Friederike Fabritius on The Leading Brain: An interview by Bob Morris

Friederike Fabritius is a neuropsychologist and a leading expert in the field of Neuroleadership. After starting at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and then continuing as a management consultant at McKinsey, Friederike now applies her unique expertise in leadership consulting. As an executive coach and leadership specialist, she has extensive expertise working with top executives from Fortune 500 companies. A sought-after keynote speaker, she has addressed enthusiastic audiences at events hosted by prominent multinational corporations, including Bayer, EY (Ernst & Young), thyssenkrupp, trivago, Siemens, Montblanc, and Audi.

She is also an expert in designing learning systems that draw on the brain’s inherent capabilities to acquire and retain new information effectively. Friederike herself has used these methods to learn six languages that she now speaks fluently.

Her book, The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance, was co-authored with Hans W. Hagemann and published by TarcherPerigee/An imprint of Penguin Random House (February 2017).

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Before discussing The Leading Brain, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

First and foremost, I would have to credit my parents. When I was young, our house was full of books and my parents had lots of interests. Growing up surrounded by books and living with people who think about so many interesting things has really enabled me to thrive. Thanks to this early influence, I remain very curious and I still read a great deal. Another important influence is a dear friend of mine, who is always so positive. Whenever I have a problem, she sees the upside. She’s really helped me to develop a more positive perspective on things.

The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

My time at McKinsey was crucial. Of course, I already had training as a neuropsychologist, but until I came to McKinsey I had very little experience in the business world. It was there that I was taught how to address top management. That was absolutely essential because from Day One I was working with senior executives and solving their problems. That was very empowering. I still use a lot of those skills to this day.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Too many people reach the point of exhaustion, burn out, and job dissatisfaction before learning a powerful lesson. You’re far more likely to be successful if you know your strengths, your limitations, and, above all, if you know your passions. You need to look at the job in front of you and ask yourself, “Does this reflect my strengths? Is this really the way I want to work? Is that how I work?” If your answers are “No,” I think it’s important to try to change things to match your own performance profile and if you can’t, to seriously consider finding another job.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

My epiphany came when I was asked, “How can your background in neuroscience be used to help leaders?” This simple question hit me like a thunderbolt. When I was at Max Planck, the people there were focused on research and had very little interest in business applications. Yet at McKinsey no one seemed to see the relevance of neuroscience. When I was finally asked a question that linked these two areas together, that set me off to developing all of these exciting projects that ultimately formed the basis for The Leading Brain.

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Well, one obvious benefit is the fact that I’m a trained neuropsychologist. Having a real understanding of neuroscience makes a difference. Although there are a lot of coaches who claim they’re using neuroscience, the reality is that many of them don’t truly understand it. In order to help clients, I think it’s important to have a really deep understanding of neuroscience

Here are two of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

It’s quite possible that Edison was thinking of people who have very active dopamine systems. These are people who have a lot of great ideas but might lack the patience to thoroughly pursue them. That’s why a truly diverse team includes people dopamine-driven sensation seekers who come up with the bold new ideas but also people who have an active serotonin system who make sure that something is done with these ideas. They’re the ones who have the patience to implement the ideas and to look at all the details. With dopamine and serotonin, you get both vision and execution and avoid the hallucination.

Then from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

These days, people rarely have the time to step back and really think about which ideas are worth pursuing and which are not. If you have time to ask yourself what do I need to do and why am I doing it, you will not only avoid the pitfall that Drucker alludes to, but you will also gain a clear sense that you are taking charge of your life. One thing we know from neuroscience is that a sense of autonomy is a highly effective guard against stress. It is important to chart your own course. You don’t want to be driven entirely by other people’s demands and find yourself always wondering, “Is this really necessary?”

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

For overcoming both comfort and custom, I offer the same solution: kaizen. That’s the Japanese term for the principle of continuous improvement through small steps. Although we’re constantly reminded of the inevitably of change, the fact is that the brain doesn’t like change and tends to react unfavorably to its prospect by activating a region called the amygdala, which triggers a threat response. I love Dr. Robert Maurer’s explanation that kaizen helps you to “tiptoe past your amygdala.” What this suggests is that if you make changes steadily but in very small steps, the brain is less likely to throw up a natural, instinctive resistance to the alteration of its regular routine. Although he may not have been thinking along these lines, O’Toole’s quote provides a great explanation for why most New Year’s resolutions fail. All too often, we try to do too much too fast and find that we fail completely. On the other hand, if we start out a little more modestly, there’s a strong chance of reaching goals that we might never have been capable of achieving otherwise

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

For many people, finding just the right workplace culture seems almost as elusive and mythical as the pursuit of the Holy Grail. But on a certain level, the path to peak performance is remarkably straightforward. I have developed a neuroleadership framework called fun, fear, and focus. In order to thrive we need all three of them. When we’re having fun, dopamine is released, which makes the prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain that handles higher cognitive processing – work better. And by “fun,” I’m not talking about the after-work sort of fun, but the fun you get from the work itself. Likewise, by “fear”, I don’t mean terror, but just enough uneasiness that it triggers a burst of noradrenaline and stimulates you to rise to occasion. I like to refer to this as being “slightly over-challenged.”

