It seems quite ridiculous how we measure ourselves against others. Our status can be based on our desk next to a window, a parking bay and more recently just how many back to back meetings we have in a day and how many emails lie unopened in our over-stuffed inbox.
It’s not unusual to great someone with a “hello, how are you?” only to be met with “Fine, I’m really busy”. It has almost become unacceptable to have time in the day to think, bouncing from meeting to meeting. And yes I have heard stories of clients who fill their diary so full that not only do they not eat but don’t get chance for a loo break!!
So we have a problem that is based in a cultural belief that our importance and relevance is determined by this frenetic pace. The only problem with this is our brain really doesn’t respond well to this battering of data and stimulation. Leaders are generally not employed for their good looks – they are employed for their brains, their ability to think, decide, plan, innovate, empathise and engage – all these actions are effortful and an overloaded or stressed brain would struggle to do any of these tasks effectively. We become cognitively overloaded and our executive functioning, performed by our prefrontal cortex is impaired. Not only do we not think clearly, we lose our ability for perspective, working memory, will power or self-control and long term planning.
So, that begs the question just how well do you treat your brain? Our workshops and coaching programs use neuroscience to develop strategies for leaders to optimise their greatest asset, their mind.
Tips to help you think better
Slowing down is counter-intuitive, it feels like our external world is demanding us to go faster. Small changes that some of my clients are making are;
45 minute meetings – with 15 mins before the next meeting, time to gather your thoughts, let go of the last meeting and maybe grab a water.
Walk mindfully between meetings – what this means is when you are heading off to your next meeting instead of letting your mind churn through all the things you haven’t done or need to do, you simply focus on walking. You pay attention to the pressure of your feet on the floor, or the sounds of the office. This triggers your direct network and gives your brain a break from all that rumination.
Prioritise – don’t mistake being busy with being productive. Are you merely reacting to what is in front of you or are you carefully considering the priorities to achieve your goal? Take 15 mins out each day to take a big picture view of your day and what really needs to be accomplished.
It seems so obviously but so few people are actually taking breaks away from their desk and work. Lunch has become either a dimming memory or a quick bite whilst continuing to digest the budget. Taking breaks and walking away gives your brain a break, a chance to refresh. If you are struggling with something, heading out for a walk outside and just sitting in the fresh air will relax your brain enough so you are more likely to create that a-ha moment!
Eat and drink
Feeding your brain regularly will benefit your PFC functioning, the most sensitive part of the brain. The brain uses 20% of your body’s total energy and is therefore energy intensive and therefore needs regular glucose to function well. The problem is that feeding your brain too much or too little glucose will mean impaired performance. The glucose travels to your brain via your blood therefore blood sugar levels are critical.
If you eat irregularly i.e. starve your brain of glucose, and then eat a high sugar snack, the brain is overloaded with glucose and the additional glucose is discarded. So what you need is little and often.
The frequency of eating is important as is what you eat. Some foods are more satisfying than others and take longer to digest and therefore maintain more consistent levels of glucose. Your glucose is naturally low in the morning which is why breakfast is so important…. A good breakfast is essential to creating healthy glucose levels.
Label your thoughts and feelings.
When you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed if you label your thought and feelings you can trigger your brains natural braking system the Right Ventral Lateral PFC and reduce the stress response. In his paper Putting Feelings into Words Mathew Lieberman writes about his experiments in emotional regulation with the focus on just the act of labelling. He found that by labelling emotions verbally or non-verbally (journal writing) that it dramatically reduced the levels of stress in individuals. Lieberman found that after numerous studies it was clear that the RVLPFC activity disrupted the amygdala activation, therefore lowering a threat response.
Based on his work therefore it is important to regulate your emotional state by:
Saying how you feel – to others or to yourself. If someone upsets you it is ok to say :I am feeling very disappointed ….. “etc Practice I feel phrases.
Writing how you feel, using a journal to capture your thoughts and feelings is also a good tool to reduce amygdale activation.
