Working Transitions

Neuroscience of Leadership - 5 minutes with Catherine Cunning

Welcome to our monthly series - ‘5 minutes with…’ - quick, chatty interviews with specialists working across HR, Recruitment, and Transition.

This month we talk to Catherine Cunning. Catherine is a Working Transitions coach, a specialist in the Neuroscience of leadership and executive music producer.  We asked Catherine what the Neuroscience of leadership is all about, the benefits it can bring to business and what you can do to incorporate it into your organisation

Hi Catherine!  Firstly, what is the Neuroscience of leadership?

Neuroscience (the study of the anatomy and physiology of the brain) in leadership brings the scientific knowledge from neuroscience into leadership to support organisations to understand behaviours and optimise performance.  

Neuroscientists have made significant breakthroughs in understanding how our brains work by monitoring them in real time using imaging technology like fMRI and PET scanners. When people are hooked up to these machines, activity in different areas of the brain is monitored.

When Neuroscientists first monitored individuals listening to music they reported  ‘fireworks’ in the brain – as the track progressed more areas of the brain lit up.   Science now supports the fact that playing a musical instrument engages practically every area of the brain.  Music builds a bridge between left and right hemisphere, the analytical brain and the subjective artistic brain to optimise potential.

The impact of music on the brain has been an area of particular interest to me for the last 15 years – I have developed audio technology to support peak performance in sport and business.  As an executive music producer working with some of the most creative and successful musicians and producers in the industry, I am consciously aware of how music can engage more of the brain to improve focus and flow and support insight to improve decision making.  Using brain based coaching techniques in alignment with bespoke music audio technology can yield some incredible results.

Leaders in business today need to be much more self-aware, creative, and open minded and have more energy to deal with the stresses of daily life – engaging the whole brain can support this process. 

Neuroscience in leadership is linked closely to the practice of mindfulness.

Neuroscientists are beginning to discover the amazing properties of the brain when it produces Gamma brain waves. Studies show that altered states of consciousness - dreaming and meditation - produce Gamma waves.  The Gamma wave state is associated with expanded awareness, high levels of cognitive functioning and peak concentration. I enjoy producing music with binaural beats to produce more Gamma waves as you meditate and also high-performance audio technology to energise for peak performance on particularly focused projects.

For the past ten years, many organisations have been experimenting with mindfulness to support leadership and optimise performance.  Some of the findings have been incredible - as individuals train the brain to operate in a state of expanded awareness outside of fragmented thought they experience flow state and feel happier as they optimise performance.

The prefrontal cortex is the executive centre of the brain and connects to all other areas. A well-integrated brain has strong neural connections between the prefrontal regions and the rest of the brain.  According to Neuroscientist Dr Daniel Siegal, human beings increase their effectiveness as their brains develop a higher degree of integration.  If we can give the executive hub a proper ‘workout’ we can engage more areas of the brain to be fully engaged and focused in the moment outside of fragmented thought. Mindfulness supports that workout.

When operating from an unconscious state we don’t make decisions consciously - when you think about that in a leadership context it’s quite shocking! By practicing mindfulness you are more focused, listen more effectively and can make decisions in a conscious state so that you can get more out of every interaction and avoid making assumptions and operating from a space of unconscious bias.

Where does it fit into an organisation?

The Neuroscience of leadership can be applied in many ways - from leadership development, performance and talent management to learning and development.  Anyone leading him or herself can better equip themselves to understand how the brain works and the triggers that drive them. Leaders of teams can benefit by understanding the best way to get the desired response from their people and support them in developing their full potential particularly during and post organisational change.  Leaders responsible for whole organisations can strategically work in a way that delivers results by understanding key human drivers and behaviours.

If you understand what drives people within your organisation you can hand them the responsibility to achieve their own success.  If you have a conscious awareness from a personal development point of view of what they want to achieve and can align their personal objectives to the business objectives engagement levels will soar.  The individual will grow and develop and really buy into the future of the organisation.  

What benefits does it bring to business?

Understanding how the brain works and how techniques and technology can access more of an individual’s potential can result in amazing outcomes.

The brain constantly scans our environment to identify and respond to threats and opportunities.  We subconsciously seek ways to minimise threats and maximise rewards.  As we manage people, allowing individuals to solve their own problems or issues – with the support of their manager, team or a coach – often results in a dopamine hit - they feel good.  In reality,  the opposite often happens – when managers are stressed themselves they try to find the solutions – therefore they are the ones with the dopamine hit rather than the employee. Understanding this can result in happier and more engaged employees!

For Leaders working in a stressful position, the ability to switch off the mind can really optimise performance.  By minimising stress, leaders avoid being in a state of threat and subconsciously passing this emotion onto their team.   

