The Neuroscience of Leadership

Friederike Fabritius, M.S., is a trained neuropsychologist, a certified coach, a popular keynote speaker, an internationally recognized management consultant, and co-author of The Leading Brain.

More about Friederike

Friederike Fabritius, M.S., is a trained neuropsychologist, a certified coach, a popular keynote speaker, an internationally recognized management consultant, and co-author of The Leading Brain.

More about Friederike

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Order books written or co-written by neuroscientist Friederike Fabritius

The Leading Brain

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Leadership isn't an art. It's a science. The Leading Brain employs cutting-edge neuroscience to help you improve performance, enhance creativity, and increase job satisfaction.

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Making tough decisions more quickly and effectively, mastering your emotions, achieving peak performance, fostering teamwork and trust, breaking old bad work habits and adopting new and more productive ones. Let’s face it: There are literally thousands of books available on these topics. Yet nearly all of them lack what The Leading Brain provides: a firm grounding in the newest findings from the exciting field of social cognitive neuroscience.

Unlike many business books, which freely dispense the latest fly-by-night fads and fashions in leadership and management, The Leading Brain uses solid science-based data to support strategies, tips, and techniques that are proven to perform in the workplace.

The Leading Brain starts with a single, powerful idea: To work well yourself and with others, you need to start by understanding how your brain works.

The culmination of years of experience in both science and business, The Leading Brain draws heavily on the expertise of neuropsychologist, management consultant and veteran executive coach Friederike Fabritius, as she combines her considerable knowledge both of the brain and of what makes top executives succeed in a form that manages to be accessible, actionable, and entertaining.

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Raves and recommendations from leaders in science and business

When I think of all the positive feedback and interested questions from the audience, I realize that when you conveyed your message of team collaboration, you did more than simply engage our senior executives on a personal level, you gave them something that is both inspiring and truly useful. Your words will help us on our road to achieving a cultural change. My heartfelt thanks for your contribution!

— Dr. Heinrich Hiesinger, CEO, thyssenkrupp
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Friederike Fabritius answering questions and delivering keynotes

Creating a Brain-Friendly Work Environment

Small steps you can take to help you thrive in the workplace

The Secret DNA of Peak Performance

A trio of chemicals in your brain holds the key to performing at your best.

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Book Friederike Fabritius as a keynote speaker for one of these popular topics

Fostering Contented Teams

A watchful monkey and a hungry lab technician combined to radically change our perception of what brings teams together, and what drives them apart. The now famous discovery of mirror neurons started out as a mistake, but its ramifications have the potential to revolutionize the workplace. In this presentation, I'll start with the story of this happy accident and then explain how it can alter the course of effective leadership. You'll learn

  • What you as a leader can do to make team members feel they are valued
  • Why the brain craves certainty and why uncertainty can be perceived as a threat
  • The number one characteristic for improving mood and reducing stress
  • How to strengthen connections between you and the members of your team
  • Why fairness trumps money for most people and how it should affect your leadership strategy

Taking Charge of your Emotions

In most companies, emotions in the workplace are treated like an uninvited guest. They are tacitly discouraged and when that doesn’t work, they are actively ignored. But emotions aren’t just unavoidable in our working lives; they’re absolutely essential! In this presentation, we’ll start out by exploring the brain science that explains the crucial role that emotions play in all decisions. In addition, we’ll learn

  • What it is about emotions in the workplace that makes us uncomfortable
  • Why attempting to suppress your emotions rarely works and almost always makes matters worse
  • Why top level executives who work long hours often feel less stress than their employees
  • How to strengthen your emotional resilience by using your body as well as your mind
  • Three easy-to-learn techniques that can help to make your emotions work for you instead of against you