Jeffrey Schwartz in The Mind and the Brain writes about a four step emotional regulation process for his patients – people with OCD. These people have thoughts that are overwhelming and yet through this process he has helped many patients to recover. This may be useful for people who have many negative internal thoughts. The process is:
Step 1: Relabel – name the feeling and label it as a thought
Step 2: Reattribute – name the fact that it is not you it is just a negative thought that you have learned over the years.
Step 3: Refocus – redirect your thoughts – create a pause, breath or use direct experience network, or do something else (distract), go for a walk
Step 4: Revalue – label those thoughts as just that, just neural pathways firing together, it is not permanent.
These are just a few great ideas that can destress your mind and improve your ability to think, plan and engage with others.
In our workshops and coaching sessions we use the latest research from neuroscience and psychology to help leaders understand how to optimise their thinking and move from reactive to responsive and proactive leaders.
”The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not” William James.
Mindfulness has been linked with Buddhism and other religions and yet in recent years science has combined with religion to explore why mindfulness and meditation works. This has been driven by many including the Dalai Lama, who has a fascinating with looking at the science behind the tenets of Buddhism. He has held a number of conferences with hard core Neuroscientists to discuss the connections. Practicing Buddhists have also been asked to be used as guinea pigs by scientists, inviting them to be involved in mainstream experiments using fMRI scanners. The most notable practicing Buddhist was Mathieu Ricard who was involved with many experiments with Richard Davidson. What they discovered was that the practicing Buddhists were able to a) switch their minds from one state to another quickly and b) had a greater capacity for compassion.
“The Dalai Lama has noted that the most powerful influences on the mind come from within our own mind. The findings that, in highly experienced meditators, there is greater activity in the left PFC, therefore happiness is something we can cultivate deliberately through mental training that affects the brain” The Plastic Mind by Sharon Begley.
What scientists and Buddhists do agree is that your mind can be trained to cultivate more positive emotions.
Default vs Direct Network
What we do know is that there is a default network that we go into when we day dream. We go into the default when we allow our mind to wander. Scientists agree that it is our default so when we give our mind a rest and break from focus on work we will unconsciously go into the default state. It can also be called the narrative or rumination, it can be a useful state to ponder over things that have happened and embed memories and make connections. A recent lecture by Assistant Professor Golnaz Tabibnia from Carnegie Mellon University in the USA states that the default network includes;
Thinking about self (medial PFC)
Thinking about others thoughts (Dorsal medial PFC)
Thinking about others actions (Lateral temporal lobe)
So when you slip into default and start thinking about yourself and start to wonder about what others may be thinking about you, it is quite normal. However it can have a downside. For many of us our rumination leads to catastrophising or a downward spiral. The rumination may start with reliving something that someone said yesterday and then that may trigger another memory which could lead to a threat response.
The direct experience network is when we are aware of our bodily sensations, so our attention is on our senses. When we activate our direct network, we shut off the default network and vice versa. David Rock in his book Your Brain at Work writes:
“When the direct experience network is active several different brain regions become more active. This includes the insula, a region that relates to perceiving bodily sensations. Also activated is the anterior cingulated cortex, a region central the detecting errors and switching your attention. When this direct experience network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or the future, other people, or yourself. Rather you are experiencing information that comes to your senses in real time.”
So when the direct experience network is turned on the default quiets down. So if you are walking to a meeting and ruminating that the meeting is going to be bad and you feel yourself getting more stressed then switching to the direct network and feeling the sun on your face, or become aware of your feet on the floor or just breathing can prevent the increasing limbic response and keep you cool under pressure.
Leaders who regularly meditate and practiced mindfulness found that they were;
Better control over the default circuit.
Better able to regulate emotions
Become more aware of their unconscious processes
Able to change their attention
Improve self control or willpower
Have greater cognitive control
Reduces stress – including lowers allostatic load (prolonged stress)
Increase cortical thickness
Benefits higher order cognitive functioning – including working memory and ability to process information.
