The Neuroscience of Agile Leadership

Avatar of author
Louise Navntoft

We know from experience that Agile works to increase people’s motivation, joy of work, and effectiveness. But why, from a brain perspective, do things like having the overview, influence, autonomy and certainty work to make us feel more rewarded at work? How do we help ourselves and and the people around us adapt better to change?

And how can we shift our mindsets to become more Agile?
First, a quick lesson on two critical areas of the brain that affect how we think. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the ”newest” part of the brain from an evolutionary perspective, located right behind the eyes and is where decision-making, higher-level thought, goal-oriented behavior, mental flexibility, and emotion control happen. This area is not fully developed until we’re in our early 20s, and declines in old age.
Then there is the limbic system, located deeper in our brains, whose goal it is, according to Yale Medical School Professor of Neurobiology, Amy F.T. Arnsten, is to minimize danger and maximize reward. This is the part of the brain that houses our old habits, and it’s where our emotions come from.

The limbic system is relatively energy-efficient and sends signals to the PFC to inform decision-making. This is where that ”gut feeling” people have come in. It’s your brain recognizing stored patterns.

Figure 1: Key regions of the brain

It’s only been in the last 10 or so years, where the technology relating to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has enabled neuroscientists to show what motivated us and understand how our brains react to change. (fMRI measures blood flow in the brain. When an area of the brain is in use, blood flow to that region also increases.)

Back to the prefrontal cortex. The PFC is fragile – it is the ”Goldilocks of the brain.” To work at optimal levels, it needs to have everything just right. It has to be rested and have enough glucose to fuel thinking. The research shows that under stress, all the neural connections become dysfunctional. It’s hard for us to make good decisions and focus on what we need to do.

Under stress, the PFC shuts down and the limbic system (where our old habits are) takes over. It’s a survival mechanism perfected over thousands of years. Our brains perceive stress as danger. We become reflexive, active creatures who are trying to survive a dangerous situation by freezing, fighting or running away. What neuroscientists found – and is published in Your Brain at Work by David Rock – is that the phrase ”Can I give you some feedback?” activates the same threat centers in the brain as coming across a bear in the woods. Your mind goes blank, and you fear for your life.

The PFC shuts off this stress response if we feel in control. If we have some influence and autonomy over the work we are doing, the research shows our PFCs work better. We think more rationally, and make smarter decisions. Optimal PFC functioning occurs when we feel motivated (not fatigued or bored) and empowered (not stressed and out of control). This is when people are able to think clearly and strategically, get into a good flow, and work toward reaching goals.

Trying to deal with too much input (arousal), results in black-and-white thinking, where perspectives and shades of gray disappear; where there is difficulty staying organized, setting priorities and managing time; and where there are feelings of constant low-level panic and guilt. This is shown on the right side of figure 2, based on the research done by Amy F.T. Arnsten, Yale Medical School.

In this over-arousal state, your brain processes things differently. Your brain takes the path of least resistance and it will work to make these negative connections in the limbic system stronger. Simply put, a state of fear or anxiety changes the way your brain perceives the world and, over time, it can cause physical changes in the brain. That means that your attention and behavior are driven by threat-avoidance and this can become a vicious cycle where your brain perceives more threats – even if they are not there – and that causes still more stress. In this state, leaders should encourage and support people to get them to their optimal dopamine level where the PFC functions at its peak.

On the left side of the Curve, where folks are tired or bored, a little positive motivation, like asking how you can help them to make sure they make the release date, works to push their dopamine levels up. (We don’t see this side so much in our daily work, however.)

For survival reasons, the brain processes threat faster than reward. And our brains are ”prediction machines” – constantly trying to figure out whether things around us are a danger or a reward? Why does this matter?

As leaders, if we are aware of where people are ”sitting” on this continuum, it increases our effectiveness. We can start where they are at, and design our interactions to minimize the feelings of danger and maximize feelings of reward. Are people feeling threatened or afraid of organizational changes, upcoming performance reviews, new ways of working or not being able to deliver on time? By helping people to feel more secure you can increase the feeling of reward in the brains which makes them feel more open, more curious and happier. And in this state, according to studies done by Mark Beeman, our brains function better. We are more creative and better able to solve problems with insight.

