Say less, Ask more and Change the way you lead.

As we tap into our twenty-first century laptops, one click on Google Earth and you can visit any country you want. A few intrepid people have even visited all countries. But there are still new frontiers of knowledge to be explored, and one of the most exciting is neuroscience, the study of the brain.

Using creative experiments and sophisticated technology…we are starting to see that the art of leadership has its basis in science. We can now begin to see what really works and what doesn’t work in our attempts to engage with those we manage and influence.

This brings an important to make a connection between your coaching habit and your head by looking at the neuroscience of engagement.

Five times a second

The ‘fundamental organizing principle of the brain’ — neuroscientist Evan Gordon’s words — is the risk-and-reward response. Five time a second, at an unconscious level, your brain is scanning the environment around you and asking itself: Is it safe here? Or is it dangerous?

It is safe, of course. When your brain feels safe, it can operate at the most sophisticated level. You are more subtle in your thinking, better able to see and manage ambiguity. You assume positive intent of those around you, and are able to tap the collective wisdom. You are engaged and moving forward.

When your brain senses danger, there is a very different response. Here it moves into the familiar fight-or-flight response, what some call the ‘amygdala hijack’. Things get black and white. Your assumption is that they are against you, not with you. You are less able to engage your conscious brain, and you are metaphorically, and most literally backing away.

Wait, come back!

And it is not a balanced decision. For obvious evolutionary reasons, we are biased to assume that situations are dangerous rather than not. We may not be right, but over the course of humankind’s evaluation, the successful survival strategy has been ‘better safe than sorry’.

And there’s a challenge to you as a busy and ambitious manager [or leader]. You want to interact with your team, your boss, your customers, your suppliers to be engaging rather than retreating. You want your people to feel that working with you is a place of reward, not risk. And you realize that you want to feel you are safe so that you can stay at your smartest, rather than in fight-or-flight mode.

So how do you influence other’s brains and your own so that situations are read as rewarding, not risky?

There are four primary drivers — they spell the acronym TERA — that influence any situation. When you focus on TERA, you are thinking of about how you can influence the environment that drives engagement.

  • T is for tribe. The brain is asking, “Are you with me, or are you against me?” If it believes that you are on its side, it increases the TERA Quotient. If you are on the opposition, the TERA Quotient goes down.
  • E is for expectation. The brain is figuring out, “Do I know the future or don’t I?” If what’s going to happen next is clear, the situation feels safe. If not, it feels dangerous.
  • R is for rank. It is a relative thing, and it depends not on your formal title but on how much power is being played out in the moment. “Are you more important or less important than I am?” is the question the brain is asking, and if you have diminished my status, the situation feels less secure.
  • A is for autonomy. Dan pink talks about the importance of this in his excellent book Drive. “Do I get to say or don’t I?” That is the question the brain is asking as it gauges the degree of autonomy you have in any situation. If you believe you have a choice, then this environment is more likely to be a place of reward and therefore engagement. If you believe you do not have a choice so much, then it becomes less safe for you.

Your job is to increase the TERA Quotient whenever you can. That is good for the person you are speaking with, and it is good for you. Asking questions in general, and asking, “What do you want?” specifically will do that.

It increases the sense of tribe-ness, as, rather than dictating what someone else should do, you are helping them solve a challenge. And in doing so you are increasing not only a sense of autonomy — you are assuming that he can come up with answers and letting him ‘have the floor’ and go first. The question “What do you want?” strongly affects the drivers of rank and autonomy. Expectation, the other factor, may be a little depressing (a question that contains more ambiguity than an answer), but that is okay.

Your goal is to raise the overall TERA Quotient, and by asking [the right] questions you do just that.

This is an excerpt from Michael Bungay Stanier’s book, The Coaching Habit that has just celebrated its first anniversary! It is a book that has added great value to my coaching practice. Michael is also the Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work.

Originally published at on March 31, 2017.

Originally published at