The counter-intuitive nature of leadership and management has been a staple of contrarian authors for decades. These include Alfie Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards” and Richard Farson’s “Management of the Absurd” to name just two.
Now, Charles Jacobs promises to make those contrarians mainstream. Looking over the explosion of new insights and discoveries being made about the human brain and human nature, he spells out the lessons for managers on how to be better, more effective leaders.
In his new book, “Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science” Charles Jacobs provides a dizzying array of advice, old and new, we can put to use immediately.
- Traditional Feedback Does Not Work
- Rewards Hurt Performance
- Stories Control Perception
Charles originally intended to become a psychiatrist. Partway through college he fell in love with stories and literature. Stories were more compelling than the standard psychological explanations of the day. He went on to become a literature professor for a while, and then ran into “Cognitive Neuroscience” — the use of a functional MRI to watch the working brain and shed new light on how we really interact with the world around us.
Start with “Feedback Doesn’t Work.” This goes back to the 1960s study at GE evaluating their performance appraisal process. GE discovered that praise had no effect, and criticism had a negative effect. This finding has been nearly impossible for most business gurus to understand, so we’ve collectively ignored it.
Here’s what was going on in the GE study.
We all have a completely subjective view of reality. Nobody truly perceives the world because there is too much to perceive — so our brains busily sort out, selectively ignore, and choose to pay attention to a tiny subset of the world. And the manner in which our brains sort, ignore, and pay attention, is controlled by the stories in our heads, and our past experiences.
When somebody else gives us “feedback” that conflicts with our view of the world, we have an immediate choice — we can completely rewire the way we see the world (which is hard), or we can tell ourselves a story that the person offering the feedback doesn’t know what they’re talking about (which is easy).
It should come as no surprise that most people will ignore most feedback most of the time — and if it’s unsolicited and negative feedback, it’s all the time.
On the other hand, feedback that is either solicited or from a highly trusted source will be listened to, and will be acted upon. So, managers can teach people to self-appraise and get a much better result. Coaches are also familiar with the technique of asking permission — of getting the other person to explicitly ask for the suggestion and be welcoming before offering it.
Goals, too, must be at some level self- or group-selected. A boss or leader can throw down a challenge, however it really is up to the subordinate to take up that challenge. And smart bosses give clear constraints and a lot of autonomy to folks on how to best pursue the goals.
The best managers do the least managing. The more you micro-manage, the easier it is for the worker to abdicate responsibility, requiring even more micro-management.
Charles found that workers who had received their goals from their managers for years, were resistant to setting their own goals. They were very uncomfortable with it.
Same Behavior, Different Stories
Charles once worked with a factory owner who prided himself on walking through his factory every morning and every afternoon. It was his “managing by wandering about.” He believed that showed he was accessible and supportive. When Charles interviewed the workers, they said “he’s coming to check up on us” — in other words, they saw it as a sign of distrust.
Just because someone sets their own goal, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held rigorously accountable for achieving. None of this is about letting people off the hook, or lowering standards. In fact, it’s easier to hold somebody accountable to a goal they themselves set.
Smaller Rewards can Work Better
The pleasure chemical dopamine is released in the brain, not when we get a reward, but when we are fully engaged in work that leads to rewards. Strong rewards actually distract us from that work experience and reduce both pleasure and performance.
This is why, among other things, you’ll find top professional poker players will deliberately think of the money they are playing for as unreal — as play money. If they focused on its actual value, their performance would suffer.
Charles, along with author Daniel Pink, agree that most people really work for self esteem. The more we focus on external rewards, the more we distract people from their inherently rewarding activities of doing an excellent job.
Charles relates the story of the international managers who compete against each other, and their only reward is that the winner gets the nicest hotel room at their annual meeting. It’s in some sense a trivial reward, yet they love it.
The Power of Story
The key learning that Charles has taken away from all his studies of Cognitive Neuroscience is that humans construct their reality, and choose to interact with the world, based on their mental frameworks, and the key to that framework is the story.
Once you accept that other people have their own motivations and their own visions of reality, you start to open yourself up as a manger to using different, more effective techniques for influencing your people.
Two things are utterly critical. First, whenever you are about to tell people what to do, stop and ask a question instead. Second, managers need to empathize with their people.
One of the most exciting discoveries in neuroscience is the mirror neuron. Primates and humans have this type of neuron in their brains where we can get the same brain pattern as someone else just by watching that person do something. When the movie actor cuts his hand, we flinch. When we watch dancers, we feel like dancing. These mirror neurons exist both in the motor areas (motion) and the prefrontal cortex (thinking and intention).
This means we are built for empathy. The mirror neurons only work when we allow them to — we have to focus on that other person.
So, ask “where are they coming from?” Then, modify your behavior to fit their psychology.
The Brain as a Muscle
By practicing and focusing on specific mind sets and attitudes and behaviors, we can strengthen our ability to have that mind set, have that attitude, and show that behavior. That means every manager can become a lot better, quickly, if they choose to try.
Listen to the full interview here.