Having the Overview

With our brains being these ”prediction machines,” there’s value – from a brain perspective – in knowing what’s coming. Not having an overview of the organization’s goals causes the brain’s threat region to light up. Respondents in a study published in the journal Science on Neural Systems Responding to Degrees of Uncertainty in Human Decision-Making filled in their knowledge gaps with fear. This means that when people do not know what is coming next, they tend to imagine the worst. And this reduces are ability to think clearly. People are then thinking and acting with their limbic systems instead of the rational thinking PFC.

Our brains crave relevant information. This starts when we are very young. Have you had family roadtrips with kids and been asked: ”Mom/Dad, are we there yet?” We are constantly trying to predict what will happen next. Our brains are recognizing patterns to do this. The brain does this constantly. If we can predict what will happen next, we can stay out of danger. It’s a survival mechanism.

In the workplace, we waste a lot of time doing the same kind of wondering. What projects will we have a few months from now? Who will our new boss be? What are the big picture goals? Who will they appoint as Scrum Master? Working in an Agile way helps us to embrace this uncertainty. We actually plan for uncertainty by doing only high-level planning ahead and doing the detailed planning just in time. Because we know things will change, it helps us to feel more certain about the uncertainty.

The neuroscience shows that knowing where we are and where we are going helps our brains calm down and be able to focus. Giving people the OVERVIEW, UNDERSTANDING together, and creating CLARITY act as a reward in our brains.


The same dopamine neurotransmitters that allow us to think at top levels, also quickly convey information about threats and rewards. Meeting expectations, for example, generates an increase of dopamine in the brain. The act of creating CERTAINTY equals reward. According to NeuroLeadership Institute founder David Rock, ”When the craving for certainty is met, there’s a sensation of reward.”

Just a little uncertainty and the amygdala (in the limbic system) lights up like Las Vegas at night. This craving for certainty has implications for how we plan.

In Agile, we plan for uncertainty by doing the planning together, prioritizing and reprioritizing, working in short iterations, demonstrating results and getting feedback. This allows us to change course quickly to follow the value – and helps our brains create a stronger sense of control and certainty about the project. And, as you think about or work toward the goal, you increase the expectation of reward in the brain.

Influence & Autonomy

A major part of working in an Agile way is about giving people INFLUENCE and control over the work they are doing. This is critical to optimal PFC functioning. The PFC determines if we are in control or not – and if we feel out of control, the PFC stops working.

What researchers have also found is that having autonomy (or the feeling of control over what we are doing) is a driver of overall health. In fact, one 7-year-long study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research in 2009, showed people who felt they had little or no autonomy were 5 times more likely to have high blood pressure and other heart-related issues. If we have a sense of control over our own lives, we experience less stress, less illness and need less pain medication when we are sick.

As leaders, we have to trust our people in order for them to really have influence. When people feel that trust, that also activates the reward region in the brain – and there is hard science proving that happiness increases with trust. Even having just the slightest feeling of AUTONOMY can substantially change our brain’s perception of an event for the positive.

If we can increase the sense of reward in our brains, we become more effective – our PFCs, the rational, goal-oriented, flexible thinking area of the brain works better. And working in an Agile way supports increasing this sense of reward by giving the overview, increasing influence, control and certainty – leading to more focus and innovation.


So why is making the shift to Agile ways of working sometimes difficult especially in a gate-based environment (where the project must pass through various decision gates based on business cases, progress and costs)? It is because, like any behavior change, we must break our old habits and use our PFCs to think about how to do things in a new way. Change overwhelms the PFC (remember it is the Goldilocks of the brain). It’s hard and takes a lot of energy. We get tired and cannot think straight – reducing the brain’s creativity and adaptability, according to leading neuroscientist Dr. Matthew Lieberman. Change requires modifying long-term habits – something the limbic system does not want to do.

