The first thing we must accept, before we can hope to help leaders achieve lasting behaviour change, is that the current behaviour has historically provided some positive value. This is true even if the current downside seems to outweigh the benefits. People only repeat neurologically rewarding behaviour. The most well-known neurotransmitter in rooting behaviour is dopamine. However, this neurochemical does not operate alone and serotonin, endorphins and other neuropeptides, chemicals and transmitters have a role to play in behavioural rooting. For ease of discussion, we refer to the mix of neurochemicals peptides and transmitters that encourage behavioural rooting as the metadrug ‘behaviourhol’.
When a leader uses fear to motivate employees it is only because such behaviour has ‘worked’ in the past. On a neural level, the leader has given a “coffee is for closers” speech in the past and received a dose of behaviourhol. This alone is enough to reinforce the “coffee is for closers” root system. It doesn’t matter to the brain whether the speech actually improved sales because such abstract results are too disconnected from the stimulus to affect the rooting. The same principle explains why you cannot reward a puppy 30 seconds after he obeys a command and expect a successful training session.
What are the underlying reasons for retreating to maladaptive behaviour patterns? Mindful examination of heretofore automatic reactions allows a leader to objectively assess past behaviour and its possible nonlinear results. There are no empirically bad behaviours, there are only situationally inappropriate behaviours. Even something negative, such as using fear as a motivator, could be the correct choice in certain circumstances. But, no choice is appropriate in all situations and that is the core of the problem. Maladaptive leaders aren’t bad because of the behaviour per se, they are bad because of their behavioural inflexibility.
It is useful to use the language of substance abuse rehabilitation because in the brain there is no difference between a leader that is addicted to shouting and an employee that is addicted to alcohol. It is all reward driven. It is all behaviourhol. That is why it is so difficult for leaders to develop adaptive responses. All addiction is a form of behavioural inflexibility.
Lapses can swiftly degenerate into relapse. The effect of a lapse depends on one’s subsequent psychological reaction. We have nine areas of focus for the rehabilitation of maladaptive leaders:
1. Help leaders spot triggers and develop strategies to handle them.
2. Help leaders understand that adaptation is a process, not an event.
3. Help leaders understand and address instinct triggers.
4. Help leaders understand and deal with social pressure.
5. Help leaders to improve their real social network.
6. Help leaders to develop coping strategies for negative affect.
7. Help leaders learn how to cope with cognitive distortions.
8. Help leaders build a balanced lifestyle.
9. Help leaders plan for lapses and relapses.