Fun, Fear, and Focus

When it comes to dealing with stress, most of us are familiar with the famous fight-or-flight response. But let’s face it: fight or flight is a way of putting out fires. What if your goal is not to simply deal with stress but to perform at your best? Luckily, there’s another group of Fs that makes the secret of achieving peak performance far more attainable. As simple as it sounds, the key to reaching your full potential can be summed up in three words: fun, fear, and focus. In this presentation, we’ll learn

  • The trio of brain chemicals that keeps you performing at your peak
  • How your personal threshold for arousal affects the quality of your performance
  • What’s happening in your brain when you aren't at your best
  • The single most important factor in insuring optimal performance
  • How to "rise to the occasion" when you need to and "chill out" when you don't

Learning to Learn

As the old saying goes, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." Many of us fall back on this tired adage as an excuse for why we find learning more difficult if not outright impossible as we grow older. Well, despite what you may have heard, neuroscience has shown that our capacity for learning continues throughout our lives. In this presentation, we'll find out how the brain learns and then use this to improve your ability to acquire and retain new information, regardless of your age. In addition to exploring the unique characteristic that makes life-long learning possible, we'll learn

  • How positive and negative emotions affect the way we learn and remember
  • The two factors the brain considers when deciding whether information is worth retaining
  • Why a good night's sleep can be so important to the learning process
  • The brain science behind the idea of "getting it right the first time"
  • How our fundamentally social nature affects the way we teach and learn

Getting a Handle on Habits

All of us have struggled and failed to develop good habits and had even a harder time kicking our bad habits. Why is habit change so difficult? In this presentation, we'll explore the unique and powerful way that our brain handles habits and develop a way of "outsmarting" our brains so we can better manage those habits. During the course of the presentation, you'll learn

  • Why a whopping 92 percent of New Years resolutions fail
  • The three steps for establishing good habits and getting rid of bad ones
  • The one absolutely essential element that many goals and resolutions lack
  • A deceptively simple way to outsmart the brain's natural aversion to change
  • Why good intentions alone never bring about permanent change

A New Take on Diversity

Diversity has become a watchword in the modern workplace. But “diversity” may not mean what you think it means. After all, a team can look like the UN and still have a remarkably uniform way of thinking. In this presentation, we’ll examine how to achieve workplace diversity from a neuroscientific perspective and explain why it can lead to better decisions, more innovative projects, and more profitable production. We’ll learn

  • How an understanding of personality differences should influence the adjustments you make to the workplace environment
  • The four neurochemicals that define four distinct personality types
  • The best strategy for addressing a team member’s weaknesses
  • What to do if you find that your team lacks certain necessary talents
  • How to get the biggest bang from your training budget

Rewards at Work. Rewards that Work

The traditional way to motivate employees has always been with money. But neuroscience is telling us that big fat bonus may not be as effective as we thought it was. Beyond a certain level, simple monetary rewards fail to do the trick. In fact, they may even backfire. What kind of incentives can you provide to keep your employees happy, motivated, and performing at their best? In this presentation, we’ll delve inside the brain to find the source of motivation. In addition, we’ll learn

  • The power of surprise
  • The importance of fairness
  • Why comparison is more important than quantity
  • When money doesn’t matter
  • New ways to pay
  • Why most performance reviews kill motivation, and what you can use instead

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A regularly updated listing of leadership expert Friederike Fabritius's articles and appearances

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Interview

Getting to Yes, And… with guest Friederike Fabritius

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Improvisational actors are experts at getting into flow. Author, neuropsychologist, and executive coach Friederike Fabritius chats with Kelly Leonard from the legendary comedy troupe Second City about finding flow in business and the brain science that lies behind it.

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Interview

Leadership in Action: Friederike Fabritius

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Author, neuropsychologist, and leadership expert Friederike Fabritius joins Leadership in Action hosts Mike Useem and Jeff Klein to discuss how neuroscience is profoundly changing the methods and practices that businesses will be using for leadership training and development.

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Video and Article

The Secret DNA of Peak Performance

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The specific formulas for optimal performance may differ from one person to another, but they all share the same three key ingredients.

