Companies Are Slowly Killing Themselves

I saw two presentations today that completely blew me away.  I realised some time ago that the way companies are traditionally run is unhealthy - they are stuck in a cycle of efficiency and transformation that instead of improving the company is making them sicker.  I had a sensation that it was a leadership issue, and I have written about that many times before, but I could never truly put my finger on it.  And today I came face to face with the reality. 

Both presentations were part of the Neuroleadership Summit, the conference of the NeuroLeadership Institute.  The aims of the Institute and it's Summit are simple - to transform how leaders think, develop and transform through neuroscience research - and without a moment's hesitation I can confirm that in the duration of an afternoon I have been through all three! 

Let me explain what I learnt and then I will give you my bolt of lightning. 

First up was Matt Lieberman who is a professor who does a bunch of science stuff which I won't pretend to understand.  However, what he has done for me is explain the social nature of the brain very, very simply in terms that I find accessible.  What Matt explained very clearly was:

  • humans fundamentally need social connection.  In fact Maslow's hierarchy of needs is incorrect as it ignores this most basic need;
  • the pain of not having social connection is as real as physical pain; 
  • now, this is where it gets interesting - for years companies have recruited leaders based on their analytical and critical thinking skills and have been less concerned about their social skills;
  • and here's the rub - a leader with poorly developed people skills is unlikely to get buy-in to their vision and therefore will be unable to execute their plan effectively.   Their teams most basic need will simply not being fulfilled;
  • please pause for a moment if you think that you are pretty effective at both analytics and people management.  A recent study by David Rock concluded that 0.77%, LESS THAN 1%, of leaders could be considered top performers measured by their ability to focus both on work goals and the needs of other people.  You are probably not in that 1%.

The second presentation was by Jessica Payne, a professor of psychology.  From Jessica I learned some really interesting brain science about sleep and stress that could make me more effective but her crunch points for me were these: 

  • to develop your brain stamina requires MPG - moderate stress, positive effect and good sleep;
  • now, the macho leaders should brace themselves for this next fact - leaders who push people hard, don't take time out and sleep little are not the most effective.  In fact, research shows that even if you are MODERATELY sleep deprived you might as well be DRUNK! 
  • Even 20 minutes of extra sleep can result in a two fold improvement in performance; 
  • People cannot work at high stress levels, consistently for prolonged periods of time - their performance will suffer; you simply won't get the best from them.

Virtual Decay

So far, so interesting.  What was this crashing realisation that I had today then?  Well, it is pretty clear to me that we are facing a perfect storm..... 

  • companies are structured to think analytically
  • people that work for companies need social connection and recognition as individuals.  This is becoming even more critical as Generation Y do not believe in the "job for life" culture and believe that loyalty is a 2-way thing.
  • companies will lose people and are facing a resourcing crisis as a consequence
  • but, unless they change they will work analytically to solve the problem as they have always done - analyse the situation, work people harder, don't recognise the sacrifices their people make
  • these over-worked, under-recognised employees will not be effective.......THEY NEED TO WORK HARDER! 
  • BOOM! The cycle of decay continues until there is no-one left. 

It's a slow painful death.  I have watched companies rich in data and analytics who are completely blind to this gathering storm.  The enlightenment of the next generation of leaders is all that can save these traditional companies now.   It is clear - managers with people skills are not just nice people - they are will be more effective in the long term because companies are made up of people and customers are people.  Even for those with a preference for data - the data of neuroscience is now showing a different way forwards.




Image by Jamiecat