Task or team: Flipping leadership roles

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  • Published: Apr 1, 2014
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
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Antagonistic neural networks underlying differentiated leadership roles (Credit: Jack et al)

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows that activity between two distinct networks within the brain are not activated simultaneously. One network, researchers suggest, is associated with the team-building mindset, or more precisely noticing and working with people, while the second network is task oriented. The findings may have implications for human resource management and in understanding social dynamics.

Leadership is often about being highly focused on getting the job done or about building a strong team. At first glance, it might seem that the two approaches are mutually exclusive with some leaders making sure everyone is doing what they should and watching the bottom line as opposed to listening to the team and being open to ideas and perspectives. Researchers in business and human resources have distinguished between task-oriented and the social-emotional leader for more than a half-century.

Now, US researchers have provided a physiological basis for this distinction in the functioning of parts of the brain associated with analytical or empathetic behaviour. It seems that the two associated networks are not active at the same time. However, their findings show that while the managerial world suggests that leaders can be only one type of manager or the other, the normal brain has the capacity to be both, just not at the same time. Details of the study were published online in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Team time

"In the 1970s, business became focused on the return-on-investment and cash-flow, and this led to the elevation of financial wizards to demigod status in the 1990s and resulted in the financial meltdown in 2007," suggests Richard Boyatzis, professor of organizational behaviour at Case Wester Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management. The failure of management and graduate schools and the business world in general to recognise the value of to develop both capabilities has led to many instances of inefficient businesses and unethical decision-making. "Those are the consequences of too narrow a focus by organizations on only the financial side," he adds.

Research by cognitive scientist Anthony Jack and his team revealed this oposing domains relationship. Now, Jack, Boyatzis and graduate student Kylie Rochford have looked at these networks in the context of leadership where a leader might switch fluidly between focusing on operations and the bottom line at one moment, and fostering a positive work environment and ethical insight the next. "What the science is telling us is that the brain naturally supports this switching, but doesn't function so well when we blend the two modes," Jack explains.

The team's fMRI work with dozens of volunteers focused on the "Task Positive Network (TPN)," which is analytical and task-oriented, and the "Default Mode Network (DMN)," which is empathetic and social. The data suggest that each of these two networks function to suppress the other when looking for solutions to different technical or social problems presented to the volunteers. When the person is not concerned with solving a problem, the brain simply swings back and forth between the two networks and this switching of activity seems to be stronger in people with no mental health problems and with higher IQ. However, it is possible for a manipulative person to invoke both networks at once and to make anti-social decision based on their analysis.

Fluid cycling

"Every normal brain contains both modes, with the flexibility to go to the right mode at the right time," Jack explains. "In the business world right now, the emphasis is more on the task orientation of leaders rather than cultivating empathy. That is partly because it easier to assess task-oriented leadership." He points out that, "Emphasizing one side over the other is not the best way to promote good leadership." Each mode of thinking in the management context has its advantages and downsides. Task-oriented leaders can focus and solve problems efficiently with clearly defined objectives but they then do not necessarily follow a strong moral code if their decisions will generate greater profits when the ethics are ignored, for instance. Moreover, being goal oriented can also stifle creativity and preclude the openness to new ideas that can boost innovation and improve the morale of those being led, usually employees, but the principle might be just as readily applied to students or members of an organisation or even the family. "Leaders are always trying to get things done through people, so it's important to pay attention to the relationships," Rochford adds. Workers perceived bosses focused on work relationships as effective when they showed trust in the workers and were primarily concerned with developing workers' talents. But these same leaders were seen as ineffective when they seemed to be passive about a task at hand.

The behaviour of these networks in the brain is not just related to teams. One network allows us to notice and then work with others, that could mean a client, customer, spouse or partner, subordinate, or any other person within a social network. The researchers say the challenge for education and leadership training is to help people cultivate both skill sets, so leaders can cycle fluidly between the two networks and better perceive when each mode of thinking is appropriate.

Related Links

Front Hum Neurosci, 2014, online: "Antagonistic neural networks underlying differentiated leadership roles"

Neuroimage, 2012, 66C, 385-401, : "fMRI reveals reciprocal inhibition between social and physical cognitive domains"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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