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Have you tried it? Leading and learning "with the brain"

June 04, 2019

Interview with neuroleadership expert Andy Habermacher

What are the benefits of brain-friendly learning and leadership for companies as a whole and for the individual person? In the course of a Business Breakfast held at the WU Executive Academy in late May, neuroleadership expert Andy Habermacher explained what potentials we could unlock by using, rather than abusing, the brain when it comes to learning and leadership.

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During the Business Breakfast, Andy Habermacher explained how important it is to learn "with the brain".

Our brain is always learning, whether we like it or not, says Andy Habermacher. With his keynotes, the British-Swiss neuroleadership expert enlightens top executives all over the world about how our brain functions and what we need to be able to learn and work more effectively (according to the brain).

At the Business Breakfast on May 24, 2019 at the WU Executive Academy, he talked about good learning environments and what managers can do better when it comes to brain-friendly leadership. After the event we caught up with Andy Haberamcher for an interview.

Mr. Habermacher, how can we stimulate learning in corporate settings?

The brain always learns whatever you do. But we don’t always call it "learning". For example, when we visit a city, we absorb all our impressions and thus learn something about that city. Intrinsic motivation naturally has an influence on learning, it is the basis, so to speak. But importantly a learning goal must also correspond to our five emotional needs, which we describe with SCOAP:

  • Self-esteem: the need for self-worth

  • Control: the need for control over our life

  • Orientation: the need for more orientation through more knowledge

  • Attachment: the need for belonging and good relationships with others

  • Pleasure: the need for more joy

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Andy Habermacher explains SCOAP - the 5 emotional needs of people.

In the future, companies will increasingly have to align themselves as learning organizations. How will this look like?

It is particularly important to consider how to embed learning activities into everyday business. I recommend a conscious approach to learning, for example: By making a part of our daily work to consist of learning, and not just: We produce product X and service our customers. True learning is consciously taking an hour a day to reflect on what has been learned during the day. This is incidentally what sports teams do to improve performance.


So do you define learning less as training that can be outsourced and more as reflection?

Of course classical training is part of a learning organization. But there is a lot of knowledge and a lot of knowledgeable heads in our businesses. You can achieve so much by giving employees more space for reflection in their daily work. We've got an incredible amount of information pouring into us daily. We must also be able to reflect, classify and process this. Take coaching, for example: it is not training, but asking the right questions and leading the person to his or her own insight. It's the same with organizations. The right questions encourage learning – organizations need to do this more often.

How can managers support the potential, curiosity and creativity of their employees in order to make a breakthrough?

Children are basically curious in a natural way, later, with adults, curiosity is very differently expressed due to our learned thinking patterns (frameworks). Curiosity is hard to train it is more of a personality trait. Curious people learn more easily and are more innovative, they are less afraid of failure. But what managers can do independently of this is to really listen to the employees and give them space for learning, for example through personal meetings or a virtual platform for the exchange of ideas. Personal reflection or exchanges should take place regularly, once a month or at least once a quarter.

To what extent is intrinsic motivation related to learning success?

The more learning targets the intrinsic motivation of the individual, the more people invest in learning. An example: as students, we spend several years with little income, intensive work and exam stress. But we do this to have a higher place in life, a better job, higher status, a generally better life later on. We do it for a long-term vision that is implicit in the learning process. In the business context, this means that if I acquire these and those skills, I get a higher position and more money.

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The audience watched Andy Habermacher's lecture with excitement.

They say strong relationships also improve the learning experience in companies.

Yes, the brain learns best in a safe environment. In a threatening situation one will always focus on the threat and this limits cognitive processes and destroys creativity. This therefore means that you should feel socially comfortable and surround yourself with the right people. A good social environment with people you like has a biochemical effect on the brain, which, amongst others, produces oxytocin, which in turn positively stimulates the ability to learn.

So, should companies enable more positive social experiences, with appropriate social spaces and joint ventures?

Yes, definitely. The problem is: In a crisis, for example, when it comes to cost reductions, savings are first and foremost made here, for example in team building, with the in-house football team or the marathon team or “non-essential” training course. This saves only a limited amount, but has an enormous negative influence on social interaction and team bonding. Team building is not considered part of work. But it is work when it comes to building trust and good teamwork because this has a strong influence on people's brains and therefore their ability to perform.

You said in your talk that the brain learns better when you confuse people a little and make them uncomfortable.

Yes, let's take a look at creativity. Creativity processes are simple: you need input and incubation – you need time for a great idea. Incubation is important because the brain needs time to connect the information with each other. The brain always tries to search for meaning and create understanding. If it doesn't understand something, it will continue working until it does. Therefore, we stimulate the learning process by leaving people in slight confusion and uncertainty. In traditional learning processes we give as clear information as possible, but this is not the right thing for our brain. If you give a lot of information, there's a good chance the that we will forget it. For example how much do you actually remember from your school days?

To what extent do emotions play a role in learning?

We often misinterpret emotions. We consider emotions these emotive contexts such as happiness or love. But emotions simply give value to a situation, a goal. It is always said that there is no room for emotions in companies. That's not true because making a profit, for example, is a highly emotional process. It's about success, status, control, pride. If you're not emotionally involved, you don't care. If you want to be profitable, successful and number one, it's an emotional concept. We call it rational, but it's always emotional.

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Andy Habermacher explains how important emotions are for entrepreneurial success.

How should companies proceed when selecting managers?

The question is: what kind of managers and executives do I want in my company and what is their role precisely? Then it is a matter of placing the right personalities in the right place. The roles and expectations of managers must first be clarified and then clearly communicated. As the team leader, it is your job to enable people to produce more, and to do this independently, regardless of whether the boss is there or not. As a department manager it is your task to enable the team leaders to empower their employees. The classic mistake is that the best employee is often promoted to boss. But that's not necessarily the best manager or team leader. When filling a management position, the question is not who can best tell others what to do, but who enables employees to perform better, preferably also when the boss is not there!

Emotional needs probably also play a role when it comes to being a boss.

But: by wanting less status, you often reach a higher status. If you want to be the boss for status reasons, you will micromanage people - and your status will drop as their emotional needs also drop. If you do not do this, you will in fact achieve a higher status with your employees, they will be more productive and you will achieve a better reputation - then you are a really good boss.

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