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Something I saw on the news recently really disturbed me.

Walmart, one of the largest companies in the world, is giving pay raises to its managers and employees. It’s improving working conditions by relaxing dress codes, playing better music on its PA systems, and adjusting temperatures in its stores to make employees more comfortable. Suddenly, Walmart has become much more people-focused.

What’s so bad about that, you ask?

Well, when the economy was doing poorly, Walmart was squeezing every last ounce out of its people. Now that the employment market is tight and the company is having trouble attracting and keeping workers, it’s decided to become a lot more employee-friendly.

Surprise, surprise. Isn’t it amazing when a huge company like Walmart can turn itself around so quickly?

If — as Walmart’s HR officials say — they’re doing this because they want to retain the best people, why weren’t they doing it a year ago? Two years ago? Four?

Well, because they were taking orders. I wish Walmart HR would stop taking orders and get out there and talk to their leaders, help them do the right thing, and hold a mirror up to the company. Don’t take advantage of employees when times are tough.

Yes, a company needs to make money; I’m not minimizing that for one second. But money shouldn’t be its only focus. A company should also exist to create great people and great communities. To provide livelihoods and other things that go beyond the spreadsheet.

I guess I should be thankful Walmart finally saw the light.

How leaders can learn to use their brains

I recently had a great conversation with Phil Dixon, founder and CEO of the Academy for Brain-Based Leadership, on my VoiceAmerica radio show, iLead: The Leadership Connection. Phil is a leading expert in applying the latest findings in neuroscience to leadership development, training, and coaching.

Phil told me that companies have been going about the process of talent development all wrong. “One of the practices that we used to think was the latest technology in individual development was to put a bunch of people in a room and put one person on the hot seat,” he told me. “Then we’d say: give this person feedback about what they need to do to improve. I myself was a recipient of this on more than one occasion.

“What would happen is that people would get this feedback and we’d wonder why they didn’t change,” he said. “Now we know that this practice puts the brain in a state of threat. In this situation, it’s almost impossible for the brain to learn anything.”

After he learned this, Phil told me, he actually went back to one of his former clients and apologized for inflicting that process on him.

“This is going to sound so simple,” Phil said. “But when we say ‘thank you’ to people, or ‘nice job,’ or ‘I really like the way you handled that presentation yesterday,’ and it’s done in an authentic way, the brain releases dopamine, a chemical that makes people feel good, inspired to do something. Now, we’ve been saying this to leaders for 25, 30, 40 years. In some ways, what we’re doing is putting the hard science behind the soft skills.

“I think if we look back in 10 or 20 or 30 years, we’re going to say: wait a minute, you tried to do all this leadership stuff without understanding the brain? Were you nuts?”

The 1-2-4 model

Phil relies on the 1-2-4 model, developed by neuroscientist Evian Gordon, to illustrate how the brain is organized. First and foremost, he said, the brain is driven by the need to feel safe. “We can go back into evolutionary theory about why that is, but essentially, that’s job #1: to keep you safe.

“Number two, we estimate that the brain deals with about 11 million bits of information every second. That information is processed in two ways. One is consciously, as you and I are doing right now. The rest is processed unconsciously, behind the scenes. But the ratio between the two isn’t equal. We’re actually processing unconsciously much more than we’re processing consciously.

“The key is that there are four processing modes. We have an emotional response, a thinking response, and a physiological response. Finally, there’s the process of self-regulating, which is when you determine what you’re going to do about it. We call this the 1-2-4 model. It’s easy for leaders and managers, and every one of us, to understand.”

The reality that not all of the brain’s processes are apparent to our conscious minds explains how we can carry so many biases without being aware of them. For instance, studies show that managers and leaders, intentionally or not, lean toward hiring people who look like them, think like them, and behave like them. This all-too-common phenomenon is one of the factors that gets in the way of inclusion, diversity, and innovative thinking.

The need for conformity

But it’s worse than that, Phil said. Because even if managers don’t hire people in their own image, once the new talent joins the organization, enormous pressure is put on them to conform in their thinking, their style, and their approach.

It makes me think of that Broadway musical: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.”

Phil told me a story about joining Apple in the early 1980s. “I’d come fresh from Europe, and I was wearing double-breasted Italian light gray suits,” he said. “When I got to Apple, a gentleman came up to me and said, ‘You know, Phil, we don’t have a dress code here. You don’t have to wear a suit.’ I said, ‘Okay, that’s great. Thank you very much.’ And I kept wearing my suit.”

The manager repeated his advice several times in the ensuing weeks. Each time, he told Phil there was no need to wear a suit, that the company had no dress code.

At last, Phil replied: “Look, I think you do have a dress code. It’s jeans and a T-shirt. I don’t feel comfortable dressing in jeans and a T-shirt. If that’s the dress code, obviously I’ll comply, but don’t tell me you don’t have a dress code.”

The manager never said another word about it. And Phil carried on wearing his suit.

Can you retrain your brain?

I asked Phil if people really can change. He replied that indeed the brain can change incredibly quickly. “We call it neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to rewire itself. Whether people can change is a different matter. I wish I had a perfect answer for you.

“We talked earlier about the brain’s need to feel safe. The instant someone talks about change, it makes the brain think: oh my gosh, I’m going to be in trouble. Therefore, the brain resists change in every way, shape, or form. The brain likes consistency. It likes commitment. Those are the sorts of things it’s looking for. So the instant a change comes along, the brain feels directly threatened.”

When a company announces a big change in its policies or procedures, accompanied by flip charts and all the rest, it actually puts people’s brains into a threat state, Phil noted. Studies show the brain responds to social and emotional threats the same way it responds to physical threats, or pain. “Maybe we need to take a whole new view of how we do ‘change management,’ ” he said.

“What we’re starting to do now is understand some models of change with regard to how the brain works. We’re becoming aware of the sorts of things we might be biased for or against. Then we can catch ourselves and choose to do something different.”

Phil added, “There’s something called the thousand times rule, which says that if you want to change something (about your behavior), you have to do it a thousand times. Well, that sounds overwhelming, but in actual fact you don’t have to do it one thousand times. You can imagine yourself doing it. Imagine yourself doing it a different way. It’s almost as effective as doing it yourself.

“So, yes we can change. It’s just not something that happens overnight.”

Practicing brain-based leadership

Like Walmart until very recently, too many companies are still so financially focused that they’re unable to tune into how people are thinking, how they’re feeling, and what’s concerning them.

The Academy of Brain-based Leadership offers an assessment test for leaders, teams and organizations that measures their aptitude in often-overlooked areas such as emotional intelligence, then provides a program of exercises that will “tune up” those neglected parts of your brain. (If you’re interested in accessing that information, send me an email or tweet and I’ll forward you the URL.)

I always ask my guests to offer three pieces of advice for leaders. I posed the same question to Phil.

“I would probably say people, people, and people,” he answered. “When it all boils down, it’s about people. If you can understand your brain and other people’s brains, you can become a better leader. If you don’t care about people on some level, or have the empathy we were just talking about, then people will pick up on it.”

As I’ve been saying all along, if you focus on your people, research shows you’ll be a market leader. You’ll beat your competition because your people will make you beat your competition.

I’ll be talking with more neuroscience and leadership experts in the weeks ahead, so be sure to check back again soon.