N is for Neuroplasticity

neuroplasticity and leadership

In this guest blog developed in partnership with Epion Consulting, Deborah Hulme explores neuroplasticity, highlighting why and how we might pay it some attention as we lead ourselves and others through change.

Neuroplasticity sounds complicated; however, it simply refers to the brain’s ability to form new connections and pathways; Neuro referring to the neurons that form the building blocks of the brain and nervous system, and plasticity to the brain’s ability to restructure itself.

Why is understanding neuroplasticity helpful and relevant for leadership and change?

First and foremost, it’s useful to acknowledge that we have the ability to continuously form new pathways and create new connections, allowing us to adapt and grow throughout our lifetime.

Neuroplasticity itself can take two forms:

  • Structural: where the brain changes its physical structure as a result of the environment we are in, the learning we undertake or the thoughts to which we continuously pay attention
  • Functional: where the brain can move some of its functionality from a damaged area of the brain to an undamaged area for relearning opportunities such as, for example, regaining the use of a limb

What we pay attention to, what we think about, and how we react and behave, shapes and reshapes the brain at a physical level

It is structural neuroplasticity that is most exciting from a personal development and leadership perspective, particularly within the context of change. When we learn something, for example, we create new connections between our neurons, rewiring the brain as it restructures itself in response. This happens day-by-day, opening up new possibilities as we reinvent ourselves and move away from past behaviours.
What we pay attention to, what we think about, and how we react and behave, shapes and reshapes the brain at a physical level. Once we understand the power of this, we can consciously work to self-direct our brain’s neuroplasticity, creating alternative more constructive behaviour patterns, or habits, which in turn alter the way the world reflects back to us. We can help the teams we lead do the same. Hence, the relevance of mindset and why Gandhi’s philosophy ‘be the change you want to see’ is so powerful.

Importantly, the brain makes no judgement on whether the stimuli are positive or negative; it simply responds to what we do or don’t do. What we think matters, what we do matters and the environment we put ourselves into matters. Clearly, this has implications for our leadership practice as well as the culture we cultivate within our organisations. Are organisational stimuli experienced positively or negatively? Maybe recognising the latter is more useful than focusing on ‘change resistance management’.

‘It’s much harder to cultivate and maintain a positive state than a negative one.’

The challenge we all face is that it’s much harder to cultivate and maintain a positive state than a negative one. For neuroplasticity to have an impact, we must set goals, understand our values and be attentive to the daily habits we actively engage in – and help our people do the same. It is easy to slip mindlessly into negative thought or behaviour patterns. This is not helped by the fact that we have an in-built negativity bias, necessary for our ancestors when sensitivity to negative triggers was critical for survival. Nowadays, though, our bias towards negativity gets in the way, making it easier for us to learn from bad rather than good experiences. As such, we have to consciously work hard to maintain a sense of inner peace and wellbeing.

From a leadership perspective, we can use the brain’s ability to continually rewire and restructure ourselves to develop new capabilities, such as improving our emotional, social or attentional intelligence, all of which are necessary in our 21st century working world. There is no such thing as ‘this is just the way I am’ anymore. Within our organisations the more we set clear goals, offer support, training, feedback and recognition the easier it will be for our teams to rewire and reshape what they do to embrace the ‘change ask’ that is being made of them.

Here’s three things to keep in mind, all directly impacting how our brains rewire through the miraculous process of neuroplasticity – and hence of real value as we lead ourselves and others through change.

  1. Manage those thoughts: We think all the time. Even when asleep our brain is unconsciously making connections for us. During the day, we may be more conscious of our thoughts, yet we largely allow our thoughts to run with little self-control. As the brain makes no moral judgement, it will rewire according to the thoughts we have and the habits we engage in. It is, therefore, helpful to pay attention and proactively shift our thoughts towards a more productive, or in the language of Carol Dweck, growth, mindset.
  2. Continue to learn: The brain rewires every time we learn something new and loves novelty. The more we learn, the more curious we become and the more self-directed neuroplasticity we encourage. Learning a language, playing a musical instrument, reading a great novel, experiencing different cultures and perspectives are all important for continued brain development over time.
  3. Mind your environment: We should not underestimate just how much our brain and our wiring is impacted by our social and physical environments. We change and rewire our brain in response to the physical environment and also the social context we find ourselves in. A toxic culture will have a dramatic and negative impact on the brain just as we are likely to take less care of ourselves if we live in a cluttered or dirty environment.

Finally, whilst neuroplasticity offers the opportunity for on-going growth throughout life, and there are many things we can do to enhance its power, we should remember that it is an effortful process. This is one of the reasons why, in addition to focused attention and on-going practice, we also need to be around supportive colleagues, coaches and mentors who can provide encouragement and remind us to stay on track as well reward and recognise the effort we are making on the journey. This keeps the dopamine flowing and ensures motivation and engagement remains high. The more we learn and understand about the brain, including the magic of neuroplasticity, the more we can lead successful and sustainable change activity within our organisations.

Deborah Hulme is Founder of Minerva Engagement and the Neuroleader Academy™.  Deborah works hand in hand with organisations to deliver high performance and to create environments in which trust and wellbeing flourish. For more information on we apply neuroscience to supporting organisations in improving high performance and wellbeing please get in touch at engage@minervaengagement.com.