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Interview

The Neuroscience of Leadership with Friederike Fabritius

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Companies are finally waking up to the value of neuroscience in business. Friederike Fabritius, a neuropsychologist and co-author of The Leading Brain, talks to psychologist Scott Barry Kaufmann about a host of helpful brain-based strategies that are making waves in the business world.

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Interview

A Guide to Better Work Performance, through New Brain Insights

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How can you map out your schedule to improve your odds of peak performance? What is the brain’s secret weapon when it comes to decision-making? Neuropsychologist and leadership expert Friederike Fabritius answers these questions and many others in a wide-ranging interview.

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What three neurochemicals lead to peak performance?

Although dopamine, noradrenaline, and acetylcholine are what you need for peak performance, I have developed a friendlier framework to make things easier to remember: It's Fun, Fear and Focus.

When you have fun with the task at hand, that is, when you really enjoy what you are doing, you release dopamine. Dopamine makes your brain more efficient, helps you learn better, and allows your prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain for rational and analytical processing, to function better.

After fun, there's fear, which releases noradrenaline. And when I say "fear," I'm not talking about horror movie fear. I mean the little bit of uncertainty you feel when you're slightly over-challenged, when you're forced to step just outside of your comfort zone.

The last of the three factors is focus. It's only when we truly focus that a chemical called acetylcholine is released in the brain. Of the three factors we need for peak performance, focus may be the toughest to achieve. We are surrounded by distractions. If you are multitasking, you aren't focusing. And if you aren't focusing, you can't achieve peak performance. So, close your door, clear your desk, turn off your phone, and truly focus on doing your best. If it isn't too easy, that's OK. As we've seen, a little fear is good. And, in the end, you'll do more than just perform at your peak. I think you'll have fun!

Why are people so sensitive to negative feedback?

At times it may seem as though we're surrounded by touchy coworkers, but the reality is all of us are inordinately sensitive to negative feedback. In fact, we are nine times more sensitive to bad news than to good news. Why is that? The answer lies in two important regions of the brain, the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens.

The amygdala is activated when we're feeling threatened. It's the source of the famous fight, flight, or freeze response. The nucleus accumbens is triggered whenever we anticipate some sort of reward. Both of these are very primitive responses and with good reason. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that they are the source of our very survival. The amygdala kept our ancestors out of danger, while the nucleus accumbens led them to life-sustaining things such food and mates. The urges to eat and to mate are very strong, but they aren't nearly as powerful as the impulse to respond to danger. After all, food and an attractive partner are irrelevant if you're dead.

Of course, most of us face nothing like the hazards that our primitive relatives encountered. But the truth is, our brains haven't changed much since prehistoric times. As a result, we use the same brain region to react to criticism and disappointing performance reviews as we once used to fight an enemy from a rival tribe or outrun a ferocious tiger.

There are techniques that we can learn to tone down our reactions. As a trained neuropsychologist, leadership expert, and executive coach, I frequently work with clients to perfect these techniques. But the fact remains that our first response to a threat, any threat, is quick and very powerful. So, your touchy coworkers aren't always to blame. Their brains were just wired that way.

What is the key to learning that lasts?

You may be many years, even decades, out of college, but if you haven't discovered this already, in order to stay competitive in the business world, you have to constantly keep learning.

When it comes to learning, there has always been one indispensable concept: emotional relevance. To understand why, it helps to take a look at an area of the brain known as the limbic system. Right smack in the middle of this area is a region called the hippocampus. It's here where your brain decides whether something is worth learning and remembering or whether it can be safely forgotten. How does the brain make this decision? Well, it's no coincidence that the hippocampus is located right between our emotional centers for threats and rewards, the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens. When new information is seen as threatening or rewarding, the brain will usually determine that it's worth storing away for future reference. That's how our ancestors learned, for example, that lions can be dangerous and that apples are delicious.