How can the Neuroscience of leadership  support organisations through change?

People have a natural resistance to change and go into a threat state which often limits their ability to focus and make insightful decisions. Research shows that levels of creativity are also significantly reduced. As leaders, we want to move our people back into a reward state during and post change to allow them to make more informed and insightful decisions in a culture of trust instead of fear.

As part of the change process it's essential to provide a really strong vision of the future. Understanding the possibilities and the benefits and opportunities that the future may hold can be a positive thing as we empower people to take responsibility for their own careers.

Often when I go into an organisation I don’t even need to ask the question ‘how do people feel about the change?’ I see and feel it straight away from my initial engagement at front of house. Perhaps have a look around your organisation today, including your front of house, and see what's happening and how that is reflecting on your organisation and brand. Conscious and open awareness is the key to building a positive and engaging culture.

What type of organisation benefits most?

Organisations interested in optimising performance across all sectors.

The key factors that differentiate inspirational leaders include thinking ‘outside the box’ and taking some risk. Most importantly, they have the full engagement of their team. Of the truly great leaders that I have worked with, without exception, all of them have an understanding of mindfulness and of how the brain works.  Really effective leaders will take time out for short periods of time throughout the day to access that state of expanded awareness for improved decision making. They allow themselves the space to do things in a different way to optimise performance.

Some of the techniques that I employ include health and fitness, sport in the workplace – often with an element of competition, meditation and mindfulness, measuring success in alignment with the business strategy on a regular basis and celebrating success. Companies are now buying into developing bespoke audio technology to support staff in optimising performance.  Others are taking it a step further to include performance audio that directly engages left and right hemispheres of the brain to achieve measurable results. In some of the companies I have worked with there was a demonstrable correlation between these interventions and successful outcomes -  being open minded and experimenting with new ideas without scepticism or pre-judgement was key to this success.

What advice would you give to someone looking to integrate the Neuroscience  of leadership into their day to day life?

Firstly, learn to work outside of your comfort zone and challenge yourself to engage in lots of different activities and projects – really stretch yourself.  If you can do something well, move away from it and try something else – challenging yourself allows you to develop new pathways in the brain.

Become consciously aware of how to access ‘the zone’ and create feel good endorphins in the brain by engaging in sport, mindfulness or any other creative interest you have a passion for that allows you to ‘break your state’ and become fully at one with what you are doing.

Educate yourself on how the brain works and the concept of whole brain thinking.  Experiment with engaging the part of the brain you may not engage as a natural preference -  if you’re logical, start to experiment with projects that make you use your creativity and if you’re naturally a creative person try something that makes you work logically – perhaps a piece of project management work that makes you plan and organise and get tangible results.

When faced with a real problem that’s proving difficult to overcome, rather than focusing on the issues at hand, clear the mind and think about a time where you did something really well. Take yourself back into reward state.  This will allow you to be more insightful and make better decisions.  If you’re having a bad day and things are really not ‘clicking’ you’re actually better off stopping and stepping away for a short period of time to re-group – that can be a difficult thing to do – busy people find that hard.  If you can step away and break your state by engaging in mindfulness or listening to music, you will return to your task with refreshed and renewed vigour and a fresh pair of eyes.

I often ask people to work outside of their comfort zone – acrobatic flying, fire walking, working on projects completely opposite to what they are used to– the objective is getting someone to fully focus and be absolutely present in that moment.  When risk is involved we do that automatically.  A certain level of fear and stress can take someone into the present and optimise their performance.  

Check out Brain Diaries: Modern Neuroscience in Action at Oxford University Museum of Natural History in partnership with Oxford Neuroscience running

The Brain Diaries exhibition and event programme launched to coincide with Brain Awareness week reveal how the latest neuroscience is transforming what we know about our brains and is now running until 1st Jan 2018

Do you see Neuroscience in leadership growing in popularity and becoming ‘mainstream?

Yes. I see the Neuroscience of leadership growing in popularity and becoming mainstream as organisations are challenged to understand and engage their people in a space of change. The missing link has been understanding how the brain works and how we can use more of our potential to raise the bar and optimise performance.

Scientifically now, using fMRI scans and heart rate monitors, we can see the impact.  For the first time in the UK we have the evidence to back up the theory – and that’s exciting!

We continue to see Neuroscientists producing research that will push the boundaries of what is achievable and challenge us to experiment and learn to optimise and manage the potential of our people.  Perhaps it's time to realise that this is no longer just ‘fluff’ and if we as leaders are brave enough to experiment and measure success we may indeed be surprised at what we can achieve in our world of change.

To find out how Working Transitions can support your organisation please get in touch


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Working Transitions
15 June 2017
Supporting effective and successful organisational change


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