Brainwaves in Business:
How neurofeedback can make you a more ethical leader
by Sasha Seddon
The idea of being able to modify brain activity using neuroscientific techniques may sound like a frightening prospect. It invokes images of the bleak dystopian futures imagined by science fiction writers, in which scientific advances have been used to oppress humanity, in an attempt to prevent crime, violence or war. There is no ethical leadership in these futures – the concept is an oxymoron. However, this is the stuff of fiction. The reality is much less scary but nevertheless exciting. Progress in neuroscience is allowing us to enhance certain aspects of our personalities, with a technique called neurofeedback. It is not mind control – it is simply a way in which people can self-regulate the activity of their brain – and it has potential for improving leadership.
Do we need new ways to encourage ethics in leadership?
Linda Klebe Treviňo and Michael Brown, scholars of organisational behaviour and ethics in management, have declared that “a more descriptive and predictive social scientific approach to ethics and leadership has remained underdeveloped and fragmented” (Brown & Trevino, 2006).
There have been a number of cases throughout the past decade where ethics have been severely compromised in the corporate world, with one salient example being the 2001 Enron scandal. This revealed that the CEOs of the US energy company Enron had been exploiting their employees by covering up the company’s true financial health. They created subsidiary companies which could show losses whilst allowing the parent company to falsely appear financially sound, thus raising the price of Enron stock. Eventually this led to the company’s collapse, with 20,000 employees losing their jobs. It resulted from the dishonesty of the CEOs and their disregard for the future of both their employees and shareholders, the inattentiveness of the Board of Directors to the nature of the subsidiary companies, and the complicity of the investment banking world. One way to safeguard against similar crises would be to enforce ethics more vigorously via governmental reforms. Another way would be to take an internal approach, integrating ethics into leadership training practices.
Luckily, neuroscience and philosophy have recently been brought together to work out what underlies the subjective concept of ethical leadership. A marriage between the sciences and humanities may raise a few cynical eyebrows but it usually gives birth to some interesting new ideas. But first things first, how do we define the concept of ethical leadership?
What it means to be an ethical leader
The fundamental objective of leaders should be to ensure the long-term stability of their company and the well-being of their employees, avoiding the myopic self-interest displayed by the executives involved in the Enron scandal.
For John Buchan, the nineteenth century Scottish novelist and politician, a leader’s task was “not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there”. And according to Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, who won the 2013 Stanley C. Pace Award for Leadership in Ethics, it means appreciating the significance of everyone involved in every stage of the process, from the farmers to the store employees. Perhaps then, acknowledging the contributions of every employee and striving to bring out their good attributes, is the key to successful business ethics. An ethical leader is a grateful and empathetic one, able to connect with employees on an individual basis and value their efforts in the bigger picture of the corporate world.
This view is held by the business administration and ethics researchers, Voegtlin and Kaufmann (2012), who highlight empathy as a crucial facet of effective leadership. While it is difficult to map a precise signature of brain activity to certain emotions or capabilities, the areas believed to be implicated in these processes are the rostral anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula (Singer et al, 2004). A person uses these for subjectivity and for self-perception – ‘I feel’, ‘I think’. These areas are also important in understanding our own emotional states and those of others.
It is not just a matter of which regions are active, but also which coordinate with each other – known technically as coherence. This is a measurement of synchronous activity, and thereby the degree of interconnectedness, of different brain areas. David A. Waldman has studied leaders who are considered inspirational by their employees, and has found that these subjects exhibit high levels of coherence in the right frontal lobe, an area associated with personality, sociality and decision-making. So what can we take from this? It may be overly reductionist to say that there is a universal neural signature for good leadership. However, by identifying traits which are prominent amongst successful leaders, we can try to implement neurofeedback strategies to develop these in people being trained for leadership roles.
So how do these neurofeedback strategies work?
Neurofeedback is a technique which uses fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) or QEEG (quantitative electroencephalography) technology to measure neural activity in real-time. It then displays the data and allows the user to modify, to some extent, their brain function. Neurofeedback treatment can be carried out in different ways, but a common method employed is where the patient mentally plays a specially designed video game while electrodes attached to their scalp transmit information to a computer.
Positive brain activity in the user is reflected in their being successful in the video game, for example having better control over speed and direction. The brain self-corrects based on the feedback supplied and this is a subconscious process. The user does not have to consciously try to alter their neural activity, as their brain is doing the work for them – absorbing the information and automatically adjusting. Positive reinforcement is a term usually applied to the discipline of psychology, but now it is stretching into the realm of neuroscience. Neurofeedback is essentially behavioural modification at an electrophysiological level.
So what exactly is changing in the brain during neurofeedback?
The concept of altering brain function is quite vague. To be more specific, it is the patterns of neural discharge emitted from the brain which are being altered. The number of each type of wave varies in each pattern, and different patterns correspond to different mental states. For instance, when we say we have a high amount of beta activity, this means that brainwaves at a frequency in the range of 12-27Hz (Hertz, or cycles per second) predominate. This occurs when an individual is awake and alert.
The ideal brainwave frequency of a person engaging in neurofeedback will depend on the type of disorder being treated; perhaps the person wants to reduce their anxiety or improve their concentration. The latter is the main goal in combating ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and this is usually achieved by decreasing the number of theta waves and increasing the number of beta waves, resulting in the patient being more alert and able to concentrate better.
How effective is neurofeedback?
A quick search on neurofeedback on the internet yields many scientific papers extolling the virtues of the therapy for increasing cognitive performance. It has shown promise in the medical world, for the treatment of conditions such as depression, addiction, insomnia and even epilepsy. Neurofeedback is also now being incorporated into training to help musicians, athletes and businesspeople exert more control over their brain activity. For the latter group, the technique increases concentration and the ability to keep calm in stressful situations, highly useful attributes for all leaders in business.
Furthermore, it has been implemented in couples therapy in order to strengthen communication and empathy between partners. With this in mind, neurofeedback seems like an ideal training exercise for promoting better leadership. The Leipzig Graduate School of Management seems to think so, having incorporated neurocoaching sessions into their Global Executive MBA programme. Steven Poelmans, one of the lecturers, believes that neurofeedback really can give us a good insight into our professional strengths and weaknesses, as “the most constructive feedback is the feedback we give ourselves…(and) the more developed our inner observer is, the better managers we make”.
But can the brain really be changed?
Well, it is important to note that our genetics do not have a monopoly over this powerful organ; it is highly susceptible to environmental feedback and even the adult brain retains a surprising degree of plasticity. Neuroplasticity is important for memory storage, recovery after brain injury, and learning new skills, amongst many other processes. Evidence for this can be seen in the application of neurofeedback practices for people with neurological and psychological deficits. It has been shown to increase emotional connection in children who have been subjected to neglect during critical developmental periods and also in autistic individuals. These improvements in empathy, as well as focus and creativity, pave the way to greater emotional and innovative intelligence, respectively. It is certainly exciting that we are living in a time where it is possible to visually depict the electrical activity correlating with certain mental processes, and use this to change the way we relate to and connect with other minds.
What does the future hold for neurofeedback?
While neurofeedback can help us to exert some degree of emotional self-regulation, it cannot be used to dictate our thoughts or give us a specific personality – which is of course a good thing. Simply put, it can be used to enhance desirable characteristics in individuals – drive, empathy, level-headedness – thereby allowing them to become better leaders. As Buchan would say, the good qualities are already there, they just need to be coaxed out.