Neuroscience Can Make You A Better IT Leader

by drjim on September 17, 2008

A Good IT Leader Needs A Healthy Brain

A Good IT Leader Needs A Healthy Brain

Dr. John Median is a developmental molecular biologist who recently sat down with the Harvard Business Review and had a talk about what we’ve recently found out about how the brain works and what this can tell us about being better IT leaders.

The key question that IT leaders want to get an answer to is to find how how relevant neuroscience discoveries are to the day-to-day job of management. Dr. Median says that he thinks that one of the reasons that we are all so fascinated by brain research these days is because it truly is the most interesting and complicated processing tool that we have ever seen. How’s this for a fascinating fact: there are as many neurons in your brain as there are stars in a typical galaxy. Despite having this level of knowledge about the brain, we still know very little that can be related to the real world.

One thing that science has learned is that stress is very, very bad for our brains. Since it hurts our brains, it also decreases our productivity. The reasoning behind this is pretty simple. Evolution has wired our brains to help us to survive. What this means in practical terms is that our brains were originally set up to deal with stress for short periods of time: 30-60 seconds. Remember “fight or flight?” However, in today’s modern IT workplace everyone is under stress almost all the time. Our brains were never set up to deal with stress all the time. This can lead to other problems with things like a lack of motivation, poor sleep and immune system issues.

So what happens when we have too much stress in our lives? Dr. Median says that stress can mess with our hormones. When this happens, the connections between brain cells that help us remember things can start to fray and weaken. Unfortuantly, the hormones associated with stress seem to like to prey on the part of the brain that is called the hippocampus – where our memories are kept. Some studies have guessed that the total cost of lost productivity due to stress is somewhere around $200 billion/year. What does this mean for IT managers? Simply put, anything that you can do to lower the stress level that is being experienced by your team will pay back rich dividends.

One very interesting point that Dr.Median makes is that our memory is NOT like a Xerox machine. Our brains and our memory were always designed to help with one thing only: our survival. We really have no idea HOW we remember things, but what we do know is that it seems to take a long time for memories to become permanent. The best way to remember something is to constantly re-expose yourself to it. Once again. for IT managers this means that if you want your team to remember the company’s mission statement, then you’re going to have to start every meeting off by reading it to the team.

The good news out of all of this is that our brains will continue to grow and change throughout our entire lives. If you want to have a better shot at having a healthy, growing brain for your entire career, then the #1 thing that you’ve got to do is to exercise. Exercise in any form and aerobic exercise in particular helps your brain. Dr. Median points out that people who exercise are 50% less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease. From an IT leader point-of-view, this goes along nicely with the idea that a healthy team is a more productive team. Anything that you can do to make it easier for your team to stay in top shape will once again help your team to perform that much better.

What are you doing today to lower the stress level of your team? What is the primary cause of their stress? Is your team able to stay healthy or are they “under the weather” all the time? Do you think stress plays a role in your team’s physical health? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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