Mindfulness is becoming more accepted as a ‘power app’ for leaders, a great antidote to our fast moving, complex work lives. Mindfulness is a great way to take care of your mind, to value it and to make sure that it is in good working order when you need it. Most of us are unfortunately not employed for our good looks, but we are employed for our minds. Yet like a neglectful tradie we mistreat our greatest tool, like leaving a valuable saw out in the rain, and yet still expect it to work magnificently when we call upon it.
For those interested there are a number of courses that can help you take the first step into developing mindfulness in your worklife. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
Could the power of curiosity help leaders to emotionally manage uncertainty and ambiguity in the workplace? There is no doubt that the world is becoming more uncertain – leaders are called upon to have a higher degree of adaptability to handle the ever changing business landscape.
Curious? is new book by Todd Kashdan that explores the power and benefits of cultivating a curious mind. As children, our world is full of unknowns and we continually pester the adults in our world to answer question after question ‘ why is the sky blue? where does milk come from?’ at that age it is an open inquiry, for many without fear. We all have a capacity for curiosity, however as we experience life we start to change how we use curiosity. Some adults continue to be open to new experiences and face life with inquiry whilst others become more fearful of new experiences, uncertainty and life.
Working with leaders in a diverse range of industries across Australia it seems clear that curiosity is often replaced with control and knowing. This can lead to excellent problem solving based on past experience but undermines innovative thinking, it also can lead to increase in stress levels as leaders try to contain and control the variables in the workplace rather than engage curiosity and innovation.
Curiosity in Action
I spend my work life with leaders in highly intense, experiential leadership development programs. In these programs we use simulations and work based scenarios to observe and coach the participants through challenging, uncertain and pressurised situations. These simulations are designed to trigger a threat response, what we are looking for is how well a leader can emotionally regulate so they can adapt, deal with the uncertainty and work through the simulation effectively. I often coach these execs to use curiosity of a situation or a challenging person to regulate. Curiosity is an emotion that is based on being open and inquiring, this is often the exact opposite of how our leaders behave in these intense programs. With practice, leaders start to develop curiosity in those situations and are more able to read others emotions, respond rather than react and see another’s perspective. It’s a powerful tool.
Curiosity is underused – and certainly under-recognised by leaders and those who support the development of leaders.
Sometimes being in relationships, either at work or at home can be both pleasurable and painful. Positive relationships at work can make the difference between engagement or disengagement. Gallup has recently conducted research into why people come to work and one of the most important factors is ‘the people that I work with’. So people are important and working in a team environment is essential for success in business.
“Teamwork remains the one sustainable competitive advantage that has been largely untapped” (Lencioni, 2005)
He goes onto describe a dysfunctional team as;
Absence of trust
Fear of conflict
Lack of commitment
Avoidance of accountability
Inattention to results
A team that trusts one another, engage in passionate discussions, commit to decisions and hold one another accountable are more likely to set aside personal agendas and focus on the goals of the team (Lencioni, 2005). So it seems obvious that to build an effective team a leader needs trust, passionate, honest conversations, commitment, accountability and a focus on mutual team goals.
David Rock devised a neuroscience model called SCARF that may help explain team work further (Rock, 2008)
These five domains are essential in building relationships with others. Our brain is wired to minimize threat or maximize reward and if you can maximize reward across some of these domains then you are more likely to achieve a positive relationship.
“The model enables people to more easily remember, recognize and potentially modify the core social domains that drive human behaviour” (Rock, 2008)
In many respects this SCARF goes further into providing a strong framework for building teams than Lecioni’s. It incorporates Lencioni’s plus adds the importance of relatedness and fairness, which according to Rock are strong drivers in the model.
Practical Ideas for Leaders
Use the SCARF model as a framework to start looking at whether you are driving threat or reward behaviours in your team.
Do your team members feel:
Status; that their opinions are valued, that they are important, that they ideas are valued.
Certainty; that they know what is expected and where the team is heading
Autonomy; do they feel that they have some control over what they are doing?
Relatedness; do they feel a sense of belonging to the team? Is there a high level of trust and support?
Fairness; Do they feel that they and others have been treated fairly? This could include money, bonuses, work allocation, feedback etc.