuse them a promotion. They are able to measure insight based on gamma rays in the brain an record brain activity. For example, empathy can also be measured in people using this method.

Paradox 1: Declaring vs. Inquiring

Leadership cannot be taught in a classroom setting, claimed Mr Poelsmans. We need to be able to take people into a real setting to see how they work. Often Mr Poelmans had noticed that very smart MBA students were good a formulated the ‘right’ answer but were incapable of saying the same thing when they were face to face with another person and in a real business situation. In leadership there is a difference between formulating and acting. One of the keys to successful quiet leadership requires a good deal of inquiry. It is now possible with the technology we have to see to what extent people are actually listening. It is now understood that there is a reverse relationship between talking and judgement.

Qt3Mr Poelmans debunked the myth that we only use 10% of our brain. In fact, we use all of our brain and as humans have to decide where they really want to put their attention since it is not possible to give our attention to everything. It is also necessary to understand that different parts of the brain work in different ways. The prefrontal cortex (PCF) is like a Formula 1 car; it uses a lot of fuel in a very short time. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) acts likes an executive secretary deciding which incoming information is transmitted to the PCF. We therefore need to listen and to learn to shut up and decide exactly where we are going to put our attention.

Great leaders frame from the very beginning. Why are we here? What is the purpose of this meeting? Why do we need everyone to be working on the same project? They are also constantly monitoring whether their message is getting through to their audience. They look at people and spend as much time as possible collecting information and actively listening.

“Paying attention is so important.” Said Mr Poelmans.

Paradox 2: Task vs. Emotional Connection

This requires that people regulate their emotions. Being calm, peaceful and tranquil and going into a limbic state can help leaders think. But this is not enough. There is a need to connect emotionally with people to build relationships. Good leadership is about regulating this.

We all start the day with a glass full of self-control. Then we are bombarded with temptations. We need to manage this. The use of sense of humour is very important in managing emotions and connecting with people. People who can meditate and can learn quickly to do this have much better performances as leaders. They can do this because they are able to programme in a moment of silence to think before deciding how to react.

Paradox 3: Firm vs. Employee

Qt5There is always a tension between the needs of the organisation and personal goals. Here leaders require meta recognition. This is thinking about thinking and noticing that you notice. Managers that are good at meta recognition has the best leadership performance. To do this you need to step away from the situation. This is the most difficult part. When you look at yourself from a distance, you make changes.

The brain is a prediction machine constantly comparing where we are and where we want to be. This makes meta cognition a difficult task. The reward circulatory part of the brain activates the moment we predict a reward. An idea and a vision can be far more rewarding to people. As a leader you need to constantly repeat the vision so that people know where they are going. Leaders know what people in their team value and give them a vision that is related to this.

“ The hard part is making the vision visible.” Concluded Mr Poelmans.

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Filed under Business Schools, Conference, Leadership, neuroscience

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