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Shifting the management paradigm

Over the past few years I have had a number of exciting discussions with various top managers and human resources professionals about the paradigm that is being taught and commonly used in management practice. We got into a discussion about managing. In essence, we pretty much agreed that managing “by the book” doesn’t always produce the expected results. Is it that managers do not use knowledge properly? Perhaps this is just a small part of the problem. But most of the time we have ended up arguing that an ‘out of the box’ approach and shifting the prevailing paradigm might help in finding a better way to improve performance.

(Source: AFP)

Over the past few years I have had a number of exciting discussions with various top managers and human resources professionals about the paradigm that is being taught and commonly used in management practice. We got into a discussion about managing. In essence, we pretty much agreed that managing “by the book” doesn’t always produce the expected results. Is it that managers do not use knowledge properly? Perhaps this is just a small part of the problem. But most of the time we have ended up arguing that an ‘out of the box’ approach and shifting the prevailing paradigm might help in finding a better way to improve performance.

Intuitively I have known that unless we try to understand what is happening in the human brain we cannot really be sure what a manager should do and what would really work with respect to acquiring better performance from a work team. Even though we still know only a little about the human brain, the information that is already discovered and applied provides very inspiring insights for management practice.

Perhaps the challenge is to examine what neuroscience might tell us about the brains of managers. In addition, it is quite plausible that neuroscience may provide us with knowledge that can be utilised to help managers drive up performance, thereby enabling them to be even more successful.

Charles Jacobs, author of the book Management Rewired, argues that the new role of the manager in the world according to neuroscience is virtually opposite to the old one. Rather, in this “new” world, a manager should not order; but ask. Moreover, a manager does not set objectives; rather he or she provides the information that will enable employees to set their own objectives. A manager does not give feedback, but solicits self-feedback. A manager does not dispense rewards, but puts in place systems that self-administer. Employees do not work for the manager; the manager works for the employees.

This approach comes from knowing that the world we live in is our own mental world and our minds are not objectively recording our experience of the world. In fact, they are creating it and that creation is influenced by everything else going on in the brain. Each of us lives in a mental world of our own. Since the world we inhabit is mental, according to neuroscience, ways of thinking and acting geared to the physical world are bound to fail, particularly when it comes to our interactions with other people. At the same time, other ways of thinking and acting that are effective in a mental world are never considered because we mistakenly believe we inhabit a physical world. As a result, much of what managers do is either suboptimal or self-defeating. Managers can become much more effective if we recognise this mismatch and ensure that our perceptions, thoughts, and actions fit the nature of the world we are operating in.

Once we understand this we can start looking into management practice from a completely different angle. For example, if we accept that there is no objective world, once we try to achieve a change of behaviour from an individual or organisation within this so-called objective world, we are necessarily doomed to fail. This is chiefly due to relationship effects that are not considered in this objective world. Instead, if we invalidate this paradigm and focus on changing the way people think, we have a much better chance of acquiring the desired transformation.

Mindfulness, the ability to pay attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, is becoming the key concept for effective leadership. Unless a manager tries to understand the mental worlds of his or her colleagues, he or she will never become a transformational leader. In other words, this kind of manager will never be the person who helps align employees’ goals with the company’s goals. Furthermore, he or she will not be able to drive up performance. Basically, it goes back to intrinsic motivation that is generally known as being far more sustainable than any type of extrinsic stimulus.

So, is this paradigm shift the next big thing that will change the way we try to transform and manage people and organisations? I do not know; maybe. But what I know for sure is that it enables organisations to achieve changes and results that were beyond the imagination in terms of using the common practice in the business world.

I have seen many organisations and managers struggle with the change of management procedures because they focused too much on managing behaviour. Neuroscience offers a different and much more effective approach – to use ideas to change the thinking that drives the behaviour. As Jacobs would put it, the management revolution is about no longer forcing people to do things. Instead, the management revolution suggests the encouragement of specific behaviours. In fact, according to the neuroscience perspective, since behaviour is driven by thinking, management should be centred on the transformation of minds.

It is very encouraging to see that even in our region, managers are starting to focus not only on applying the standard business principles, but trying what works. Applying the neuroscience findings to managerial practice can really propel companies to new levels; even though it might mean that managers will have to stop doing most of what they do now.

Igor Šulík is the managing partner of Amrop Slovakia, a member of the Jenewein Group

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