And finally there’s focus, which comes when our brain releases acetylcholine. Unfortunately, in this age of mobile devices and information overload, focus might be the hardest of all to achieve. In fact, meetings are one of the few remaining sanctuaries from constant interruption, where focus is still possible. That’s why I often encourage clients to schedule what I call a “meeting of one,” a time block when distractions and interruptions are just as unthinkable as they would be in a regular multi-person meeting. When people have all three factors, that is, when they have the fun, the fear, and the focus all at once, they get into flow. And when we’re in flow, we’re five times more productive.

Leaders who truly understand the principles of fun, fear, and focus should be able to do a great deal to make it easier for their employees get fully engaged.

Now please shift your attention to The Leading Brain. For those who have not yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP.

First, when and why did you decided to write it?

When I introduced my neuroscience experience into leadership consulting, I found this approach resonated with most people almost immediately. They really felt it was helping them. In fact, the response to my seminars was so positive that there was really only one question they asked that frequently left them feeling a little disappointed. That question was, “Can you please recommend a good book that provides more information on this topic?” At the time I didn’t really have an adequate answer. Now I do.

What are the core principles of the concept of neuroleadership?

The name neuroleadership does a pretty good job of describing its core principles, that is, that you take insights from neuroscience and combine them with an understanding of business so that it works with business people. In my case, I was lucky because I had a background in both areas. How can people’s lives be more rewarding? How can they work more efficiently? How can people make better decisions? How can people learn more effectively? How can people collaborate better? These are questions that often come up in business, and they are questions for which neuroscience is uniquely equipped to provide answers. In fact, there are still many insights from social cognitive neuroscience that have not even been applied yet. That’s exciting.

In your opinion, which of the recent breakthroughs in brain science do you consider most significant with regard to peak performance? Why?

In 2006 Rutgers University biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher isolated four neurochemical systems, each linked with a specific constellation of biologically based personality styles. Each of us possesses a unique combination of styles, which Fisher and the co-authors of a 2013 paper call a “neural signature.” Although the research was originally done for an Internet dating site, the neural signatures that Dr. Fisher found provide clues as to what it takes for individuals in the workplace to perform at their peak and aid us in forming teams that can produce the best collective results. The business benefit from Fisher’s research is that it helps us to better understand the differing personalities of our colleagues, why some require considerable stress to perform at their best, while others do better when there is a predictable routine.

There are several controversial (perhaps misguided) opinions about the value of talent. Geoff Colvin, for example, asserts that it is “overrated.” What are your own thoughts about all this?

The nature-nurture argument has been raging for centuries, and the latest evidence strongly suggests that we are a product of both. A recent meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on half a century of twin studies found that genetics accounts for nearly half of our traits. Although it’s true that this leaves another half for other factors, if you’re born with a particular talent, you are granted a formidable head start. There will always be anecdotal evidence of people who appeared to lack innate talent and yet went on to become one of the stars in their particular field. I certainly don’t dispute those inspiring examples. At the same time, you can’t always kiss a frog and expect him to turn into a prince. Or, as the saying goes, no matter how long you build the runway, you still can’t get a pig to fly. I don’t intend to cite these studies for elitist purposes.

Quite the contrary: we have a tendency to naturally gravitate toward the areas where we have talent. We like and enjoy the things we are good at. This not only improves our performance but also our overall sense of wellbeing. I refuse to accept that work needs to be drudgery and I have spent my career exploring ways that people can not only perform at their peaks, but also how they can feel more fulfilled in their jobs. I imagine if I worked very hard at it that I could probably become a passable computer programmer. But the truth is that I don’t have a talent for it and I doubt that I would ever truly enjoy the process of writing a program. That greatly diminishes my chances of performing at my peak and may put a ceiling on my potential productivity. Not only that, but it’s likely that someone else could quickly catch up and pass me in the programming world and with considerably less effort. Why? Because she or he has a talent for programming, and I don’t.

What do you mean by “sweet spot,” discussed in Chapter 1?