Old habits are hard to break.

In the article Turn the 360 around, the authors discuss habits. The term ‘habit,’ they say, ”refers to a whole sequence of thoughts or actions, or the habitual way of doing something, where that something involves a coordinated series of behaviors or thoughts. Using this definition, driving is a habit, typing is a habit, and how you might think about something is a habit. In addition, an emotional response is an emotional habit – the particular way we interpret information from the world leads us to have a particular kind of emotion. The critical thing about this ‘habit system’ is that all of this happens outside of awareness and doesn’t really require any conscious monitoring. The brain didn’t evolve to do best at conscious, deliberate thought; it evolved to do best at taking everything it could outside of awareness, and make it as habitual, automatic, effortless, and seamless as possible – and is very good at doing so.”

Change of any kind, including a change to working Agile, is perceived by the brain as extreme novelty. And we are hard-wired to resist change. The error detection systems in the brain light up when there is something new or unusual in your environment making us extremely resistant to change. And, if this error detection system fires too often, it brings on a constant state of anxiety or fear.

What can we as leaders do to overcome this? We can help people to break down the changes into smaller pieces – the same way we do when we plan in an Agile way. We work at a sustainable pace taking one thing on at a time. So rather than be overwhelmed by the long list of things we must do, we take it a step at a time, show our results and get feedback. Neuroscientist, Dr. Walt McFarland, has shown that our brains respond best if we try to make behavior changes in the same way.

Here is the secret to creating lasting change: we start by doing one small thing differently, get positive feedback from others, as well as from our ourselves, so that we feel good about the change. And then repeat the behavior (actively or even just visualizing it) over and over again until it becomes a hard-wired habit in our limbic systems – freeing up more space in the PFC to focus on other things (see also InfoQ’s Q&A with Yves Hanoulle on the habit of improving).

When it comes to broader organizational changes, telling others what to do doesn’t work. In fact, the more we try to convince people of something, the more they push back. It’s our brains telling us this doesn’t add up. We sense threat when we feel forced in some way. Employees need to own any kind of change initiative for it to be successful. There is a critical role that neuroscience can play in making successful change. In environments where there is less stress, there is more thinking going on, we can focus our brains to find meaning in our work, and we can learn to see change as part of personal and organizational growth. Neuroscience is adding new insight into how the brain reacts to change.

Involving and engaging employees early in the change process – the same way we involve and engage all the relevant stakeholders in an Agile project – is the key. As people work through how they can contribute, the research seems to point to a change in the brain’s perspective, making people feel less threatened, and the brain doesn’t detect as many errors. If people are involved and engaged in the process, they are more likely to accept a change – even if they don’t agree with it 100%. These results were published in the article Liking is for doing: the effects of goal pursuit on automatic evaluation.

It’s helpful to figure out what’s in the environment that threatens or rewards old ways of working. It’s a powerful driver of behavior and cognitive performance.


I’ve talked a lot now about human nature – from a brain perspective and why Agile works and about change. But what about creating mindset shifts? How can we affect a mindset shift. How can we become Agile – so that creating common understanding, involving and engaging people in planning together, demonstrating results on a regular basis and learning through reflection becomes a habit for us? This mindset shift is the result of the behavior change. And that takes time.

As leaders, we must be patient and know that achieving a mindset shift in our people – essentially rewiring the brain to create new habits – requires clearing the path and creating a safe environment that allows a shift to take place; where people have the overview and feel in control of their work; providing much support and encouragement – even when people fail; setting the direction that gives people clarity; and helping them gain the competence they need in new processes and become confident in their new abilities. An added benefit, is that we will then see the improvements in the results delivered, and in the motivation and behavior of those working around us.

When this happens, these new behaviors become embedded deep in the brain and creating understanding together, planning together, demo-ing results frequently, and reflecting together to learn and improve becomes natural for us. And this is what being Agile is all about.