Neurons, you’re fired

Leaders lead, not their brains, argue Dirk Lindebaum and Mike Zundel

May 30, 2013

This approach could progressively dehumanise what are in essence social processes. Neurons do not lead: human beings do

An article in these pages recently warned that neuroscientific approaches to psychology are no substitute for deep theoretical intuition.

The piece, “Brain scans go deep, but you need intuition for light-bulb moments” (Opinion, 16 May), caught our eye because a similar “neuro-peril” also faces organisational research.

A number of recent publications in management journals have suggested that we are on the brink of a revolution in the way we understand and influence how organisations work. Fanned by technological and methodological advances in the study of the brain, neuroscientific approaches appear to many to offer novel theoretical and empirical insights across a range of management disciplines.

Perhaps the most fertile territory for organisational neuroscience is the area of leadership. Some advocates argue that even such a complex phenomenon as this can be reduced to the neural activity of individual brains, at which level it can be studied. The findings of these brain analyses can then be retranslated to higher-order phenomena.

Such an approach, it has been claimed, would permit not only scientifically grounded explanations of what causes and constitutes “good” leadership, but could even open up the prospect of modifying brain patterns to directly improve leaders’ behaviour.

This, of course, is just the latest incarnation of a well-established reductionist tradition in organisational research. As we argue in a forthcoming issue of the journal Human Relations, reducing such a socially complex and recursive phenomenon as leadership to neural activity is subject to serious limitations.

One problem is that the disciplines of organisational research and neuroscience employ fundamentally different terminology and logic. Where, for example, the former speaks of leadership as a relational and recursive phenomenon, the latter talks in terms of neurons either firing or being dormant. This incompatibility could be addressed only by the formulation of what philosophers call “bridging laws” to connect the disparate domains. Yet, so far, advocates of organisational neuroscience have revealed little about what these laws might be.

We doubt that the study of brain processes could ever become a substitute for studying the complex patterns that characterise actual leadership practice. The same individual brain processes may lead to very different social responses because they are merely part of a wider array of biological, social and material factors that, together, constitute leadership.

This is not to suggest that there is no place for neuroscience in our discipline, but we are worried about the sweeping suggestions made for the possible applications of its methods. In particular, much-publicised proposals to use brain studies to identify effective and even inspirational leaders prompt a series of ethical concerns.

As one of us says in a forthcoming exchange with advocates of organisational neuroscience in the Journal of Management Inquiry, some researchers have gone so far as to suggest that organisations could employ neuroscience techniques to single out “deficient” leaders lacking inspirational qualities. They would then be subjected to in-depth diagnostic assessment and treatment - albeit non-invasive - to redress their failings.

This approach would in effect pathologise the behaviour of people who might well act in comparatively normal and healthy ways. The overt medical overtone is particularly significant since it apparently legitimises a range of neuromedical interventions to remedy the diagnosed condition of what one study terms “brain profile deficiencies” in inefficient leaders.

Above all, we are concerned that the availability of increasingly detailed depictions of brain processes could progressively dehumanise what are in essence social processes. Neurons do not lead and neurons do not interpret brain scans: human beings do. Neglecting this fact risks destroying good management practice and undermining the well-being and integrity of the individuals subjected to neuroscientific modifications in the pursuit of organisational ends.

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Reader's comments (1)

There is much to be learned from Neuroscience though the danger lies in extracting bits of information and extrapolating from it as if it infers the whole. Much like the blind men and the elephant. Many Neuroscience advocates (particularly in the management consulting business and not the scientists) place all that they see through this rather reductionist lens. They make pronouncements disregarding the weight of evidence and practice that preceded them. It is as if the word neuroscience now suffices to grant new found credibility to all that falls within its orbit. Eugene Fernandez

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