Effective leaders are insensitive to criticism

September 14, 2013 | By | Add a Comment

Most believe that critical, or constructive, feedback helps develop the self-awareness necessary for effective leadership.  Ironically, highly self-aware leaders are insensitive to criticism.  Neuroscience explains why and how this occurs.

Regardless of how well it’s delivered, the amygdala interprets criticism as a threat and initiates negative emotions like anxiety, fear or anger.  Leaders highly sensitive to threat experience an automatic ‘emotion-driven narrowing of attention’.  As these leaders experience negative emotions, their anterior cingulate cortex directs more attention to the neural networks processing these emotions and less attention to other networks processing the message.  This over-allocation of attention to emotion processing networks causes a failure in self-regulation leading to stronger negative emotions, misinterpretation and inappropriate behaviours.  For example, anxious leaders avoid criticism while fearful or angry leaders dismiss or attack those who criticise them.

However, effective leaders prevent this automatic narrowing of attention and therefore minimise any emotional reaction.  In effect, they are insensitive to the threat of criticism because they have enough network capacity available to self-regulate their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.  Such leaders process the feedback message, correctly interpret its meaning and motivate themselves to response appropriately.  Whereas, threat sensitive leaders have limited network capacity to self-regulate their thoughts and emotions.  They not only fail to process the message, they also fail to remember it.  Hence, they remain self-unaware by ‘taking feedback personally’ and reacting inappropriately.

So what are the lessons for developing leadership self-awareness?  Traditional approaches focus on providing open and honest feedback targeting leadership ‘blind spots’.  However, a brain-based approach highlights the critical importance self-regulation plays on a leader’s capacity to respond effectively to critical feedback.  Leadership development solutions that target self-regulation of negative thoughts and emotions counter this automatic tendency to dismiss, avoid or react aggressively to constructive feedback.

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