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The appliance of neuroscience

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Understanding how the brain works can improve your nursing leadership.

During the time I developed my coaching and leadership capability, I was often confused when, unintentionally, I provoked a response in somebody that I hadn’t anticipated.

That was until I discovered that neuroscience could play an invaluable role in the way I led my team and provided feedback to others.

If I’m able to understand the reasons people react in different circumstances, I am more likely to deliver a satisfactory outcome.

So what is it that causes some people to react more favourably than others? The answer lies in the way our brains are constructed and what triggers a response.

As we evolved as a species from hunters to farmer-gatherers and developers, parts of our brains evolved too. As we developed our logical approach to problem solving, our pre-frontal cortex also developed. This part of the brain supports our sensory perception, conscious thinking and logic. It helps us make conscious sense of the world. The older and less well-evolved part of the brain is called the mammalian or emotional brain.

Avoiding threat response in a team

Possible threat trigger

● Uncertainty about the future or their existence
● New team members or changing teams
● Perceptions of inequality within the team
● The team members’ status is threatened
● They have a change in their authority level or control Strategy
● Provide clarity and context about what the future holds
● Develop trust, affinity and relationships
● Transparent communication - open-door policy
● Reassure them with positive feedback and evidence
● Discover what autonomy can be developed with them
Source: Leadership Cake by Steve Rush

Central to your emotional brain is the amygdala, which controls fear responses, the secretion of hormones, arousal and the formation of emotional memories.

When we feel threatened or in fear, a threat response kicks the amygdala and hormones into action and you are likely to get one of three naturally occurring responses: fight, flight or occasionally freeze.

As the body prepares itself for either fighting or flight, the blood in your pre-frontal cortex reduces and travels to the muscles in your legs, arms and other parts of the body and, as such, impacts on your cognitive function. Triggered by real and imaginary threats, this stress response can often appear irrational and over emotive - even something like poorly delivered criticism can trigger it.

So why as a nursing leader should I be aware of this in my approach to leadership? Well, if you minimise the threat response, you deal more with logic than emotion. That helps you form actions and conscious planning in responding to a problem, rather than irrational and emotional behaviour.

You can see my top tips above to avoid the threat response with your team. It’s unlikely you will avoid it totally, as we all have an amygdala ready to act on any perceived threat. The effective nursing leader, however, can use this insight from neuroscience to help reduce the emotional impact their behaviour and actions have on their team. Your nursing leadership can then be more effective, creating a more mature and logical approach to outcomes, while keeping your wards happyand supporting your patient wellbeing.


Steve Rush is CEO of Improov Consulting Ltd and author of Leadership Cake

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