Science of Learning - Srini Pillay, M.D.

On the surface, “strategic alignment” is easy to understand It simply requires that people executing a business strategy be on the same page. Many leaders mistakenly believe that this only requires a clear plan, communication and a personal sense of responsibility to complete it. While necessary, they are rarely sufficient. Several other unconscious biological factors play a role in whether this alignment is successful or not.

Leadership Synchrony

Ideal alignment essentially requires synchrony. In a recent study, investigators asked, “What distinguishes leaders from followers in a group?” By attaching electrodes to the head of each person in the group, they found that leaders will initiate synchrony of their brains with others within 23 seconds. Rather than a dictatorial stance then, leading a team requires brain synchrony. But how?

Components of Synchrony

Daniel Siegel proposed a model that clearly explains three important components of synchrony: presence, wholeness and resonance (i.e., much like a member of an orchestra, leaders must be present, self-possessed and resonate with others). To help concretize how this can be achieved, I developed a biological model with suggested actions.

Biology of Presence

For a leader to be present, it helps to connect empathically. Two brain systems can help achieve this: the mirror system (i.e., feeling what others feel) and the mentalizing system (understanding others’ points of view). When these systems are activated, a strategy will not only be felt, but truly heard. And when activated optimally, the leader’s presence has been registered.

Brain-based conversation suggestions: Leaders may ask, “Is there anything that conflicts with your expectations? How can we resolve them? Is this achievable? Let’s discuss why or why not.”

Biology of Wholeness

Feeling whole requires a strong sense of self. Connecting with yourself requires periods of unfocus throughout the day. In this sense, unfocus is not a distraction, but a pause that allows for the self-circuits in the brain to activate. Intelligent pauses for strategic alignment can be enhanced by reverie, a state of mind that involves contemplation rather than focused communication. Your brain can only take so much focus, making unfocus crucial for the brain to function optimally.

Brain-based conversation suggestions: Rather than devising a strategy and communicating it, leaders should involve employees from the very outset to encourage buy-in. Strategy discussions might involve questions, invitation for suggestions, and an authentic exploration of doubts and concerns. Doing this early will prevent conflict and allow leaders to be more effective. Also, a certain kind of daydreaming when strategizing may help rather than hurt. Positive constructive daydreaming requires doing something low-key like walking, and then having positive and wishful images of the outcome. (Note: these are images, not just ideas of what it could look like.)

Biology of Resonance

Resonance implies that employees are on the same page and feel connected to the leader and the strategy. In the brain, resonance implies that the brain feels rewarded (i.e., the reward center is activated), and that employees feel like they are part of the strategy.

Brain-based conversation suggestions: To achieve this, certain physical activities can change brain activation. For example, walking in tandem or even dancing together makes people like others more, remember them better and even trust them more. Talking about the strategy on group walks, or incorporating dancing into a retreat may be helpful in enhancing employee resonance to improve alignment.

Conclusion

When there is strategic alignment, people and their brains are on the same page. By incorporating brain-based conversations into strategic communication, alignment will become much more likely because the brains of leaders and their teams will be aligned too.

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