I’m driving home from work, but I want to stop to run an errand on the way home. Suddenly, I realize I’m already home. How could I forget and not notice that I missed the turn off for the store?
I’m building IKEA furniture with my husband and he asks if he can help with the next step. I snap back, “I can do it myself!” Wait a moment, of course I could use the help… what am I thinking?
I’m giving a presentation yet suddenly have no recollection as to what my third point was, and I find myself rambling on, barely coherent. I am aware it’s happening but have no idea how to stop it!
These are just a few examples of things that happen all too frequently in my life, and I imagine one or more of them resonate with you as well. That’s because they are a result of how our brains work – when we are caught in a routine, when we are under stress, when we are tired.
The recent advances in neuroscience research (as it relates to human behaviour and leadership) are fascinating to me, and at times it’s even been liberating in my own development and leadership. Here are a few of the insights that I’ve found to be helpful, both for me and for other leaders I’ve worked with.
Insight #1: There are no brainless activities, but there are unconscious ones
In this BBC article about “The enormous power of the unconscious brain,” David Eagleman competes against a 10-year-old champion cup stacker while both of their brain activities are being monitored. David’s brain was firing away – he was consciously working hard to move as quickly as possible. At the same time, the 10-year-champion’s brain activity was relatively quiet – he was moving and acting by habit, through unconscious movements. The power of the unconscious brain!
This ability to shift activities to our unconscious brain is both a blessing and a curse. When you are trying something new or different, your conscious brain is firing away. You haven’t developed the unconscious habit yet, and so it’s a lot of work. When we can master something to a point of being able to do it unconsciously, this frees up our capacity to try other new things.
On the flip side, when we function through our unconscious brain, we can miss out on anything that takes us outside our normal way of operating. Whether that is taking a new route, working on a new project, or incorporating new team members, we are likely to miss something.
What would happen if we looked at our leadership with this in mind?
The response that comes up most for me, is practice, in service of whatever is needed: whether the need is to slow down and pay attention to information that might otherwise be missed, OR whether the need is to learn something new, or to do something in a different way. Deliberate practice can be hard and often uncomfortable; yet it’s also how we grow our capacity as leaders. It’s how we develop new mastery.
Insight #2: Our brain is great at making things up
Our unconscious brain, as it scans the environment, needs to process a lot of stimuli very quickly. While this helps by preventing sensory overload, this also means that the brain often jumps to judgment instantaneously – and we rely on these judgments as we move through life. To function normally, we need to be able to rely on these assumptions to some extent. For example, when we walk up the stairs, there is often an implied physical assumption that the each step is a certain height (Watch everybody trip on this one Subway Stair; for more amusing related internet videos, watch these examples of hilarious assumptions: Don’t Judge Too Quickly). AND, these assumptions get in the way as well. Tripping up the stairs is a tame example; it is much more detrimental when we misjudge people because we assume they will be a certain way, or miss vital information in decision-making. If we can identify our assumptions and communicate them, then it can create grounds for collaboration and diverse perspectives. If people have differing assumptions but they are not identified or communicated, then it can create unnecessary and unhealthy conflict.
A critical part of both growing as a leader AND building strong relationships, involves bringing our assumptions and judgments to consciousness – and from there, we can examine them and choose our way forward. It can be very difficult to separate what we’ve actually observed, from the assumptions we’ve made from them: often times, our assumptions truly seem like reality.
Insight #3: Our “head” and “heart” are not so separate
Have you ever thought back to the moment when a conversation got heated in a meeting, or when you snapped at your partner, or completely disengaged from a situation and wondered, “what was I doing?” Thanks, brain. The truth is, as humans, we get emotionally triggered. What triggers us differs from person to person… it’s based on our experiences in the past, our predispositions, and our views of the world.
Historically, we haven’t often talked about feelings and emotions in the workplace. Yet, our emotions play an incredible role in our thinking, especially when left unacknowledged. This means that it can be extremely unhelpful to think that we can simply leave our emotions at home, and ignore them while we’re at work. Emotions impact what we notice in the world around us, what kind of assumptions we may make about someone, our ability to perform, and our wellbeing.
Okay, one last amusing video clip! Parking Lot Rage
Examining ourselves in this light, with the brain apparently having a “mind of its own” can be uncomfortable, awkward, and even daunting. Here are a few simple practices I’ve found most helpful:
- Ask others what they observed in a situation, and be open to the fact that it may be different for me
- Check in with how I’m feeling regularly (especially before important meetings, presentations, etc…) and what impact my emotions might be having on my thinking
- Treat myself (and brain) with compassion when I fall down; rather than beating myself up over a mistake, be thankful for the learning
- Never stop practicing
What are yours?