Review: Antagonistic neural networks underlying different leadership roles

Boyatzis, R. E., Rochford, K., Jack, A. I. (2014) Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8, article 114

Purpose

This paper explores the neural underpinnings for two distinct leadership roles, being the task-oriented leader and the socio-emotional leader, linking them to two large-scale cortical networks. This paper is not the only of its type in this area. Rather, it is a refinement of well-established ideas informed by discoveries in neuroscience.

Summary of key points

The task-positive network (TPN) is active during non-social tasks, or non-social approaches to problems and tasks. It is linked with concentration, rational problem-solving, focus, cognitive decision-making and initiating and controlling task-oriented action. The default mode network (DMN) is involved with general and emotional self-awareness, social cognition, ethics, creativity and intuitive and inciteful, rather than “rational”, decision-making. The human brain fluctuates between these major networks, with the TPN suppressing the DMN, meaning that when a person becomes very task-specific, there is a reduction in her or his ability to draw on emotions and “deep” knowledge or inspiration.

This means the more focused and task-oriented an individual becomes, the less self and socially aware – and deeply creative – they are likely to become. For leaders, a preference for task-orientation is likely to hold back innovation, openness, ethical considerations and emotional connection, whereas a bias toward socio-emotional factors can lead to poor focus on achievement and goal achievement. However, specifically through the involvement of the ventral attention network in detecting (which involves some non-task specific awareness) and responding to task-specific stimuli, these networks, although quite distinct in purpose and influence, are nonetheless inter-related.

Comments

This paper uses an anti-correlation methodology of defining the TPN and DMN networks, meaning they are largely defined by regions that are specifically not active when others are. This might seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy when seeking differences, but it is also supported in large part by complementary definitions of these networks through mutual activation during periods of focus or rest. On that basis, the concept, despite perhaps some minor interpretations around the edges, is likely to be sound.

The concept of two or more (seven were noted in this paper) counter-acting, complementary, interacting but largely independent networks is entirely consistent with optimal brain function generally, and NeuroSmart® principles specifically. Socio-emotional vs task focus is core to the Neurosmart® Predictive Behavioural Temperament Assessment and is also explored in the Neurosmart® Leadership Resilience Assessment. Consistency theory infers an internal preference for complementary, at times parallel, processing between networks, where differences (e.g. an ethical dilemma, or where “rationality” conflicts with “gut-feelings”) create distressful feelings and uncertain action-options which individuals will feel compelled to attempt to resolve, justify or ignore.

That TPN vs DMN dominance in given contexts is likely to be repeated is supported by all aspects of brain development, from neurogenesis through to synaptogenesis and myelinogenesis. That change in TPN vs DMN is possible, within bounds, is supported by neuroplasticity but likely to be contextually dependent and more optimally achievable under moderate, rather than extreme, stress.

The distinction between socio-emotional vs task focus as a dominant processing bias is useful in recruitment and career-planning, where specific organisational goals, value-systems, cultures and contexts see one preference as more desirable than another. For example, a socially-oriented organisation involved in charity, human services or creativity might inherently benefit from leaders and employees with a bias toward socio-emotional thinking, requiring DMN prevalence, whereas a business requiring task focus, compliance & efficiency is likely to benefit from leaders and employees who more commonly use their TPN. A bias too far in either direction is likely to see decisions and behaviours that are imbalanced but feel perfectly rational and reasonable to that individual.

This paper provides a semi-permanent neurobiological basis for socio-emotional vs task focus bias in thinking, attention, capacity and, ultimately, action choices, describing general advantages and disadvantages of dominance in either. Its findings are as relevant for any other role as they are for leadership. The paper supports the validity of assessing and being generally aware of biases towards socio-emotional vs task focus in self and others. Knowledge of these biases can assist in recruitment, career planning, role choices, team selection, problem solving, self-development and workplace culture, along with more strategic leadership choices and actions.