A webinar called “Mastering motivation: the neuroscience of engagement and collaboration”

I watched a recorded webinar over lunch the other day, and it became an extended lunch as I took notes for this blogpost. The speaker is Michael Bungay Stanier and he seems to be a leadership coach or consultant to companies. I found the webinar title interesting: researchers are often sceptical of management training, but advice that is based on scientific research must surely appeal!

I’d have liked more linking and references to neuroscience research but it isn’t really about that. It’s about four factors that can influence our brain’s degree of comfort and thereby increase our engagement and collaboration with each other. Much of the webinar is about how we can take control of those factors, and those tips don’t seem to come from neuroscience but are common sense, and familiar to me from other management training that I’ve taken part in. So it’s good, but not what I expected.

Here is my summary of the webinar:

Neuroscience is the study of how the brain works. It tells us how people’s brains are reacting to questions or tests, and we can draw some conclusions from that.

Neuroscience tells us that the human brain needs to feel that things are safe: we aren’t aware of it at a conscious level but the brain is running a programme in the background that is constantly checking safety, and it will lead you away from risky and dangerous things. So it is important that we make our environment feel safe, to reassure our “lizard” or primitive brains. (Entrepreneurs may be able to review situations and see them as less risky than others.)

Michael identifies 4 factors that we can influence, to make the brain feel safe (Nice abbreviation: TERA).

Tribe – In the company of others, your brain is asking: “Are you with me or against me?” So we can try to increase this sense of belonging to the same tribe: tips include smiling, laughing together, small talk at a virtual meeting (Ask people to share their high point of the last week.) and other tactics for achieving rapport and empathy.  Suggests defining a common goal or a common enemy!

Expectations – Your brain is asking: “Do I know what’s happening, can I predict what will happen?” If it’s really obvious what will happen, then the brain feels more comfortable, but if it’s too comfortable then you will get bored and distracted. Setting an agenda is important for a meeting. Be clear about timing and outcomes when talking about things: eg let’s talk about this for five minutes, and in that time we’ll try to come up with x y z. An agenda doesn’t have to be standard, or set before the meeting. We should start a meeting by setting the agenda together: “What are the key decisions we need to make?” Ask a different question at the start of each meeting, to keep things fresh.

Rank – People feel more comfortable if they are high status, or more threatened, if they feel of lower rank. The sense of rank can be influenced.

  • If you are of lower rank and want to increase it: stand up to face the rest of the meeting, when speaking. If you have a question and want to seek help: consider asking yourself first. (See below, the way to answer your question with other questions!)
  • If you are of higher rank and want to make others feel more comfortable: talk at the same level as others, and perhaps sit at 90 degrees to them rather than directly opposite. Praise people. Learn and use names. Listen to each other! Let others go first. If someone asks a question of you and you just give your advice/answer, then you increase your status, but if you respond by saying “that’s a great question, what ideas do you already have”, then you can increase their status. Then ask them, “what else?” Beware of sounding patronising: tone is important, so be genuinely interested in the other person’s answers.

Autonomy – What are the small decisions you can get others to make, rather than you making? Increase reports’ sense of autonomy, and give yourself a break from working so hard! Decide agenda together.

At the beginning, Michael asks you to think of someone who you are trying to manage/lead/collaborate with, and apply this theory. What’s very important to you, in this setting, and what’s least important? And what is important to the other person? At the end, he asks if what is important is the same for both parties. 71% of the people who responded to the poll in the live webinar said that no, it wasn’t the same. Being aware of this might make you do things differently. He asks what two things will you do differently now that you know this?

My two things:

  • Try not to automatically, always answer questions that are asked of me.
  • Start meetings a little more slowly: I’m always eager to get stuck in!

Amongst the discussion at the end, there are lots of tips on how to handle lateness at meetings. And another key phrase I picked up on is that sometimes we have to “pick our battles”. So true!


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