Learning still works this way today. If information is seen as threatening or rewarding, that is, if it shows up on our emotional radar, we're far more likely to remember it. And what if it's boring, repetitive, or uninspiring? You can forget about it. Literally!

So, should you torture yourself in order to learn the new technologies that relate to your business? No! Although learning by threat -- psychologists call this aversive conditioning -- is actually the strongest form of learning, it should only be used if you want to inhibit undesired behavior, such as touching a hot stove burner. Because it blocks the rational and creative parts of our brain, this sort of learning by threat should be limited to things we need to react to quickly and unconsciously (e.g. for Health & Safety situations), not for information that we want to consciously analyze and build upon

The best way to make information emotionally relevant is to devise creative ways to make it new and enjoyable. Super nanny Mary Poppins had it right when she said, "For every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and snap! The job's a game!"

As most people know, children are like little learning sponges. Their ability to absorb information can be truly phenomenal. This has led to the misconception that we lose our ability to learn as we get older. Not so! In fact, as a trained neuropsychologist, I can assure you that a concept known as neuroplasticity can enable you to keep learning almost indefinitely. Neuroplasticity proves that our brains can constantly be rewired, establishing new, important connections and breaking old and no longer relevant ones. It isn't age that's stopping you. It's an inability or reluctance to make learning fun, precisely the way that children do.

So, if you want to keep learning at work, just find the fun. And snap! Your job's a game!

How can you better use your brain to make the best decisions?

We spend our days making thousands of decisions. Some big. Some small. While most of them are relatively inconsequential, a few of them could cost a fair amount of money and some can even save our lives or the lives of others.

How you make each individual decision depends on the part of your brain you use and whether you are a novice or an expert in the area where you're called upon to make a choice.

Experts and novices arrive at optimum decisions in very different ways. This difference is crucial, but it can also be the source of great confusion and annoyance.

Few things are more frustrating when you're learning the ropes in a new job and you ask an experienced coworker to explain how she arrived at her decision. "I don't really know how I came up with that answer. I just knew."

Chances are, these experts aren't being coy or deliberately difficult. In fact, they may truly be unable to recount the steps they took to reach their conclusion. In fact, some of these experts make the mistake of concluding that they arrived at an answer through sheer luck or even ESP. But the truth is that there's nothing fortuitous or paranormal about expert intuition. It's a logical calculation and the product of extraordinary data crunching. What makes expert intuition seem so miraculous is that most of the thinking occurs very quickly and largely unconsciously.

Novices typically make decisions consciously and by using a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex or PFC. Experts are more apt to rely on the basal ganglia, a golf ball sized region of the brain that operates under our conscious radar. But the distinction between the PFC and the basal ganglia isn't simply a question of conscious vs. unconscious. It's also a matter of speed and processing power. If you think of your prefrontal cortex as an abacus, your basal ganglia is a supercomputer.

If you're an expert, the less time and information you have, the more effective you are likely to be in making decisions. The shortage of time and the scarcity of data forces the brain to operate unconsciously and to rely on the basal ganglia to make the decision. Giving experts too much time or information can actually backfire, forcing them to become overly self-conscious about a process that has become second nature. Anyone who has ever experienced the yips in golf or choked during a tennis game will recognize the danger of over-thinking. On the other hand, if you're a relative beginner, both lots of time and lots of data are your friends. You'll need to mull things over consciously and to weigh and analyze the available evidence and information.

Whether you make the right decision or the wrong one, this experience will usually be stored in your basal ganglia. As your experience accumulates, you will have more and more data to draw upon until ultimately you reach the level of expert and will no longer require the time, the information, and the conscious energy to make the optimal choice. Experts may seem like they're simply winging it or guessing. But they aren't. The analysis they once had to do slowly and consciously is now being performed so quickly and unconsciously that when they arrive at a decision it not only seems to come out of the blue, but it's often the best possible choice.