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The Neuroscience of Highly Effective Leadership in Endodontic Practice

By Joel C. Small, D.D.S., MBA, PCC, FICD

Recent advances in the study of neuroscience as it relates to leadership and influence are revolutionizing the principles of effective leadership and leadership coaching.

David Rock, the founder of the Neuroleadership Institute, and his group of researchers have conducted ground breaking research on how the brain functions and how neurotransmitters can trigger either a positive or negative state in the brain. These findings can be utilized to develop highly effective leaders in dental practice as well as peak performing teams.

As a general rule, humans like to minimize threats and maximize rewarding experiences. The brain modulates our responses based on its perception of either a threat or reward.

Interestingly, the brain is unable to distinguish between physical and emotional threats, and therefore reacts in a similar manner to both.

When our brain perceives a physical or emotional threat it triggers the release of powerful neurotransmitters that create a negative mental state. When we find ourselves in this negative state of mind we have a reduced ability to focus and find ourselves less receptive to learning or coaching.

A positive mental state is also created by neurotransmitters that trigger a sense of well being characterized by an openness to learning and increased focus.  We are much more effective when we act and communicate in a manner that creates a positive mental state for our team members.

Rock and his group have identified certain social domains that are essential in creating a positive mental state in those we lead.  When these social domains are addressed in a positive manner we find that others are more engaged, more focused, and receptive to learning.

The acronym for Rock’s model is “SCARF”, which stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.  Many leadership coaches are utilizing the SCARF method when coaching their clients. They are also teaching their clients how to utilize this method so the client can become a more effective leader within their organizations.

The following is our interpretation of how endodontists can and should utilize the SCARF approach within their practices to become effective leaders, have greater influence, and develop peak performing teams:

S (Status):

Collaboration with our team is one of the best ways to promote their status. Letting them know that we value their opinion has multiple benefits for the staff and the practice.

Creating a psychologically safe environment in which staff can offer unfiltered feedback with no fear of repercussion is also a way to increase our staff’s self-confidence and their sense of status.

Utilizing coaching skills are important in increasing our staff’s status. Asking questions like “What do you think?” or making statements like “I value your opinion and want your input” are both empowering and status building for our staff.

C (Certainty):

Mutually shared values and purpose are guidelines that offer a high degree of certainty for our staff. When we make our values non-negotiable we are providing our team with unwavering principles about how we will work together.

Conversely, when we violate our values or allow others to do so, we create doubt for our team and destroy their sense of certainty.

A clearly defined vision of our preferred future practice is another form of certainty for our team. It provides our staff with a sense of direction and helps them determine their role in making this vision a reality.

A (Autonomy):

This may be the most difficult principle for us to master. We are, by nature, controllers and micromanagers.  However, learning to let go of our need to control is a necessary step to becoming an effective leader.

When assigning projects to be completed by staff, we should offer extreme clarity regarding the desired result and then allow our staff to find their own path to achieving the goal. Checking in on their progress is helpful, but micromanaging is counterproductive.

R (Relatedness):

Joe Folkman, a highly regarded researcher, has conducted extensive studies on the importance of relatedness. His findings, summarized in his recent book “The Trifecta of Trust,” indicate that relatedness is the most essential ingredient in establishing trust, and trust is the catalyst for effective leadership.

An outdated and destructive assumption held by many leaders is that if they become too close to their staff, they will lose their objectivity and avoid giving corrective feedback when necessary. There is also the fear that staff will use their professional relationship with the boss as leverage and a manipulative tool.  Folkman dispels this assumption in his research findings that indicated the benefits of positive professional relationships far outweigh any potential negatives.

Getting to know our team members is a way of establishing relatedness. Checking in with them about their family and personal needs is important.

Understanding their personal future vision and helping them turn the vision into reality is another powerful tool in creating a positive professional relationship.

F (Fairness):

Another interesting finding from Folman’s research is that team members that enjoy a positive professional relationship with their boss are also much more likely to view their boss as being fair.

Consistency in our words and actions is a means of establishing a sense of fairness with our teams.

It is important to understand that fairness does not imply that we agree with all our staff’s suggestions.  We may not always make decisions consistent with our team’s suggestions, but if we are perceived as being fair, our staff will likely accept our decisions knowing that we listened and considered their position when reaching our conclusion.

Dr. Joel C. Small is a board certified executive leadership coach for Line of Sight Coaching.