Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Matthew Lieberman & Case Study at NeuroPower Symposium Sydney

Summary - this post talks about ideas and research shared by social cognitive neuroscience Prof. Matthew Lieberman (UCLA) at the recent NeuroPower Symposium in Sydney. It explores some personal and organizational appliations of neuroscience findings, including what I call "The Battle inside your Brain". Finally as a practical example you'll find the case study I presented at the Symposium, describing how tmconsultancy helped develop a high performance internal communications team at Lloyds TSB bank (includes a link to the full text of the case study).

Matt Lieberman and I first met a year ago here in Sydney and it was great to see him in Australia again last week at the NeuroPower Symposium.

This time I was happy to have more time to discuss with him the possible organizational applications of his brain research...although it should be said that owing to a combined jetlag spanning much of the globe (he newly-arrived from LAX, me from LHR) two popular secondary themes were the relative merits of RedBull vs. Coke and how many cups of coffee one needed during the day before contemplating a few glasses of good Aussie red wine.

Session highlights

Matt and his wife Naomi Eisenberger (who did not attend the Symposium) are co-directors of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at UCLA. Their pioneering research into applied neuroscience and psychology includes topics such as self-control, self-awareness, emotional regulation, automaticity, social rejection and persuasion.

At day one of the Symposium Matt offered the crowd of 50 people a whirlwind tour of the anatomy and physiology of the brain, including the troubling fact that the exact same part of the brain is often called different things. As we waded through the different nomenclature a plaintive cry went up: "Why can't they just call the parts top/bottom, front/back??"

From there Matt explored the history and relative advantages of different types of brain imaging (TMS, EEG, PET, fMRI) and the different ways we process experiences to form different kinds of memories (explicit/implicit, procedural/working).

Some myths fell by the wayside during this several presentations, including:
  • Left brain/Right brain - there aren't nearly as many differences as people may think and most processes combine the two hemispheres in a number of ways
  • Male/Female brain - there are virtually no physiological differences between the two, which means that (undeniable) sex differences arise due to other factors
  • Mirror neurons don't necessarily work the way that some people think they do
  • To speak of "Mind-Body" or "Mind-Brain" connections as if they were two separate things is nonsensical; they are different levels of description for talking about the same thing

Personal and Organizational Applications: the Battle inside your Brain

For me the key takeaway came on day two, as 70 of us learned the brain science behind emotional regulation and the implications for individuals and teams. Matt outlined in great detail the research he's been doing that describes what I call the Battle inside your Brain.

For brevity's sake, and because you'll be reading more about this in future posts, the key point you need to know is this: the self-control centre of the brain is the RVLPFC, or right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, the bit of your brain just inside your right temple. This bit plays a key role in emotional self-regulation, particularly offsetting the emotional intensity associated with limbic pain caused by distress - whether insult, social pain or physical pain.

One of the most effective ways to engage in this emotional regulation is by putting emotions into words. Doing so (somewhat counterintuitively) actually lessens their intensity and makes them more manageable. The thorny bit: it's really hard to do this for ourselves, hence the popularity and effectiveness of various kinds of talk therapy, narrative processes and, I would argue, effective coaching dialogue.

Why does emotional regulation matter? As it happens, there's a lot of truth in the saying, "Control your emotions, or they'll control you!" In this instance, however, "control" is not about denying emotions, pushing them underground or immediately and vehemently expressing them (to the potential distress of those around you).

Rather, it's about striking the right balance.

You've probably heard that anxiety is actually a necessary part of life. Too little and you won't bother to get out of bed in the morning; too much and you simply cannot function effectively - you shut down, freak out or run away.

Neuroscience helps explain this as follows: when we respond to perceived threats, the adrenal system kicks in and heightens brain activity in both the limbic system (emotional: fast, reactive, habitual) and prefrontal cortex or cortical system (cognitive: reasoning, reflective, considerate).

For a time, this heightened activity in both systems will produce the increased mental sharpness that we've all experienced when confronted with a crisis. At a certain point, however, excessive stimulation keeps the limbic system wired while the prefrontal cortex becomes less responsive, literally tightening up and making us less adaptive, worse at creating memories, distracted, detached and prone to tunnel vision. In other words, we are left in raw survival mode and about as sophisticated as a five year-old.

In sum, the Battle inside your Brain is the one in which the cortical system (aided in large part by the RVLPFC) governs and controls the limbic system in order to channel the energy that emotions produce toward getting useful things done.

This is highly encouraging news! Armed with the hard science behind the "soft skills" that help people to manage their own emotional responses (as well as that of others) we can more effectively practice the self-awareness and self-control techniques that ensure maximum productive input with minimum emotional reactivity.

Case Study: tmconsultancy works with Lloyds TSB Bank

As a practical example of the above theory, I also presented a case study at the Symposium, entitled "Developing a thoroughbred team at the Black Horse - Internal Comms at Lloyds TSB Bank"
(Session blurb): Todd will present a consulting and coaching case study on how he applied the NeuroPower framework to help put the new Head of Internal Communications and her team at Lloyds TSB Bank on the road to success. Working with the newly-reorganized team from its inception established a resilient team culture of increased personal accountability and better interpersonal effectiveness. The result: consistently high team productivity and zero team turnover despite a period of dramatic change within the bank and the financial services industry. The case study details the methods and outcomes of tmconsultancy's 18-month engagement with this team at a big-5 UK retail bank in a consulting project delivered through effective face-to-face training and facilitation, combined with a distance coaching program.

You can download the full Lloyds TSB case study here. (As a "live update" to the study, I'm happy to report that at present discussions continue with members of the RBIC team who have sought further consulting support from tmconsultancy for similar projects in the post-merger organization, Lloyds Group.)

1 comment:

Ian Critchley said...

Nice work Todd, well done. Ian