We took that analogy from the location on a tennis racket, a golf club, or a baseball bat, where the ball responds exactly the way you want it to. When it comes to peak performance, the sweet spot is where you have just the right level of dopamine, noradrenaline, and acetylcholine – or, as I prefer to put it, fun, fear, and focus – that enables you to perform at your best. It’s important to keep in mind that the location of this sweet spot will differ from one person to the next. Some people require a lot of fear, while others need less of a challenge. Some of us can focus easily, but for others it’s a struggle. One person’s meat is another person’s poison. What is fun for me could be somebody else’s nightmare.

Why do so many people find it so difficult to “relocate their emotions”?

What most people try – and fail – to do is to suppress their emotions. We know this doesn’t work from because the effort to inhibit these emotions interferes with the ability of the prefrontal cortex to function fully. This is where we suggest what I like to call “Cognitive Jujitsu.” In the martial arts, the best approach to defeating your opponent is to use his own power against him. This is particularly true when your opponent is bigger and stronger than you are. And that’s exactly the scenario when our conscious and comparatively weak prefrontal cortex confronts the primitive and extremely powerful seat of our emotions, the limbic system. Attempting to defeat the limbic system directly (which is what emotional suppression attempts to do) doesn’t work. But if you redirect the power and energy of those emotions, either by consciously labeling your feelings or by reappraising a negative emotion as a positive one you will succeed in shifting the balance of power away from the limbic system and back to your conscious control.

In your opinion, how best to “unleash” one’s subconscious? Also, please explain to what extent (if any) the unconscious can be controlled or at least managed.

Research has shown that experts make decisions a little differently than do other people. A lot of this expert decision-making is done with the unconscious and the resulting decisions are often superior to decisions that are made consciously. If you’re a beginner, it’s a wise idea to spend time fact-finding and weighing your options. But if you’re an expert in a particular area, your best decisions will often be made with limited time and limited information. As for whether your unconscious can be controlled or managed, this is precisely what limited time and information achieve. They force you to rely on your unconscious. And when you’re an expert, that’s usually a good idea.

Almost 50 years ago in Future Shock, Alvin Toffler asserted that the illiterate of the 21st century “will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Do you agree? Please explain.

Although our concept of what constitutes literacy may have changed since Toffler made his pronouncement, brain science tells us that when it comes to learning, there has always been one indispensible concept: emotional relevance. The principal region of the brain that we use for learning and remembering is called the hippocampus. And it’s no coincidence that the hippocampus is located between our emotional centers for threats and rewards. When information is seen as either threatening or rewarding, the brain determines that it’s worth remembering, in other words, that it’s relevant, and with that the hippocampus does its thing.

What can be learned from the subconscious? How?

I might be inclined to turn the question around and ask, “What can be learned from the conscious?” The answer is, “Not as much as you think.” Although we deliver our answers consciously, much of our learning occurs unconsciously. To some extent it’s simply a matter of space. The prefrontal cortex is a relatively small and energy intensive region of the brain, while the unconscious is speedy, efficient, and has lots of room. With the exception of a few things, such as adding a column of figures or remembering a phone number that someone has just told you, most of our brainwork is performed unconsciously. The only thing we’re made consciously aware of is the final answer. Creative people as well as experts in any field learn to leverage the power of their unconscious for both decisions and insights. But all of us can benefit by using our unconscious whenever we can.

In your opinion, which of the principles that support effective learning are most abused, underutilized, or ignored in formal education? Why?

The most underutilized principle of effective learning is fun. That’s why it’s the first factor in my fun, fear, and focus framework for peak performance. Many of us spend hours and hours in the classroom poring over books and lessons that don’t inspire or excite us. It’s no wonder that we retain so little from our formal education. The lack of emotional relevance sends a clear signal to the brain that this isn’t worth learning or remembering. Many of us took a second language in high school or college, and yet how many of us can still remember it? I speak six languages. One of the reasons I’m able to do so is because I made sure that the way I learned each language was fun. My brain took the hint and helped to ensure what I learned was remembered.

Long ago, I became convinced that people cannot be motivated by someone else but someone else can inspire their self-motivation. What do you think?

I fully agree. Motivation must come from within not without. So, how can you foster self-motivation? One way is by putting people in environments or situations that are in line with their strengths. Another key factor is to provide a situation that enables them to have the right levels of fun, fear, and focus.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in The Leading Brain will be most valuable to those now preparing for a professional career or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

Although The Leading Brain is technically aimed at senior executives, it should be helpful at all levels in the workplace, from the boardroom down to the mailroom. I hope that by learning a little more about how the brain operates, that reader will be able to increase their self-awareness and better understand what they really need in order to work better. At that same time, reading The Leading Brain should also enhance their understanding of what makes other people tick, whether we’re talking about seasoned executives or first-time supervisors. Frankly, from this level, I don’t see much of a difference. As long as you have a brain, I’m confident that you will find reading The Leading Brain to be both rewarding and worthwhile.

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Friederike invites you to check out the resources at this website.


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