Research at the University of Liverpool questions the extent to which studies of the human brain are able to offer insights into what constitutes ’good leadership’.
Organisational neuroscience is an emerging area of study that explores the implications of brain science for workplace behaviour. Increasingly, organisational neuroscientists claim that studying the anatomy and physiology of the brain can reveal new insights into what makes a successful and effective leader.
Although this is a popular topic in leading management journals, Dr Dirk Lindebaum and Dr Mike Zundel , from the University of Liverpool’s Management School , reject the idea that leadership - a phenomenon that is socially complex, relational, and recursive - can be readily reduced to neural activity. Their argument draws on the fundamental challenges associated with such reductions.
"We find suggestions – that we are at the brink of a neuroscientific revolution in the study of leadership – premature, and a sole focus on neuroscience, at the expense of insights from other social science disciplines, dangerous"
The researchers said: "We find suggestions – that we are at the brink of a neuroscientific revolution in the study of leadership – premature, and a sole focus on neuroscience, at the expense of insights from other social science disciplines, dangerous.”
In consequence, they argue that it is too simplistic to assume that through neuroscience we can identify ’good’ leaders and rectify ’bad’ leaders. They caution that much more care is needed when trying to understand the complexities of real organisational life.
In related publications, Dr Lindebaum contends that the use of neuroscience in leadership selection and development also raises ethical concerns, especially when so-called ’uninspirational’ leaders are diagnosed with ’brain profile deficiencies’, which then require remedy in order to make them more inspirational.
He added: "I do not suggest that neuroscience doesn’t have a place in the study of organizations or leadership, but detailed depictions of brain processes dehumanise what are essentially social processes.
“Neglecting this difference makes us prone to the very real possibility of endangering the well-being and integrity of human beings when we subject them to neuroscientific modifications in the pursuit of organizational ends."
The research is published in Human Relations and is the subject of an exchange in the Journal of Management Inquiry