Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Gordon Brown's brain: explained

Gordon Brown has long been accused of lacking in emotional intelligence, defined as the ability to read and comprehend people’s emotions and act on that analysis to effect positive change. This is a polite way of saying that he’s a bastard to work with. According to a Bloomberg report earlier this year, a new aide was warned to watch out for "flying Nokias" when he joined Brown’s team. The Prime Minister was also alleged to be fond of trashing printers.

Brown’s belligerence can be traced back to a personality disorder, according to Dr Thomas Stuttaford, a medical columnist who writes for the Times. Apparently, Brown shows symptoms of having a “cluster A” personality disorder, which means

“…he is likely to be demanding, self-absorbed, have difficulties in relationships with others, suffer discomfort in social situations with unfamiliar people… and may be so focused that he finds it difficult to concentrate on subjects other than that which has caught his immediate attention."

Dr Stuttaford’s armchair diagnosis is somewhat weakened by the fact that he is a former Conservative MP. But Brown’s inability to connect with, and therefore to lead, his inner and outer circles is unlikely to resonate well with voters, many of whom may recognise that Cameron, however slippery, at least engenders unity and respect in his associates.

Brown’s a clever guy, so why can’t he do something to change his image before it’s too late? Researchers at UCLA believe they have the answer. A report by neuroscientists Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman delves into the link between emotional intelligence and management, and discovers a neat paradox: clever people often make the worst leaders.

What’s the link between social intelligence and leadership? According to Eisenberger, all physiological and neurological reactions “are directly and profoundly shaped by social interaction.” This means that employees respond well to praise (which, incidentally stimulates the same area of the brain that lights up after a financial windfall), but their response to a perceived threat is often far more severe and longer-lasting than the response to a reward. When Brown’s aides have to duck a flying mobile phone, or indeed when any employee is reprimanded, given an unworthy task, or given a pay cut, they experience that threat as a neural impulse, “as powerful and painful as a blow to the head.”

That’s because when people feel excluded, says Eisenberger, there is “activity in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex”, which is the area of the brain that also deals with physical pain. Brown’s aide might as well take that flying Nokia in the face. As far as his brain is concerned, the damage done to his future level of engagement is likely to be the same.

According to business+strategy, an employee’s response to such treatment

“… is both mentally taxing and deadly to the productivity of a person—or of an organization. Because this response uses up oxygen and glucose from the blood, they are diverted from other parts of the brain, including the working memory function, which processes new information and ideas. This impairs analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem solving; in other words, just when people most need their sophisticated mental capabilities, the brain’s internal resources are taken away from them.

“Most people who work in companies learn to rationalize or temper their reactions; they “suck it up,” as the common parlance puts it. But they also limit their commitment and engagement. They become purely transactional employees, reluctant to give more of themselves to the company, because the social context stands in their way.”

One of the key aspects of high emotional intelligence is self-awareness. When a leader is self-aware, “it gives others a feeling of safety even in uncertain environments. It makes it easier for employees to focus on their work, which leads to improved performance. A self-aware leader modulates his or her behaviour to alleviate organizational stress and creates an environment in which motivation and creativity flourish.” Does that sound like an accurate description of Brown’s cabinet?

So the Prime Minister, once described by Baroness Morris of Yardley as the “last Cabinet colleague you'd have thought of suggesting a drink with", may be causing his associates untold pain, and his conduct is inspiring poor performance. He’s an intelligent man, why can’t he moderate his behaviour?

Lieberman’s research helps explain why many intelligent people struggle to lead. High intelligence, he suggests, often corresponds with low self-awareness. That’s because the neural networks required for information holding, planning, and problem solving are in the lateral, or outer, part of the brain, while the networks that support self-awareness, social skills, and empathy are nearer the middle. These regions are “inversely correlated”. Or in other words, use of one region can inhibit use of the other.

Says Lieberman:

“If you spend a lot of time in cognitive tasks, your ability to have empathy for people is reduced, simply because that part of your circuitry doesn’t get much use.”

Or as Sir Bob Geldof once put it:

"Would it be easy to spend a night in a bar with him? No, he'd get bored.”

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