Rock Will Rock #SHRM18 on Neuroleadership and HR


When I saw the list of speakers at #SHRM18, I knew immediately I wanted to interview David Rock, the co-founder and director of the NeuroLeadership Institute. I am very interested in neuroscience (particularly as it relates to implicit bias), and I have learned a great deal from a number of writings about and by David.  

I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to interview David, and, yes, he is incredibly smart. But what really struck me is how practical he is. 

You are going to have the incredible opportunity to hear David at #SHRM18. In the interim, you may enjoy and learn from what David shared with me during our interview.

JS:        Please tell me a little bit about your background in general and how you became interested in neuroscience in particular?

DR:      For many years, I was involved in creating and delivering leadership programs. Early on, I realized that helping senior executives develop what might be called “soft skills” required as much hard science as possible, to open up cynical minds as well as to make an intangible and messy topic more concrete.

In parallel, I had maintained a personal interest in the brain since I was a teenager and independently read widely on the topic. I put these two ideas together around 2003 and started researching how to incorporate formally an understanding of the brain into all leadership, culture, learning and change work. There was no body of knowledge available for this, so I set about building one.

JS:        I love it. I believe you coined the term “neuroleadership.” What does that mean?

DR:      Neuroleadership is the neuroscience of everything to do with the HR and the talent side of an organization. It means thinking about issues like hiring, training, motivating, managing and organizing people through the lens of how these processes work in the brain.

JS:        Can you give me one example?

DR:       Sure. One example is that neuroscience is providing a better lens for thinking about motivation. It turns out the social issues, like how connected we feel to others, activate the brain’s reward and threat networks very intensely. In short, the strongest motivations are social motivations. This helps us think differently about so many aspects of HR.

JS:        I know that you have published four books in addition to scholarly papers. If there were one book that you would recommend to HR professionals, which one would it be and why?

DR:      My book Your Brain at Work is probably the best entry point to the overall ideas of applying neuroscience to HR and talent.

JS:        Can you give me one practical takeaway from the book?

DR:       The big message is to think about your thinking. The book gives you simple language to do that: I explain the mechanisms involved in much of our thinking processes. This allows you to understand better and, therefore, control your thinking and your attention overall.

JS:        By the way, I just started the book. While I have not finished it, I love what I have read so far!

DR:       Thank you!

JS:        I am very interested in your views on what you have described as “misconceptions on certain commonly held beliefs.” I have three questions all along the same lines. What is a common misconception on bias mitigation from a neuroscience perspective?

DR:      We think that bias can be mitigated by raising awareness of it. It turns out that you can’t reduce bias much at the individual level. However, you can mitigate bias if you give a team common language and get the team identifying biases in real time and then developing science-based mitigation strategies. This works because, while you can’t see bias much in yourself, you can see it in others.

JS:        That is one reason I recommend that, at least with senior-level positions, diverse teams interview and evaluate candidates. I have witnessed and experienced examples of how, through constructive dialogue, implicit bias was “called out” by others without those words ever having to be used. 

JS:        What is a common misconception on coaching and feedback from a neuroscience perspective?

DR:      We think that the right way to build a feedback culture is to get people to give more feedback. Our research strongly suggests that giving feedback is just as threatening to the giver as the receiver, so people don’t give it very often, even when told to. A better strategy is to build a culture where people ask for feedback, rather than give it.

JS:        #HR Tribe: This advice applies to you. Ask for feedback on how you are doing so you can be more effective in your HR role. Don’t wait for it!

JS:        What is a common misconception on leadership from a neuroscience perspective?

DR:      Organizations tend to build complex models for what they expect of leaders, attempting to be exhaustive in their definitions. Our research suggests that the value of a leadership framework correlates directly to how often people mentally use it—meaning, how often people recall and apply a model. For most organizations, this number is at or very close to zero. We believe that highly sticky and memorable leadership models have significant and nonobvious benefits in terms of driving the right leadership behaviors.

JS:        I want to go back to an earlier comment. You said “while you can’t see bias much in yourself, you can see it in others.” What do you think of tests that are used to measure an individual’s implicit bias?

DR:      Hmm. This is a controversial [topic], but I will say that many people believe that, if we could conclusively prove that people have bias, they would pay more attention and change their behaviors. So, they administer these kinds of tests, in the hope that people will care more about bias. The trouble is it doesn’t matter how much you care about bias; you won’t catch many of your own biases in real time. Education about bias, or motivating people to try to catch their own biases, doesn’t do very much. The test itself has some problems, but I think the bigger problem is we believe that convincing people they are biased is a big part of the solution. We’re not so sure.

JS:        I might add that these tests also can be risky from a legal perspective. Here is a link to an article I wrote on the risks:

JS:        I think I know the answer but let me remove doubt anyone may have. Do you need to have any understanding of neuroscience to appreciate fully your session?

DR:      Not at all. We will be talking in plain English about talent issues, with the science explained in very much layperson’s terms.

JS:        I know that to be true from speaking with you. Excited to hear you live! For a sneak preview of David’s content and engaging style, check out this short video: “Dr David Rock on Science Behind Leadership


See you soon, David!


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