Learning to Lead Better: Q&A With Neuroscience Expert Britt Andreatta

Learning to Lead Better: Q&A With Neuroscience Expert Britt Andreatta

See one expert's insights into how business schools and businesses can best prepare for the budding potential of neuroscience to impact our workforce.

At this year’s Deans Conference held last month in Las Vegas, plenary speaker Britt Andreatta presented on “Creating a Growth Culture,” where she shared the latest discoveries about the brain and how a growth mindset can help bring out one’s talent. We followed up with Andreatta to delve a bit deeper into this subject and find out how business schools and businesses can best prepare for the budding potential of neuroscience to impact our workforce.

From a neuroscience perspective, what do we know about learning that we perhaps didn’t know five or 10 years ago, and how can educators adapt as a result?

We’ve learned so much in the past few years that there are too many things to cover. But here are some highlights every educator should know:

  • The mirror neuron system drives both learning and empathy. When we see others act or feel, we have a similar experience neurologically. Seeing another person demonstrate a skill correctly is valuable on multiple levels. We need to do less telling and more showing.
  • The hippocampus takes in learning and pushes it to short- and long-term memory. It does best when content is presented in 15-to-20-minute chunks, followed by some sort of processing activity (reflecting, talking with another person, applying it to a concrete situation). That completely changed the way I teach—it’s incredible to see the difference in my learners.
  • The basal ganglia takes repeated behaviors and turns them into habits, which is really a well-grooved neural pathway. But it takes, on average, 40 to 50 repetitions to get there. If educators want to drive real and sustainable behavior change, they must design at least some of those repetitions into their learning events.

How can neuroscience findings help increase productivity in the workplace?

Organizations are made up of people, and the more we understand how people think, feel, and act, the more we can help bring out their full potential. My work focuses on synthesizing the latest neuroscience research into practical models and actionable takeaways that we can use today to solve workplace challenges. My book Wired to Grow focuses on how people learn and improve. Wired to Resist is about why change is so biologically threatening and how we can overcome that. And Wired to Connect explores how we create the best performing teams that can consistently collaborate and innovate.

Can we learn to view mistake-making in a more positive or useful light?

Absolutely, and many people already do. Some companies hold “failure awards” because they see making mistakes as a rich and valuable part of the learning process. The best way to make the shift is to starting asking different questions when mistakes happen. Two of my favorites are “What valuable insights have we gained?” and “What should we do differently next time?” Shaming and blaming shuts people down, on a neurological level, literally decreasing their intelligence and creativity significantly. Looking for what has been learned changes the whole dynamic.

During your presentation you asked the audience, “When do you have your best ideas?” Notably, no one replied, “at my desk.” What does this mean for the traditional workplace structure?

Yes, the brain is continually processing, even while we sleep. When we are working hard to solve a problem, there is a lot of activity in the pre-frontal cortex. But when we take a break from thinking/concentrating, the other regions of the brain can get in the game, so to speak. That’s why we often have those flashes of insight when we’re in the shower or the kitchen, rarely when we’re at work. For this reason, I think work should be measured by contributions or outcomes instead of hours. People are most productive in different ways and at different times. Organizations should focus on maximizing the potential of their people (and frankly, spaces), not forcing folks to be sitting at their workstations during certain hours.

Can any talent be developed through a growth mindset, or are some talents simply innate to some individuals and not to others?

Biologically, we grow new neural pathways all the way up until the moment of death. Our neurons are so powerful that they find ways to regrow, even through massive injuries (just look at the incredible recoveries of neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor and congresswoman Gabby Giffords). The same is true for our ability to learn; we can learn new knowledge and skills throughout our lives. The problem is that many of us don't push ourselves to do so—we settle into comfortable patterns or old beliefs and never reach our fullest potential. I think the best educators know how to help people move beyond what they believed possible.

What do you think the future of neuroscience holds?

Lots of interesting surprises! It’s hard to imagine, really, because all we have learned in the last decade is just a drop in the bucket. Technology drives the field forward because it gives us new tools for exploration that reveal more unexpected answers. I know that neuroscience holds the keys to human potential, so I’m eager to continue the search.

Britt Andreatta is a thought leader, author, and speaker on neuroscience and leadership. Her latest book is Wired to Resist: The Brain Science of Why Change Fails and a New Model for Driving Success. Learn more about her books and expertise at www.brittandreatta.com.