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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Anna Obukhova on The Biology of Leadership and Working with Tired Teams

Anna Obukhova on The Biology of Leadership and Working with Tired Teams


In this podcast recorded at the Agile 2018 conference Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Anna Obukhova about the neuroscience and biology of leadership and what it takes to coach and work with tired teams.

Key Takeaways

  • When we change a process we also impact and cause change to the body and brain of the people involved in the process
  • Behavioral ethology shows how the perception of being in a “caged environment” impacts hormone production and results in changed attitudes and approaches
  • Energy levels vary from person to person and over time; maintaining high energy is crucial to leading and adapting to change
  • Tired teams need different styles of coaching and support, using the same techniques as with energized teams can result in harm
  • Different agile approaches and frameworks are applicable with companies and teams who have different energy levels, trying to apply a high energy framework in low energy environment will fail and cause stress

Show Notes

  • 00:30 Introductions
  • 01:44 When we change a process we also impact and cause change to the body and brain of the people involved in the process
  • 02:03 Anna’s background in embryology and how that applies to her thinking about change
  • 02:35 Introducing neuro leadership -
  • 03:19 Discussing the biology of leadership
  • 03:25 In the modern business world we don’t need leaders and followers, we need leaders and leaders
  • 04:20 Drawing on behavioural ecology and exploring how the perception of being in a “caged environment” impacts hormone production and results in changed attitudes and approaches
  • 05:23 Being “caged” results in feeling physically old – low energy and feeling incapable
  • 05:56 This results in a need to protect one’s position and results in dominant behavior
  • 06:14 The result of dominant behavior is bad management
  • 06:25 Change resistance is a consequence of low energy and need for dominance
  • 06:40 Anger is a short-term fix for low energy levels because it releases adrenalin, testosterone and dopamine
  • 06:57 Contrasting leaders who don’t feel caged, they protect the team around them, they feel energetic
  • 07:05 Mirror neurons result in the attitudes being visible and reflecting in people around the dominant or servant leader 
  • 07:35 We choose to follow leaders rather than dominant managers
  • 07:55 How leadership results in others choosing to join and follow
  • 08:32 It is possible to identify what makes leaders effective from an energy system/neuroscience perspective
  • 08:48 Rank potential – the number of dopamine receptors in the brain – is one of the factors which influences curiosity and ambition
  • 09:10 An example of how rank potential plays out in people
  • 09:54 Exploring this idea with agile coaches and their perceived “size” of influence
  • 11:03 Addiction of any sort impacts the dopamine system and hijacks curiosity and ambition
  • 11:40 The result authorizing system is established in early childhood, up to approx. 6-8 years of age
  • 12:07 Getting pleasure from group results comes from a different part of the brain and different chemical reactions (oxytocin)
  • 12:32 Primitivity – the level of concern we have for our own goals vs the goals of our group/society – is another factor influencing leadership potential.
  • 13:26 The third factor is vitality – the level of energy that you are able to maintain over long periods
  • 13:54 Contrasting the different levels of the brain – reptile, limbic and higher brain.  To engage the higher brain centres, you need higher energy levels
  • 14:22 Exploring energy levels on a 0-100% scale
  • 14:27 The average energy level for an office worker is around 33% – at this level any change results in internal panic
  • 14:40 The minimum level of energy needed to be able to cope in an agile environment is 45%
  • 15:09 This energy gap helps explain change resistance and failed agile adoption
  • 15:14 Leaders need 50-55% energy level, and agile coaches need to have 60% or more to be effective
  • 15:28 The differences in attitude that exhibit at higher energy levels, particularly around flexibility in thinking and tolerance
  • 16:20 Maintaining energy levels is crucial for coaches; ways to keep your energy high include meditation, healthy diet, sleep patterns, exercise
  • 16:58 The impact of losing energy levels on leaders
  • 17:28 Many of the ways to raise energy levels are in the hands of the individual – exercise, sleep etc
  • 17:39 Trying to coach a burned-out person using the common coaching techniques does more harm than good; working with tired, burned out people requires different approaches
  • 18:40 Anna is researching ways to coach tired teams and help them maintain an agile approach while overcoming burnout
  • 19:14 An example of one technique for a scrum master to work with a tired team
  • 20:50 Anna has found over 40 techniques to work with tired teams
  • 22:20 Anna’s workshop Coaching a Tired Team (presentation on InfoQ) and Brain Loves Agile website
  • 22:58 Different agile frameworks are more applicable with teams and organisations working with different levels of energy
  • 23:15 Make sure you apply appropriate approaches based on the organisation’s energy level – a mismatch will result in failure and stress on the people


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